Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Soul on the rocks

My friends and I thought Eldridge Cleaver was one of the coolest men alive in high school.

He reached that upper echelon of cool: Isaac Hayes cool, Nelson Mandela cool, Jay and Silent Bob cool.

Cleaver put the “Ice” in Ice T. He was the gangsta who preceded the original gangsta. Our high school minds could think of nothing cooler.

He was more “X” than Malcolm X. He didn’t just criticise the system. He raged against it. (No, we never excused or justified his raping, but we loved that he penned “Soul on Ice” from prison.)

We thought the most prestigious degree we could have was a Higher Uneducation.

In hindsight, we were pretty stupid.

Isaac Hayes, Nelson Mandela and even Kevin Smith films have all aged better for me than Cleaver’s “Ice,” which he wrote while imprisoned for rape.

I remember being wowed by his insights, such as, “The price of hating other human beings is loving oneself less.” Now, it seems like the kind of thing you could find on a coffee cup.

Cleaver — just like Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael and other civil rights authors — must be taken in context. Cleaver especially was speaking taboos. He, better than any author, explained how the impoverished view prison.

“Negro convicts... look upon themselves as prisoners of war, the victims of a vicious, dog-eat-dog social system that is so heinous as to cancel out their own malefactions.”

Then, there is “The Ogre,” his nickname for the attraction he felt toward white women. Cleaver’s dissection of white women as the standard of beauty and his self-loathing attraction toward them will be his best remembered legacy. It is still an uncomfortable but enlightening read today.

However, a lot of Cleaver’s writing has not aged as well. The love letters between his attorney and he don’t fascinate me like they used to. The imprisoned bard and the idealistic attorney felt a lot more romantic in my youth. Now, his come-ons read like a request for free legal help.

Cleaver’s view of Floyd Patterson—and any other boxer that isn’t Muhammad Ali—is overly simplistic. He seems to contend that only the most down can ever be down.

I disagree with his assessment as homosexuality as an “illness” and think it taints his discussion of James Baldwin.

But there is one thing that Cleaver got right: the importance of Malcolm X. He sees in Malcolm X both a kindred spirit and an unattainable ideal. He describes how Malcolm X’s visit to Mecca and, later, his death shook the Black Muslim Movement.

However, there’s already a civil rights author who wrote a wonderful book about Malcolm X. His name is… Malcolm X. And I’d recommend his autobiography over “Soul on Ice.”

--Jason Lea, JLea@News-Herald.com

P.S. Next up: Hughes.

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