What does Eldridge Cleaver’s SOUL ON ICE reveal about the possibilities of interracial sex within the Black Power movement?

Written by Erin Morris

Eldridge Cleaver was a well-known leader of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense in the late 1960s and 1970s. The Black Panther Party was the main outgrowth of the Black Power movement. The Black Power movement was about racial pride, maintaining black culture, community organizing, and achieving self-determination for all people of African descent.

In 1968, Cleaver published his memoir Soul on Ice, which he wrote while incarcerated at Folsom State Prison in California. He went to prison for sexual assault, which he admits to and analyzes in Soul on Ice. His narrative is one of the only popular writings on the topic of interracial sex (also known as miscegenation) within the context of the black power movement.

As a spokesperson for the Black Panther Party, it is important to realize the intentions of his memoir as a type of public manifesto. It is not solely an act of self-reflection. It was a venture to make a profit and also to publicize Cleaver’s social and political commentary as a part of the Black Power movement.

Eldridge Cleaver serves as an example of the different perspectives on sexual relations between blacks and whites within the Black Power movement (and the Black Panther Party in particular). The Black Power movement differs from what is known as the earlier Civil Rights Movement in a couple of ways. The Civil Rights Movement supported nonviolence, whereas the Black Panther Party was more radical in its acceptance of violence as an equally valid form of resistance. Furthermore, the Civil Rights Movement accepted white allies while Black Power concentrated on black empowerment. In this way, Black Panther ideology seems less suited to supporting interracial relationships. Amy Steinbugler suggests that “interracial relationships were seen as a threat to pride and cohesion within Black communities; they represented the worst form of integration. For some interracial intimacy amounted to an attempt to reject Black culture and assimilate into Whiteness.”1

Cleaver lays out three different perspectives on interracial sex, the so-called crossing of a “sexual color line”2. First, he declares his rage at how black men are indoctrinated into preferring whiteness to blackness. He understands his lust for white women to be part of the historical context he grew up in. Next, he explains how he sought to resist this desire with violent attitudes and actions. Lastly, he presents the possibility of interracial sexual relationships to become romantic relationships. In this case, miscegenation can be a form of resistance in that it presents hope for an anti-racist future, a sort of “interracial utopia”3 where relationships between blacks and whites are free from both external and internal cultural stigma.

Desiring Whiteness
In the beginning of Soul on Ice, Cleaver recounts an instance in prison where he had a photo of a white pin up girl on the wall of his cell. A guard tore it down, telling Cleaver that he would only allow him to keep up a picture of a black women. On the subject of the pin-up girl, he writes, “The disturbing part about the whole incident was that a terrible feeling of guilt came over me as I realized that I had chosen the picture of a white girl over the available pictures of black girls.” He goes on to ask himself, “Was it true, did I really prefer white girls over black?” and concludes, “Yes, I did.”4

Once Cleaver recounts the story for his readers, he proceeds to analyze the historical and social reasons for his desire for white women. He quotes another inmate to suggest that his opinion tells the story of many black men. He says “‘All our lives we’ve had the white women dangled before our eyes like a carrot on a stick before donkey: look but don’t touch.’”5 He goes on to connect this insight to the indoctrination into the “white race’s standard of beauty.”6

Next he discusses the case of Emmett Till. Emmett Till was a 14 year old black boy who was viciously murdered for allegedly flirting with a white women. His murder was an act of racist violence against the idea that a black man could desire a white women, and further, the threat that he would defile her purity through miscegenation. Cleaver describes seeing the photo of the white women Till allegedly whistled at. He writes, “Here was a woman who had caused the death of a black, possible because when he looked at her, he also felt the same tensions of lust and desire in his chest — and probably for the same general reasons that I felt them.”7 Here, Cleaver uses this anecdote in order to give his memoir more power with a national audience by referencing a larger issue in African American history.

Resistance Through Violence
In jail, Cleaver reveals how he changed his feelings towards white women in order to resist his desires for them. He sees his desire for white women as a betrayal of his community and race. He also connects this resistance to a form of self-determination, a central tenant of Black Power ideology. He writes, “I had stepped out of the white man’s law, which I repudiate with scorn and self-satisfaction. I became a law unto myself — my own legislature, my own supreme court, my own executive.”8 In this case, Cleaver also emphasizes black masculinity, mimicking the masculinist tones of most of the Black Panther Party.

