In the bustling, revolutionary days of the sixties an angry young black man published Soul on Ice. His name was Eldridge Cleaver. Within the pieces among this collection of letters and essay Cleaver tells us that after returning to prison he took a long look at himself and wrote to save himself. But what was Cleaver saving himself from? Well perhaps the brutal ramifications of segregation and a state of false consciousness. Over 45 years later, does Soul on Ice have any relevance, especially to young black men? I would argue that it does but for the young it is a book that must be read with guidance and a critical mind that would prevent the reader from taking the book fully, without questioning its weaknesses.
The book is made up of letters and essays. The pieces are sometimes tender and loving, as in the letters to his solicitor with whom he falls in love, or brutally honest and outrageous. To put across his message about the conditions of black people in the sixties USA, Cleaver covers a range of topics such as: black consciousness, the Watts riots, soul food, the assassination of Malcolm X, Elizah Muhammed and the strife among black Muslins. However, the two most important and seminal essays for both black and white people are On Becoming and the Allegory of Black Eunuchs. The first deals with Cleaver's struggles to overcome his ambivalent feelings towards white people especially white women and the second dwells on the hopeless situation of the black male - effectively Cleaver sees black males as black eunuchs. In this essay relations between black and white males are driven by sexual politics.
One of the predominant themes that keep recurring in the book is the mind body distinction. It occurs in various guises: through issues to do with sexuality, psychology, sociologically, class structures and of course race. In other words, Cleaver appeared obsessed with the intellectual position of African Americans and appeared keen to dispel the myth that black people only succeed through the physical aspects of their being. He was highlighting a situation where whites believed they had a monopoly over the use of the intellect whilst black people could only show and use physical prowess. The message here that is relevant for today is that black people have to and must continue to dispel the stereotype that would say we can only deliver through our physical being.
An example of where a young black person reading Cleaver today must take an objective stance and see things for what they are, is where he links the fate of African Americans to the liberation of third world countries. Instead of liberation, some 45 years on where third world countries, especially in Africa, have made some economic progress they have largely done so by exploiting their people as cheap labour and oppressing their desires for democracy and freedom.
The book charts some of the significant events and disputes between black and white intellectuals of the time. Cleaver's analysis of black personalities in the role they played in placating white America is quite honest and insightful. He also had an interesting take on the political context in which boxers such as Floyd Patterson and Muhammed Ali performed. And leaving no stone unturned, in terms of the cultural events of the sixties, Cleaver turned his attention to disputes between Norman mailer and James Baldwin, and addresses Baldwin's attitude towards Richard Wright. In doing so Cleaver delivers some short but telling essays about some of the intellectual disputes of the time.
I have long wanted to read Soul on Ice and somewhat very late finally got around to doing so. For one thing given the analysis of black consciousness for me reading this book is a very good example of better late than never. I brought my copy of Soul on Ice through the used market on Amazon, and one of the reasons for the long delay in my reading the book was its lack of availability. Given the book's significance, I would say that it is overdue for a reprint and new publication.