Early in Jack Henry Abbott’s In the Belly of the Beast, Abbott, who at the time of his book’s publication had spent almost his entire life, from nine-years-old to thirty-seven, in detention—juvenile facilities, then the Utah State Industrial School for Boys, then penitentiaries—, writes, “I keep waiting for the years to give me a sense of humor, but so far that has evaded me completely.”
Not so for Eldridge Cleaver, another state-raised convict. Cleaver in his heyday was clever, ironic, hip, and funny, all while being hard enough to have commanded respect in Soledad and Folsom and San Quentin, and, after his release, on the rough and tumble mid-60s streets of Oakland, as the Minister of Information for the Black Panthers. Even as he condemned whole classes of them, at times, to terrible fates, one gets the sense from Soul on Ice that Cleaver genuinely liked people.
I can’t remember if it was Bush or McCain that pollsters claimed the public wanted to have a beer with. The idea was that even if you didn’t particularly care for the man’s politics or social views or voting record or, I guess, general outlook on life, still, you’d likely have a swell time sitting across from him at the local tavern, shelling peanuts and swapping regular-guy stories over mugs of Coors. Me, I’d choose McCain, though either would do, I suppose, on a nothing-much-happening Tuesday night. But really, were I still a smoker and were he still alive, I’d much rather get down on a fatty with Cleaver.
Cleaver’s first stint in maximum security evolved, in fact, from being arrested with a big bag of pot, “a shopping bag,” Cleaver writes, “full of love—I was in love with the weed and did not for one minute think that anything was wrong with getting high.” Prison radicalized him. Before Soledad, in 1954 (the year also of Brown v Board of Ed, which outlawed segregation), Cleaver “met life as an individual and took my chances.” But the prisoners he met in Soledad opened his eyes. “All respect we may have had,” he writes, “for politicians, preachers, lawyers, governors, Presidents, senators, congressman was utterly destroyed as we watched them temporizing and compromising over right and wrong, over legality and illegality, over constitutionality and unconstitutionality. We knew in the end that what they were clashing over was us, what to do with the blacks, and whether or not to start treating us as human beings. I despised all of them.”
As a class, for sure, he despised them all. But whereas a guy like Abbott could fundamentally dislike just about everybody he ever met, Cleaver, even in revolutionary fervor, longed for a less oppressive way to walk in the world. Malcolm X’s conversion, during his trip to Mecca, from an ideology of racial separation to one in which blacks and whites might come together, came as a great relief to Cleaver: “Many of us were shocked and outraged by these words from Malcolm X…. 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.” As a writerly aside, note the twist on the traditional meaning of the phrase “white man’s burden.” Soul on Ice is filled with such ironic, often biting, often literary, humor.
In any event, yes, were Cleaver to agree to return from the dead, I would agree to return to the weed. For a single Tuesday night, anyway. For I believe I like Cleaver. I believe also that I may truly know him.
But here’s the thing. We ask the question, Can one person truly know another person? But doesn’t that question presuppose that we don’t change, or that we are at any given moment a single, stable self, that our conflicting natures are resolved into a single whole? I am hardly of a philosophical bent, and know next to nothing concerning neuroscience or psychiatry or the chemistry of the brain. I don’t know much about religion, either, except what I read. What I’m saying is, I don’t know how to go about framing my ultimate question regarding Cleaver, which is: How can I like, and presume to know, a man who has committed crimes beyond ordinary understanding?
Not ten pages into Soul on Ice, we encounter:
“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 had 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 through the white race.”
This is a startling passage, especially, according to a colleague I read it to in order to get her impressions, for that “smooth” in the second sentence of the first paragraph. She picked up on it immediately. I was preoccupied with the justification of rape as a tool of warfare, and its (horrifyingly) strategic, serial deployment. But my colleague couldn’t let go of “smooth,” which seems to be modifying both Cleaver and his actions.
Next post: I’ll try again to finish with Cleaver. That “smooth,” though, that’s a tough word to think about there.