Review of Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice

The decade of the sixties is and will continue to be a fascinating study for historians. Anyone’s list of the “top ten events” will include the assassinations of Dr. King and the Kennedys, Vietnam, the moon landing and the counterculture. Anyone’s list of the “top ten books” will include Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice. Ishmael Reed, author of the Preface for the 1992 re-release of Soul on Ice states simply “Soul on Ice is the sixties. The smell of protest, anger, tear gas, and the sound of skull-cracking billy-clubs, helicopters, and revolution is present in its pages” (11).

Cleaver was not the first incarcerated African-American male to gain literary prominence with prison memoir of sorts. But unlike The Autobiography of Malcolm X with its emphasis on then-alien Islam, Soul on Ice was “accessible” to a broader—white—audience. Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam carried a strong separatist attitude; he believed “whites’ very presence subtly renders the black organization automatically less effective” (Malcolm X, 384) as opposed to Cleaver’s belief that “there is in America today a generation of white youth that is truly worthy of a black man’s respect” (Cleaver, 106). Perhaps because of their age, religious attitudes or other differences, Cleaver was a spokesman for that “generation” of black and white youth facing Vietnam, discrimination, and what they believed to be a white-power police state. In the absence of any real dialog confrontation became the order of the day, and Cleaver found himself at the forefront of two very different worlds.

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Cleaver’s cataclysmic attitude was the antithesis of the “acceptable” doctrine of non-violent civil rights movement. Prophetically he stated

Meanwhile, blacks are looking on and asking tactical questions. They are asked to die for the System in Vietnam. In Watts they are killed by it. Now—NOW!—they are asking each other, in dead earnest: Why not die right here in Babylon, fighting for a better life, like the Viet Cong? If those little cats can do it, what’s wrong with big studs like us? (165)

Appropriately he was soon Minister of Information of the radical Black Panther Party as well as the new “darling” of the “New York Left” (4). Cleaver witnessed a number of his Panther compatriots killed in violent confrontations with police and he himself fled the country instead of facing charges after a shoot-out with the Oakland police (Frontline, 1). At the same time such “New York Left” luminaries as Leonard Bernstein was hosting parties for Cleaver and the Panthers. Cleaver had essentially been “tabbed” by the white liberal elite, as an articulate “Negro author”:

One device evolved by the whites was to tab whatever the blacks did with the prefix “Negro”. We had Negro literature, Negro Athletes…the malignant ingeniousness of this device is that…it concealed the paramount psychological fact: to the white mind, prefixing anything with “Negro” automatically consigned it to an inferior category” (103).

Soul on Ice left a profound impact on literature crossing many taboos including discussing race relations in a sexual context and his own relationship with white women. It was one of the first to address many feminist issues, particularly the role of African-American women. Cleaver died in 1998; he was one of the very rare individuals who not only lived through but helped shaped some very tumultuous times. As Reed stated before his death “if he never does another thing in his life, he wrote this book” (10).