White Girl Reads Cleaver

One of the books I read while in LA was Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice. It’s been sitting on one of our bookcases gathering dust ever since we shared an apartment with Amy back in Austin (at least, I believe it was Amy who brought it home and encouraged us to read it… at any rate I’ve held onto it all this time, always meaning to read it eventually). It’s a fascinating book, the memoir of a civil rights leader written from prison. Several of my favorite passages are from his essay Rallying Round the Flag in which he writes about the post-civil rights era and the split within the country over the Vietnam war. He could just as easily have written these passages today, and what with all this blogging about improvement, self and otherwise, they seem timely. Prepare yourself though, for some good old-fashioned American hubris, albeit hubris with an ironic twist:

It is not an overestimate to say that the destiny of the entire human race depends on the outcome of what is going on in America today. This is a staggering reality to the rest of the world; they must feel like the passengers in a supersonic jet liner who are forced to watch helplessly while a passle of drunks, hypes, freaks, and madmen fight for the controls and the pilot’s seat. Whether America decisively moves to the right or to the left is the fundamental political problem in the world today; and the most serious question now before the American people is who now, in this post-civil rights era, are the true patriots, the new right or the new left?

… the right is able to manipulate the people by playing upon the have-gun-will-travel streak in America’s character, coupled with the narcissistic self-image as friend of the underdog. Americans think of themselves collectively as a huge rescue squad on twenty-four hour call to any spot on the globe where dispute and conflict may erupt. (queue the Team America theme song “America… fuck yeah!”)

It does not make sense to the American people to fight a war half-heartedly. If America is at war in Vietnam, then it makes sense to Americans when the right wing indignantly demands the application of more and more force, increased bombings, all effective weapons to kill and defeat the enemy and get it over with. Americans like to get a job done, and what they hate most of all is to drag out a job when they have the means in their hands of completing it.

The new right and the new left in America, each trying to lead the nation down the diverging branches of the fork, have between them the fate of the world and the hopes of a tortured, bleeding humanity – forever seeking life and almost always receiving betrayal and death from the outstretched hands of the seducer.

While his estimation of America’s importance is perhaps a little overstated, I love the image of us all as passengers in an airplane, watching helplessly as a bunch of maniacs fight for the controls. And he couldn’t be more right on about our “narcissistic self-image as friend of the underdog.” It’s a little freaky how he could just as easily have been writing about our presence in the Middle East as our involvement in Vietnam. I don’t buy all his rhetoric about the left and the right, but it’s still fascinating that, as a country, we seem to struggle with the same issues and wind up in the same predicaments over and over. Is the growth of a country like that of an individual? Do we keep having to peel back layers of the onion, revisiting the lessons we just can’t seem to grasp?

Then there’s this passage (in an earlier chapter) on the social dynamics of prison. I like to substitute “prison” with the words “middle school” or even “4th grade”:

I want to devote my time to reading and writing, with everything else secondary, but I can’t do that in prison. I have to keep my eyes open at all times or I won’t make it. There is always some madness going on, and whether you like it or not, you’re involved. There is no choice in the matter: you cannot sit and wait for things to come to you. So I engage in all kinds of petty intrigue which I’ve found necessary to survival. It consumes a lot of time and energy. But it is necessary.

And this on racism:

Many of us were shocked and outraged by these words from Malcolm X (when he wrote about breaking bread with “white” Muslims), who had been a major influence upon us all and the main factor in many of our conversions to the Black Muslims. But there were those of us who were glad to be liberated from a doctrine of hate and racial supremacy. The onus of teaching racial supremacy and hate, which is the white man’s burden, is pretty hard to bear.

There is also a brutally honest essay that explores his motivation to rape white women; how his whole moral structure seemed to collapse, and how writing eventually saved him. That essay should be read in its entirety, but he ends it with this simple sentiment:

“The price of hating other human beings is loving oneself less.”


~ by jenzai on July 6, 2008.

4 Responses to “White Girl Reads Cleaver”

  1. Love substituting middle school/4th grade for prison. But as I think about the layers of the onion, I think that the national discourse seems to just get more jaded, more weary the further in we get and the more things change without changing (though the hubris is still strong and clear!). I am still in the middle of Ghost Map, so Soul on Ice is going to take a bit for me to get to, but it’s on the list now.

  2. I’m sure you’re right about our national identity. Maybe it’s actually like the onion in reverse! Rather than removing the layers of denial and obfuscation we keep adding them on.

    What do you think of Ghost Map so far?

  3. “in this post-civil rights era, are the true patriots, the new right or the new left?” or neither if they become indistinguishable from one another…

  4. It’s kind of like that band from Spinal Tap, “The New Originals”….dear namesake, I owe you an email! Soon to be delivered, especially if the DSL holds….”White Girl Reads Cleaver” has to be my favorite blog headline ever.

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