The Fire This Time?

Eldridge Cleaver: Post-Prison Speeches and Writings

edited by Robert Scheer
Random House, 211 pp., $5.95

Reviewing Eldridge Cleaver’s second book, Post-Prison Speeches and Writings, demands a critical license like that of reviewing the aspects of a man’s life which consigned him to purgatory. Moreover, the review itself can offer little promise of comfort and less in the way of advice to the man in question, whose likely response would be: “If I could live life all over again, I’d do the same thing.” There is, then, but one legitimate line of investigation, since we already know why the man lived the way he did. This approach would ask two questions: “Why must he do it again in that way, if he could?” and “Is there really no other way?”

But even this tack is not very promising, because it offers no easy answers to these questions which would even begin to satisfy those who adhere to any of today’s “revolutionary” trends in America. For if there is anyone among them who has demonstrated the full measure of his devotion to “putting one’s head on the line,” it is Eldridge Cleaver. What more can one demand after that? What is there more to be said about Eldridge Cleaver, the writer-activist-revolutionary, that is legitimate critically and politically apt?

In the first place, this second book presents a peculiar problem because of the nature of its content and style. As Robert Scheer, the editor of this collection of speeches and short pieces, advises us: “This collection, then, is not a sequel to Soul on Ice, which was written during the leisure of Cleaver’s forced confinement. In this book one finds the art of the journalist, and in that sense it is a first book. Comparisons with Soul on Ice will inevitably be made by reviewers, but Cleaver was not in a position to work on assembling this book…. It was rushed through production in order to answer the need of people to come to grips with Cleaver’s political ideas….” Very well, then we must deal here not with Cleaver, the literary essayist, but with Cleaver, the activist, the revolutionary, the political ideologist. Also with Cleaver, the Black Panther Party’s Minister of Information and associate editor of Ramparts Magazine. One must deal in part with all of these facets of Eldridge Cleaver because the man defies facile classification. He did not emerge from what was considered, during periods like the 1930s, the proper path to conventional revolutionary politics. His political personality is as unprecedented as the situation of racial confrontation in which he and his ideas became famous.

These ideas are politically interesting, although most of them were not original with Cleaver. For example, Robert Scheer thinks that Cleaver’s “assumption that black people in America form an oppressed colony…” was original with Cleaver, when, in fact, the idea was first expressed in the United States at least as far back as 1962 as the Afro-American’s condition of “domestic colonialism.”1 All new political ideas, however, evolve slowly, and it takes time for their full implications to be generally…

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