Diaspora-Artists logo

Eldridge Cleaver

Born, 1935 in Arkansas, USA. Died, 1998

Eldridge Cleaver was born on 31 August, 1935 and died on 1 May 1998. A Guardian obituary of Cleaver, of Saturday May 2 1998, titled Rage and redemption, written by Godfrey Hodgson, stated that Cleaver “was one of the most brilliant and the most tragic figures thrown up by the urban black radical movement of the late 1960s.” (1)

As a young man, he was a prisoner at Soledad Prison, serving spells in the mid to late 1950s. Cleaver’s life was a turbulent one, and friends, enemies and admirers alike all never knew quite what he would do or say next. He was Minister of Information for the Black Panther Party for several years; he was also a journalist, intellectual, activist and author. Cleaver is regarded as a radical, primarily because of his association with the Black Panther Party. In reality however, Cleaver was always something of a maverick and a free spirit, whose writings demonstrated the work of a brilliant and witty mind. At the height of his notoriety, Cleaver was a presidential candidate for the US Peace and Freedom Party. This was the first of several unsuccessful forays into formal politics. He was, as mentioned, a journalist, respected for his work in the San Francisco-based Ramparts magazine, for which he also acted as one of its Senior Editors. Having been a follower of the Nation of Islam and then a leading member of the Black Panther Party, he later became an evangelical Christian, and witnessed and proselytized accordingly. To this end, he founded, in the late 1970s, Eldridge Cleaver Crusades. Having stood as a presidential candidate in 1968, Cleaver returned to politics when he stood as an independent conservative candidate for the U.S. Congress in 1984.

Cleaver also became a member of the Republican Party, though as with other Cleaver dalliances, one suspects that this embrace may well have been the action of a restless, unpredictable personality, keen to provoke and scornful of complacency in its assorted forms. His most famous book is Soul on Ice, a probing and provocative collection of essays that stands as an enduring document to Cleaver’s brilliance. Typical of Cleaver’s style was his chapter, The Black Man’s Stake in Vietnam: “It bothers white racists that people around the world love black Americans but find it impossible to give a similar warm affection to white Americans. The white racist knows that he is an Ugly American and he wants the black American to be Ugly, too, in the eyes of the world: misery loves company! When the people around the world cry “Yankee, Go Home!” they mean the white man, not the black man who is a recently freed slave.” (2).

A 1989 reference book on 20th century Black writers noted that “The inspiration for Soul on Ice comes from a number of writers Cleaver read while in prison, including Thomas Paine, Karl Marx, Nikolai Lenin, and James Baldwin. The most important influence, however, was Malcolm X, a leader of the Black Muslims. Cleaver joined the Muslims in the early 1960s and, when Malcolm X broke away from Elijah Muhammed’s leadership of the group, Cleaver followed.”  (3) Cleaver was, as mentioned, a prominent member of the Black Panther Party and served as the Minister of Information and Head of the International Section of the Panthers while in exile in Cuba, Algeria, and France, between 1968 and 1975. As Editor of the Panther’s official newspaper, Eldridge Cleaver had a profound influence on the direction of the Party, along with other Panther firebrands such as Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale (Newton and Seale had founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in 1966)

Ever the showman, Cleaver titled his 1978 book, repudiating his earlier political activities and celebrating his new-found Christianity, Soul on Fire.

Looking at the social and political activism of the likes of Cleaver and Seale, and the devastating impact of this activism, no-one could have predicted that in later years, Cleaver would open “a boutique in Hollywood featuring men’s trousers with a codpiece, his own design.” (4) Or that Seale would author a cookery book, Barbeque’n with Bobby, “righteous down-home barbecue recipes by Bobby Seale.”

Kathleen Cleaver, to whom he was married for two decades, has provided one of the most cogent accounts of Eldridge Cleaver’s life. The five-page feature appeared in the June 1969 issue of Ramparts magazine. In the piece, Kathleen Cleaver recounted that “Before I met Eldridge, I had read his “Letters from Prison” in RAMOPARTS; what astounded me was the tremendous strength he demonstrated in recreating himself in prison. If a man can grow and develop as Eldridge had, subject to the conditions of prison, if a man is not broken by these conditions, but instead becomes a profoundly beautiful and sensitive man, then nothing can break him.” (5)

In Frieze, issue 69, September 2002, the magazine’s Deputy Editor Dan Fox discussed a 1983 portrait of “Eldridge Cleaver with one of his sculptures” (Roger Ressmeyer/CORBIS). On the magazine’s content’s page, the item was listed as Picture: Black Panthers. In reality, the picture was a portrait of Eldridge Cleaver taken by Roger Ressmeyer, in 1983, by which time Cleaver had long renounced or disassociated himself from his earlier political activities and had, amongst other courses of action, embraced Christianity.

Fox wrote “Here, one-time Black Panther Party leader Eldridge Cleaver poses with a sculpture made whilst serving time in prison followiong his return from self-imposed exile abroad. Up against the Panther’s high impact visuals, the significance of Cleaver’s sculpture - a strange hybrid of a Paul Thek ‘Meat Piece’ and an engine block covered in limpets - seems oddly indistinct. When the revolution comes, high Modernism will be no match for simple graphics and a sharp suit.”

(1) Godfrey Hodgson, Rage and redemption, Guardian obituary of Eldridge Cleaver, Saturday May 2 1998.

(2) Eldridge Cleaver, The Black Man’s Stake in Vietnam, in Soul on Ice, Dela, New York, 1968, p. 127.

(3) Entry on (Leroy) Eldridge Cleaver,  in Black Writers: A Selection of Sketches from Contemporary Authors, Gale Research Inc., Detroit, Michigan, 1989.

(4) Entry on (Leroy) Eldridge Cleaver,  in Black Writers: A Selection of Sketches from Contemporary Authors, Gale Research Inc., Detroit, Michigan, 1989.

(5) On Eldridge Cleaver, by Kathleen Cleaver, Ramparts magazine, June 1969, pp. 4 – 11.

Related items

click to show details of Picture: Black Panthers

»  Picture: Black Panthers

Article relating to an individual, 2002