The Curtains Drawn

A Review of Soul on Ice
by Eldridge Cleaver

Author Biography

Eldridge Cleaver was a founding member of the Black Panther Party; he even ran for president in 1968 through the Peace and Freedom Party. But that same year Cleaver was injured in a scuffle between the Panthers and the Oakland Police, and had to flee to Algeria to avoid arrest. Cleaver later moved to France and Cuba and returned to the U.S. in 1975.

Eldridge Cleaver, convict and black activist, wrote Soul on Ice, his memoir to illustrate his view of America’s black population prior to and during the 1960s. America, the staunch supporter of liberty, yet the vehement condoner of slavery, had its paradox hurled at its face. The nation awoke to grim reality—America’s innards, the basis of 200 years of political action, were being ripped to shreds. Realizing that the nation was on the highroad to political equality, Cleaver plunged into a reverie of self-discovery. At first, he loathed the white man, showing his hatred by raping white women because he felt compelled to avenge his black sisters raped by white slaveholders. Then, he joined the Black Muslims, who followed Elijah Muhammad and his racist gospels. However, the revolutionary zeal of the white youth snared at him, and he was soon arm in arm with Malcolm X and his acceptance of white civil rights supporters. Revealing America’s racist innards inside its façade of equality and fraternity, Cleaver’s Soul on Ice communicates the militant and disgusted mindset of black power supporters.

Cleaver first grew aware of his status as a Black American at San Quentin prison. He instantly hated the white oppressors and America’s elevated slavery. Resenting “how the white man…used the black woman” in the days of slavery, Cleaver rapes a white girl, spitting on the white man’s laws, and reaping pleasure from “defiling his women.”1 He repudiates the notion that black men find white women attractive; rather, the white supremacy drills its idea of beauty into the black man simply by its omnipresence. From their youth, blacks were forced “to see the white woman as more beautiful and desirable than his own black woman.”2 Thus, the rape was a rebellion—a way to get back at the overlords. Cleaver’s fellow black convicts feel the same way about white women and would do the same thing. This vehement anger and resentment turns slowly to Cleaver’s loneliness. With passionate rhetoric, Cleaver longs for a woman’s company to feel warm and radiant once more, and Beverly Axelrod, his lawyer, fills that need. They fall in love, and correspond. Cleaver believes this is unusual: the convict does not “hold on [to] the ideals and sentiments of civilization,” because all society “shows the convict its ass” and expects him to “kiss it.”3 Although it was strange for a convict to fall in love with such a mindset, the fact that he feels this love towards his lawyer makes the situation astonishing. No matter how bizarre the relationship, Cleaver claims that she was the beacon that pulled him out of dark, slow death.

Cleaver dives into a passionate recalling of “the Christ”, the man who taught him to be tolerant of other races. “The Christ,” whose actual name was Lovdjieff, refused to grade Eldridge Cleaver’s paper because it was racist, and forced him to entertain the thought of unity with the white race. The next few pages follow Eldridge Cleaver through his day at Folsom prison, where the librarian refuses to give him books about sex or controversial issues. Eldridge Cleaver comments on the Watts revolution, and expresses the pride of several of the black prisoners: “Watts was a place of shame,” but blacks soon exclaimed, “I’m from Watts, Baby!”4 The uprising at Watts had made the blacks proud because they saw a usurpation of the American social order.

The black people were an ignorant bunch. Cleaver claims that in the 1960s, most of them were afraid of General Motor, and in the dark as to how to get their share of money. Most blacks “have no bank accounts, only bills to pay.”5 The poverty of the black people limit them from rising to any kind of economic power level that might influence politics. The police also subdue blacks as well. As the armed “guardians of the social order,” they are the only serious threat to the black population’s march for freedom. Cleaver states that there is a great sense of property amongst Americans as seen through the soldier in Vietnam is only following orders like a mindless toy, like he belongs to someone else. It’s this property mindset that keeps the black people in constant humiliation—they have nothing.