He begins to reveal his violent crimes by explaining “it was of paramount importance for me to have an antagonistic, ruthless attitude toward white women.”9 Finally, he presents the following poem entitled “To A White Girl”:

I love you

Because you’re white,

Not because you’re charming

Or bright.

Your whiteness

Is a silky thread

Snaking through my thoughts

In redhot patterns

Of lust and desire.

I hate you

Because you’re white.

Your white meat

Is nightmare food.

White is

The skin of Evil.

You’re my Moby Dick,

White Witch,

Symbol of the rope and hanging tree,

Of the burning cross.

Loving you thus

And hating you so,

My heart is torn in two.

Crucified.10

Following this poem is Cleaver’s admittance of rape, however, rape as a political act. It is important to consider how Cleaver benefits from presenting his heinous crimes in this way. In “Race, Sexuality, and Political Struggle: Reading Soul on Ice”, Jared Sexton suggests, “This is a troubling line of reasoning… it pursues an absolutely untenable alibi for rape…”11 Cleaver seems to use his discussions of rape to further his ideological standpoint rather than to repent for his actions.

Cleaver writes, “Rape was an insurrectionary act… [it] was the most satisfying to me because I was very resentful over the historical fact of how the white man has used the black woman. I felt I was getting revenge12” In this way, Cleaver began to see raping white women as a way to violently attack white supremacy and power. He asserts a difference between sex and rape in order to make his desire a meaningful act of resistance, rather than a betrayal of his community. It is no longer that he desires white over black, it is that he is using rape to gain liberation.

Resistance through Romance
Finally, Cleaver presents a third analysis on interracial sex. He sees the possibility of interracial relationships to supercede racist cultural attitudes and point towards a racially integrated future. Sexton describes this transition from the previous line of reasoning by explaining, “Whereas before the black man sexually violated the white woman as a symbolic retaliatory strike against the white man’s historical violation of the black woman — the noted uneven patriarchal proxy war — now the black man and white woman find themselves mutually attracted to one another.”13

This section comes from Cleaver’s personal experience falling in love with Beverly Axelrod, a white woman. He presents the concept of a colorblind, racially-just future. In this utopia, miscegenation is not miscegenation, it is faultless and pure heterosexual love. Cleaver does not feel self-loathing at his desire for Axelrod because their relationship is built on more than than sexual desire or resistance to white supremacy. Their love is tied to the political statement that their relationship makes. He writes in a love letter published as part of Soul on Ice to Axelrod, “It is not ourselves alone who are involved in what is happening to us. It is really a complex movement taking place of which we are mere parts. We represent historical forces and it is really these forces that are coalescing and moving toward each other.”14

Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice presents just one view of interracial sex within the Black Power Movement. His analysis is fraught with problems as he tries to use this public platform to deny his crimes and publicize Black Power ideology at the same time. It is critical to keep in mind the homophobia and unforgivable misogyny that run rampant throughout his book. However, he does present an important viewpoint on the seldom considered issue of interracial sex.

Footnotes
1Steinbugler, Amy C. Beyond Loving : Intimate Racework in Lesbian, Gay, and Straight Interracial Relationships. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2012), 10.
2Sexton, Jared. “Race, Sexuality, and Political Struggle: Reading “Soul on Ice”” Social Justice 30, no. 2 (92) (2003): 29. http://www.jstor.org/stable/29768182.
3Barnett, Pamela. Dangerous Desire: Sexual Freedom and Sexual Violence Since the Sixties. (New York: Routledge, 2004), 12.
4Cleaver, Eldridge. Soul on Ice. (New York: Laurel/Dell, 1992), 27.
5Ibid, 28.
6Ibid, 29.
7Ibid, 29-30.
8Ibid, 32.
9Ibid, 31.
10Ibid 32-33.
11Sexton, Jared. Race, Sexuality, and Political Struggle: Reading “Soul on Ice,” (34).
12Cleaver, Eldridge. Soul on Ice (33).
13Sexton, Jared, Race, Sexuality, and Political Sciences: Reading “Soul on Ice,” (34).
14Barnett, Pamela. Dangerous Desire (26).

<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: