Race, Sexuality, and Political Struggle: Reading Soul on Ice

By Sexton, Jared | Social Justice, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Race, Sexuality, and Political Struggle: Reading Soul on Ice


Sexton, Jared, Social Justice


THERE HAS BEEN A RECENT REVIVAL OF CRITICAL INTEREST IN "IMPRISONED intellectuals" (in the form of a conference and anthology) as sources of theoretical and practical instruction, as well as figures of political inspiration. However, this trend is highly unlikely to grant pride of place to the prison writings of Eldridge Cleaver, published together as the well-known Soul on Ice. Samples of his writings and reflection on his impact for the (intellectual) history of radical politics are curiously absent from both occasions. His leadership in what remains the "organizational icon ... of black militant resistance to white domination and terror" (James, 1999: 141) in the post-civil rights era notwithstanding, the ambivalence attached to our collective memory of his tumultuous life seems to diminish whatever critical contact we might maintain with his earliest intellectual endeavor. As a result, his criticisms of postwar capitalism, U.S. imperialism, and white supremacy are overlooked; more important, I think, is the likelihood that we will maintain the official silence about those aspects of his life, work, and thinking that we find embarrassing, inexplicable, or simply reprehensible. This difficulty of thinking with him and about him today, a difficulty that is perhaps a scandal, is the reason we should understand his writings to be absolutely essential to our engagement with imprisoned intellectuals in the 20th and 21st century U.S.

Cleaver is something of an anomaly and his inclusion for present purposes has in no way been taken for granted. Quite the contrary. In a telling moment, the discussant in the panel at which this paper was initially presented described my reading of Soul as "a rescue mission," implying, I think, Cleaver's assumed status as simply beyond the pale. Any attempt to meditate upon his historical impression and significance, then, faces the inevitable, perhaps compulsive question: Why Eldridge, why now? We might reply: because his wholesale engagement with the black liberation struggle (unquestionably risking imprisonment, exile, and death), however short-lived and confused, was so deeply marked by all those political tendencies with which the move to revolutionary struggle against the state can forge dubious partnership. One of the enduring challenges of resisting state violence is liberating black radicalism from its historical entanglements with various forms of sexism, patriarchy, and misogyny, from its frequent reliance on the strictures of homophobia and heteronormativity, and from its highly ambivalent and deeply problematic relation to the sexual color line. In each respect, the figure of Eldridge Cleaver presents a highly instructive case in point, not for the exemplary success of the story, but for the extremity and wildness--as well as complexity--of its failures. I believe we can learn something important about the complicated logic of this connection between certain traditions of black liberation struggle and their often conservative, sometimes-reactionary political commitments regarding the intersections of race and sexuality. Perhaps it bears repeating that such a connection is historical and contingent and not inherent or structural, which is to say, it is capable of being undone provided it is carefully worked through.

Cleaver is important to the critical engagement with imprisoned intellectuals for another key reason. The unseemliness of Cleaver in the present forum calls into question the criteria by which we determine who is or is not an "incarcerated, progressive author and theorist" (1) deserving of our attention. (This is attested to by the numerous questions I have received thus far, not about the substance of my critical reading of Soul per se, but of my sense of Cleaver as historically important. One conference participant, for instance, remarked that he could not even read the book.) Cleaver's apparently poor fit with the general themes of the conference ("contributions to . …

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