Cleaver sums up the rest of his memoir with passionate letters to Miss Beverly Axelrod, his lawyer, and an analysis of sexuality in society’s classes. The “Omnipotent Administrators” prefer mind over body: “he is markedly effeminate and delicate by reason of his explicit repudiation …of his body.”6 These men are of the elite, and their women, the “Ultrafeminine,” abdicate their domestic functions to become, in contrast to weak elite men, more delicate. Ultrafemininity bathes in the envy of the women of the lower classes. The Ultrafeminine reject the domestic apparatus of the female hemisphere, and thrust it onto the women of the lower classes: the Amazons. The Amazons envy the Ultrafeminines. They are attracted to the power embodied in the elite man because he is the mind, while the “Supermasculine” Menial, men of the lower classes, are the body. Power, the primeval envy of the Amazon, attracts her to elite men, but “she is also attracted to the body of the Supermasculine Menial,” for physical strength.7 Thus she is lost between two worlds. Cleaver explains that men and women of the elite and lower classes are opposing sides of a Primeval sphere, which for the reasons of strength and power—physical and mental—pull one toward the other.

In harsh, unforgiving tones, using key events of the Sixties as examples, Cleaver hurls accusations at the white race and reveals the mindset of many Black Power activists of the Sixties. Muhammad Ali vs. Floyd Patterson, the confrontation between the rebels and the “Uncle Toms,” rocked America’s foundations. Ali “was the first ‘free’ black champion ever to confront” the “Uncle Toms,” black suppressors of the Negroes. Consisting of movie and sports celebrities, Uncle Toms cooled the revolutionary masses down in the name of the white overlords, promising extensive reforms and quoting any minute civil rights bill. The Uncle Toms were the white man’s slave: Floyd Patterson “reflected a desire to force the Negro …back in his ‘place.’”8 When Muhammad Ali knocked Patterson out, the older generation received a concussion to its head. America was a land of paradoxes with no common ground in between. The differences therefore had to be kept separate and the ugly sides to the land of freedom had to be buried. This odd paradox existed because of the notion of white superiority. In order to justify slavery and segregation, the white man “elaborated a complex and pervasive myth which at one time classified the black man as subhuman beasts of burden.”9 With the guiding star of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States, both forged by white men, he believed justice was bestowed upon all; the white received the privileges since they possessed the intellect clearly seen on the plantations, and the black received what the pea-brained, good-for-nothing slave justly deserved in white eyes. On the plantation, it was easy to differentiate the black and the white; the white did the thinking and gave the orders, the black did the work. This practice created the myth of white man’s superior intelligence.

Eldridge Cleaver hates the capitalist system, U.S. imperialism and the U.S. intervention in Vietnam. The New Left, as the Black Panthers and the Civil Rights Leaders claim to be a part of, wants a peaceful world. They claim that America is a horrible power bent on doing whatever is necessary to achieve its own ends. Cleaver thinks that America has reached a fork in the road, one leading to the left, the other to the right. The road “to the left is the way of reconciliation,…the dismantling of all economic relations based upon the exploitation of man by man,” and the road on the right is “refusal to submit to the universal demand for national liberation, economic justice, peace, and popular sovereignty.”10 Thus, the Civil Rights Movement erupted into a mass protest of U.S. foreign policy under Lyndon B. Johnson. Cleaver saw that America had to make a choice between totalitarianism under the New Right, preserving present policies, or democracy under the New Left.

The notion of property in the United States struck the Negro a deep blow in his heart. The Black Muslims raised the cry “WE MUST HAVE SOME LAND! SOME LAND OF OUR OWN OR ELSE!”11 Land differentiated the white man from the black even more strikingly at this elevated form of slavery. Most blacks were poor so they could not afford property. They were still considered dependent upon the welfare and kind hearts of the whites. They wanted freedom from slavery. They wanted equal opportunity and equal representation in the government, same as the whites. Second class status psychologically devastated a lot of blacks. Eldridge Cleaver takes James Baldwin as an example: he “completely rejecte[d] [his] African heritage…considere[d] the loss irrevocable, and refuse[d] to look again in that direction.” Baldwin is forever “pointed toward his adopted fatherland, Europe.”12 Some blacks, envious of the whites, rejected their own culture with disgust and those who could, moved to—in Baldwin’s case—Europe. Cleaver mentions envy in society as seen through the upper class women, who indulge in homosexuality because they find their men too weak and who envy the Amazon for her physically strong men. The Omnipresent Administrator, the upper class men, who envy the Super Masculine Menial’s—lower class men’s—strong body. The Amazon, the lower class women, who long to be the Ultrafeminine, since she is the embodiment of beauty in society. Cleaver claims that in society these two “sets of competing images”: one of “masculinity…based on the Body [and] … the Mind,” and the other of “…femininity…based on the weak, helpless UltraFemininity [and]…on the strong, self-reliant attributes of the Amazon” are constantly battling for victory in American culture.13

