On Eldridge Cleaver
He Is No James Baldwin
Huey P. Newton
ELDRIDGE CLEAVER’S PRISON masterpiece, Soul on Ice,1 was a manifesto of its time. The book is riddled with powerful insights and contradictions typical of the transitional period of the 1960s; it is a link in that long chain of prison literature brought to its zenith in the 1970s by George Jackson. George Jackson was Eldridge Cleaver’s dream come true; since his release from prison, Cleaver has been acting out his own nightmares. The essay on James Baldwin in Soul on Ice is an angle of refraction into the springs of that nightmare.
The essay to which I refer, "Notes on a Native Son," is a classically ambivalent attack on Baldwin, his politics, and, most of all, his sexuality. There are passages of stabbing relevance and malevolence:
Baldwin says that in Wright’s writings violence sits enthroned where sex should be. If this is so, then it is only because in the North American reality hate holds sway in love’s true province. And it is only through a rank perversion that the artist, whose duty is to tell us the truth, can turn the two-dollar trick of wedding violence to love and sex to hate—if, to achieve this end, one has basely to transmute rebellion into lamblike submission—"You took the best," sniveled Rufus, "so why not take the rest?" Richard Wright was not ghost enough to achieve this cruel distortion. With him, sex, being not a spectator sport or panacea but the sacred vehicle of life and love, is itself sacred.
Of all Black American novelists, and indeed of all American novelists of any hue, Richard Wright reigns supreme for his profound political, economic, and social reference. . . . But, ah! "O masters,” it is Baldwin’s work which is so void of a political, economic, or even a social reference. His characters all seem to be fucking and sucking in a vacuum. Baldwin has a superb touch when he speaks of human beings, when he is inside of them—especially his homosexuals—but he flounders when he looks beyond the skin; whereas Wright’s forte, it seems to me, was in reflecting the intricate mechanisms of a social organization, its functioning as a unit.2
Baldwin’s Christian survival tactic of love is shredded mercilessly. Christian love and passive homosexual love are mere functions of each other, and the scandal of turning the other cheek in racist America is a madness to Cleaver. He writes:
Rufus Scott, a pathetic wretch who indulged in the white man’s pastime of committing suicide, who let a white bisexual homosexual fuck him in his ass, and who took a Southern Jezebel for his woman, with all that these tortured relationships imply, was the epitome of a black eunuch who has completely submitted to the white man. Yes, Rufus was a psychological freedom rider, turning the ultimate cheek, murmuring like a ghost, "You took the best so why not take the rest,” which has absolutely nothing to do with the way Negroes have managed to survive here in the hells of North America! This all becomes very clear from what we learn of Erich, the arch-ghost of Another Country, of the depths of his alienation from his body and the source of his need: "And it had taken him almost until this very moment, on the evening of his departure, to begin to recognize that part of Rufus’ great power over him had to do with the past which Erich had buried in some deep, dark place: was connected with himself, in Alabama, when I wasn’t nothing but a child; with the cold white people and the warm black people, warm at least for him.3
Beneath the glinting surface of the criticism there is always a paranoid position that must be explained because of the sad and virulent scenario Cleaver set in motion when he put down the pen for the sword—or pretended that he did.
In a telling passage, Cleaver throws light on Baldwin and the "deviant" tradition so threatening to the incarcerated revolutionist:
Somewhere in one of his books, Richard Wright describes an encounter between a ghost and several young Negroes. The young Negroes rejected the homosexual, and this was Wright alluding to a classic, if cruel, example of an ubiquitous phenomenon in the black ghettos of America: the practice by Negro youths of going "punk-hunting." This practice of seeking out homosexuals on the prowl, rolling them, beating them up, seemingly just to satisfy some savage impulse to inflict pain on the specific target selected, the "social outcast," seems to me to be not unrelated, in terms of the psychological mechanisms involved, to the ritualistic lynchings and castrations inflicted on Southern blacks by Southern whites. This was, as I recall, one of Wright’s few comments on the subject of homosexuality.4
But that is precisely the buried meaning of Cleaver’s essay! Ostensibly concerned with James Baldwin, Cleaver is "punk-hunting."
In 1967, Cleaver was invited to a special dinner for James Baldwin, who had just returned from Turkey, and he in turn invited me. When we arrived, Cleaver and Baldwin walked into each other, and the giant, six-foot-three-inch Cleaver bent down and engaged in a long, passionate french kiss with the tiny (barely five feet) Baldwin. I was astounded at Cleaver’s behavior because it so graphically contradicted his scathing written attack on Baldwin’s homosexuality in his article "Notes on a Native Son." I later expressed my surprise to Cleaver, who pleaded that I not relay this incident to anyone. I did not understand then but now realize that Baldwin ("The Native Son"), who had neither written nor uttered a word in response to Cleaver’s acid literary criticism, had finally spoken. Using nonverbal communication, he dramatically exposed Cleaver’s internal contradiction and "tragic flaw"; in effect, he had said: "If a woman kissed Cleaver she would be kissing another woman, and if a man kissed Cleaver he would be kissing another man."
