Soul in a Maze

Soul in a Maze

Target Zero: A Life in Writing by Eldridge Cleaver

Target Zero: A Life in Writing
by Eldridge Cleaver, edited by Kathleen Cleaver
Foreword by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Afterword by Cecil Brown
Palgrave MacMillan, 2006 336 pp $27.95

It was in the mid-eighties that Eldridge Cleaver became a figure of mockery. When his name appeared in print, it was usually in a context that reaffirmed him as a has-been or, worse, a clown. Consistency may be the hobgoblin of little minds, as Emerson wrote, but Eldridge Cleaver pushed the envelope so far that in the end his public pronouncements provoked laughter.

It’s true that in the conservative eighties many icons of the sixties were marginalized, but the former Black Panther seemed to outdo himself as a figure of terror transformed into a sideshow attraction. In the seventies, he became a born-again Christian. In the eighties, it was widely reported that he supported Ronald Reagan. It was difficult not to perceive Cleaver as a pseudo-revolutionary huckster.

Target Zero offers a retrospective of Cleaver’s career, consisting of selections from his works, published and unpublished, dating from Soul on Ice, his 1968 post-prison manifesto, to the mellower writings that characterized the decades preceding his death in 1998. The question underpinning Target Zero is introduced in Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s foreword, when Gates writes, “Even when I didn’t understand Eldridge’s opinions, I still admired him immensely. Eldridge’s peers from his Black Panther years resented his religious and political conversions. But he was always firm in his beliefs despite the pain this rift inevitably caused him. Eldridge always had answers when I questioned him about his conversion to Christianity or his embrace of a most conservative approach to solving the problems of the black poor.” Gates’s words are admiring, but they also leave us wondering whether, if Gates can’t finally make sense of Eldridge Cleaver’s career, can we? Can Target Zero resuscitate Cleaver’s reputation, or were his politics really just erratic and self-serving?

Cleaver’s most important book remains Soul on Ice. The bulk of it was written while Cleaver was a prison inmate, sentenced for various crimes, including rape. Cleaver was guilty, by his own admission, but, in his own eyes, less guilty than the republic of the United States. Soul on Ice is less an apologia than a book of accusations—young against old; black against white; healthy, virile heterosexuality against homosexuality (which Cleaver unabashedly called a perversion). “I am perfectly aware that I’m in prison, that I’m a Negro, that I’ve been a rapist [but] the blood of Vietnamese peasants has cancelled all my debts [and] the Vietnamese people, afflicted with a rampant disease called Yankees, through their sufferings have cancelled my IOU’s,” he wrote.

His writings brough...


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