Cleaver wrote his book, Soul on Ice, during the 1960s. The entire United States was aflame with Civil Rights activists and protestors of the U.S. foreign policy in Vietnam. Cleaver accurately portrays that the black people were ignorant of the stock markets and were at the complete mercy of the bankers, and government taxes. Aman Sharif, a historian and a playwright, praises the author for his beautiful prose, and admits to the occurrence of the social events cited in the book. America saw the intervention in Vietnamese Affairs. America saw the emergence of the New Left. The Black Panther’s didn’t accept “no” for an answer and fought for their rights. The entire black population was aflame with the need for justice, and saw an icon in Muhammad Ali and his fight against the Uncle Tom, Floyd Patterson. The Uncle Toms of the day were the people who espoused peace and prosperity and cooled down the discontent black masses with reassuring words. They were the white people’s tools to keep the Negro down from the point of rebellion. White people during the era saw that their ancestors were barbarians; they slaughtered natives as if they were rabbits or chickens. This view took its toll on the white youth, and they became more adamant in their demand for civil rights. The brainwashed older white generation failed to understand the new militancy in the new white youth, and it hated them. The book was remarkably accurate in portraying these mindsets and events. The sixties saw the uprising of a series of civil rights protests. Martin Luther King Jr., led the Montgomery bus boycotts, and assembled the marches in Birmingham; the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) took part in the Freedom Rides and the sit-ins. Malcolm X raged against civil injustices, and his assassination removed from the world the only fragile link in the Black Muslim order. The Muslims under Elijah Muhammad and their racist doctrines lost influence slowly in the light of Malcolm X’s peaceful approach. The Black Panthers, often alluded to, grew militant and teamed up with the SNCC to espouse police confrontations and black revolution. The Black Panthers attacked the gun control laws of California with mass protests, claiming that blacks had the right to use violence as a means for defense. SNCC’s leader, Stokely Carmichael, insisted that white supporters of the Black Power Movement be ostracized form the black supporters. But the Panthers wouldn’t hear it, and they pushed for a racial integration of all new-age revolutionists. The two bodies split. The Panther’s leaders—Eldridge Cleaver, Bobby Seale, Huey Newton—all eventually relinquished their positions in the party. The FBI had gotten deep inside the party and stirred unrest. The party eventually weakened and ceased to be a major political force. Cleaver’s book Soul on Ice alludes to several of these key events in the Black Power Movement’s history. There are also references to Malcolm X’s death, and to Elijah’s rise. The problem with Eldridge Cleaver’s book is that some of the letters it contains are written slightly before the rise of the Black Panther Party and thereby doesn’t cover the events associated with it; however, their ideas can be seen.

Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, beautiful memoirs portraying the militant mindset of the Black Panther Party, employs a clear and poignant style to convey the revolutionary atmosphere of the 1960s. Though the memoirs cover one man’s ideas and reflections, they also quote influential events and authors of the Sixties. Cleaver’s ideas led him to attain one of the leadership posts of the Black Panthers.

review by Ankan Sinha

  1. Cleaver, Eldridge. Soul on Ice. New York: New York, 1968, 33.
  2. Cleaver, Eldridge 28.
  3. Cleaver, Eldridge 39.
  4. Cleaver, Eldridge 47.
  5. Cleaver, Eldridge 163.
  6. Cleaver, Eldridge 210.
  7. Cleaver, Eldridge 219.
  8. Cleaver, Eldridge 118.
  9. Cleaver, Eldridge 101.
  10. Cleaver, Eldridge 145.
  11. Cleaver, Eldridge 163.
  12. Cleaver, Eldridge 129.
  13. Cleaver, Eldridge 131.
  14. Cleaver, Eldridge 219.

© 2006 Irvine High School

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