In Soul on Ice Cleaver quite accurately explains that "self-hatred takes many forms; sometimes it can be detected by no one, not by the keenest observer, not by the self-hater himself, not by his most intimate friend." Baldwin, in Cleaver’s eyes, is a "self-hater" and a "homosexual." Cleaver states: "I, for one, do not think homosexuality is the latest advance over heterosexuality on the scale of human evolution. Homosexuality is a sickness, just as are baby-rape or wanting to become the head of General Motors."5 Cleaver forgets to mention that Baldwin makes no attempt to conceal his homosexuality and thereby escapes the problems of the repressed homosexual.
Yes, Baldwin is an admitted homosexual, but he is not a depraved, mad man. Can Cleaver say the same? Does Baldwin’s open homosexuality threaten Cleaver’s repressed homosexuality, which manifests itself in violence against women? The lady doth protest too much me thinks. The problems, difficulties, and internal conflict that Cleaver has within himself—because he is engaged in denial of his own homosexuality—is projected onto an eternal self (Baldwin) in order to defend his own threatened ego. He attempts to project his own femininity onto someone else and to make someone else pay the price for his guilty feelings. Cleaver embraces supermasculinity, pretends to despise Baldwin as a "punk," while admitting that he (Cleaver) is a rapist. One must despise (and/or envy) women in order to be driven to degrade and ravish them.
What does Cleaver think of women? Better yet, what does he think of those Black masses that he accuses Baldwin of despising? By his own admission:
I became a rapist. To refine my technique and modus operandi, I started out by practicing on black girls in the ghetto—in the black ghetto where dark and vicious deeds appear not as aberrations or deviations from the norm, but as part of the sufficiency of the Evil of a day—and when I considered myself smooth enough, I crossed the tracks and sought out white prey. I did this consciously, deliberately, willfully, methodically—though looking back I see that I was in a frantic, wild, and completely abandoned frame of mind.
Rape was an insurrectionary act. It delighted me that I was defying and trampling upon the white man’s law, upon his system of values, and that I was defiling his women—and this point, I believe, was the most satisfying to me because I was very resentful over the historical fact of how the white man has used the black woman. I felt I was getting revenge. From the site of the act of rape, consternation spreads outwardly in concentric circles. I wanted to send waves of consternation throughout the white race.6
He "practiced" on Black women in order to acquire perfection for his rape of white women. This implies not only envy of the female principle but contempt for Blackness, combining the elements of selfhatred and repressed sexual needs. Cleaver degrades Black women twice, first by rape and second by viewing it as a dress rehearsal. By practicing on Blacks he expresses his admiration for whites. He in fact pays white women a childish compliment: he ascends the heights to their vaginas by stepping on the bodies of Black women!
The irony of Cleaver and his flaw is his self-hatred and his sexual insecurity; his pitiful need for a clear love/hate dichotomy, his need for a clear-cut male/female dichotomy, and his need to be a superhero. Cleaver’s criticism of Baldwin rests upon his secret admiration of Baldwin and upon his ambition to become Baldwin in a literary sense. In order to become Baldwin, he must topple and consume him. He had to find in Baldwin a tragic flaw, and it follows that he finds in his hero the things that he cannot, due to built-in totems and taboos, accept in himself (i. e., his lack of absolute masculinity and his infantile character). He finds it necessary to make a vicious, apolitical attack upon the psychosexual condition of Baldwin in an effort to appear the superstud and to steal Baldwin’s fire. He elevates himself on Baldwin’s shoulders. Cleaver once said to me, "Soul on Ice is my Fire Next Time."
If only this failed revolutionist had realized and accepted the fact that there is some masculinity in every female and some femininity in every male, perhaps his energies could have been put to better use than constantly convincing himself that he is everyone’s superstud. How confused and tortured he must be to equate homosexuality, baby-rape, and the desire to become the head of General Motors. But Cleaver’s imagination is not healthy. It is paranoid and self-condemning; it is consumed by a need to be female and white. He is no Baldwin, no Genet.
1. Eldridge Cleaver, Soul On Ice (New York: Dell, 1968).
2. Ibid. at 108-9.
3. Ibid. at 107.
4. Ibid. at 106.
5. Ibid. at 110.
6. Ibid. at 14.