Until two or three years ago, not many people knew who Eldridge Cleaver was. Almost the only people who had heard of him were those who read Ramparts, where some of his writings had been published, or those in touch with the radical literati, black and white, who had known for some time about this uncut literary diamond, this “talented black nationalist cat writing some really beautiful stuff out of a jail in California.” Time and tide and politics and the mass media have all taken care of that. Today Cleaver is nationally known as the author of Soul on Ice,1 a widely read book of essays, as Minister of Information for the Black Panther Party in Oakland, as a defendant in an upcoming trial for parole violation (which may make him, like his colleague, Huey Newton, a cause célèbre among black nationalists and New Left radicals), as candidate for President on the Peace and Freedom party ticket, and as a literary idol of the black nationalists. His face shows up frequently on national television, his statements are widely reported in the press, he is important enough to have inspired the distaste and opposition of Governor Ronald Reagan, and Maxwell Geismar has called him “one of the new distinctive literary voices.”
All of this, for Cleaver and the rest of us, is a long way from 1954—when James Baldwin was still serving a hard apprenticeship in Paris, when mainstream American politics had nothing more radical to fear than perhaps the liberal Democrats (the Old Left having ceased to constitute a serious threat), when Presidential candidates were, by and large, as American as cherry pie, and when the civil-rights movement was still considered the last best hope of black Americans. As Cleaver reports in the opening paragraph of his book, 1954 was also where everything began for him: “Nineteen fifty-four, when I was eighteen years old, is held to be a crucial turning point in the history of the Afro-American—for the USA as a whole—the year segregation was outlawed by the US Supreme Court. It was also a crucial year for me because on June 18, 1954, I began serving a sentence in state prison for possession of marijuana.” In saying that, it may not be Cleaver's intention to point to any irony between the course of the Afro-American struggle since the school desegregation decision and the course of his own life since he entered prison. Yet given what became of both in the twelve years between 1954 and 1966, we are entitled to see a kind of irony here.
But before moving on to that, let's hear his second paragraph: “The Supreme Court decision was only one month old when I entered prison, and I do not believe that I had even the vaguest idea of its importance or historical significance. But later, the acrimonious controversy ignited by the end of the separate-but-equal doctrine was to have a profound effect on me. This controversy awakened me to my position in America and I began to form a concept of what it meant to be black in white America.”
This awakening turned him away from America with “horror, disgust, and outrage.” His politics began when he joined a group of black prisoners who were in such total rebellion that they cursed everything American, including baseball and hot dogs. He read Tom Paine and he became an atheist. He read economics and then Rousseau and Voltaire “to add a little polish” to his growing iconoclasm. From Marx, he learned of the injustices of capitalism. Lenin, he says, led him toward socialism, and he took Bakunin and Nechayev's Catechism of the Revolutionist for a bible, incorporating its principles into his everyday life, and employing “tactics of ruthlessness in my dealings with everyone with whom I came into contact.” He had in the meantime discovered within himself a powerful love-hate obsession with white women, and when he was released on parole he began “consciously, deliberately, willfully, methodically” to rape them. “Rape,” he says, “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.”
In no time, of course, he was back in prison—most likely, though he does not say, for rape. But deciding now to take a new look at himself, he realized that in becoming a rapist he had degraded, not the white man or his women, but himself. “I lost my self-respect. My pride as a man dissolved and my whole fragile moral structure seemed to collapse, completely shattered.” And that is why, he says, he turned to writing. to save himself.
But his education was far from over. He now read as much literature as his jailers would make available to him. He learned about Baldwin, Mailer, Wright, and Ellison. From news of the black struggle that filtered through to him from the outside, he became totally disgusted with “the hat-in-hand approach” of those leading the struggle. He joined the Black Muslims and fed voraciously on the teachings of “the Hon. Elijah Muhammed.” Growing sick eventually of this diet, he went along with Malcolm X when the latter broke with Elijah. He fell under the influence of an inspiring and Christ-like prison teacher named Lovdjieff, whom he later turned against. And he met and fell in love with a warm, compassionate, and “revolutionary” white California lawyer who had become interested in his case and was interceding with the authorities for his release. The letters he wrote to her while still in prison were to form some of the most beautiful and the only tender passages of his book. All of this and more took place in three prisons over a period of twelve years.
Soul on Ice, published early this year, is a biography of Cleaver's spiritual, political, and intellectual growth during those years. It puts us in touch with an intelligent, fertile, and arrogant mind, one capable of profound and disturbing insight but also of dazzling and ingratiating oversimplifications; it is written in a clear, strong, cutting prose style; and it contains some of the most passionate and irreverent essays on race, sex (on both sides of the racial curtain), and American society ever written by a black American. They all, in one respect or another, express the profound alienation from America which black nationalists feel and the extreme political and cultural view of its future which they take.
But let us look at what, in the meantime, had happened to the Afro-American struggle since it was propelled upon a new and promising course by the Supreme Court's desegregation decision of 1954. It had gone on to become one of the greatest mass protest movements in American history, had attracted such a powerful coalition of groups that the federal government was obliged to legislate more vigorously than ever before in behalf of desegregation and voting rights, which were particularly useful in the South. By 1966, however, the movement had been overtaken by crisis, a crisis of success, so to speak. While it had not done all that some people had mistakenly thought it would do, the civil-rights movement accomplished all that street marches and demonstrations reasonably could. That is to say, it could fight for and achieve legislation in behalf of integration, but it could neither enforce such legislation nor make integration work. And while it could raise questions concerning poverty and economic deprivation, it could not as a protest movement affect the country's economic institutions. Thus, although middle-class blacks did benefit from desegregation and consequent opportunities in education and employment, the masses in the ghettos discovered that integration even when enforced was less relevant to their problems than they had believed, and that, in any case, they were still locked in poverty, joblessness, and slums. At this point, aided by the indifference of the liberal coalition which was by now mainly preoccupied with the Vietnam war, the movement bogged down and splintered in different directions. Once monolithically dedicated to nonviolence and integration, the movement was now a chaos of ideologies: some turning to black nationalism and separatism, some calling for violence, some preaching the necessity for a black economy and black power, and some remaining faithful to the old strategy and objective of nonviolence and integration.
It is an irony worth noting, then, that 1966 was not only the year the civil-rights movement faltered and started to disintegrate, the year the demands for separatism and black self-determination started growing in stridency, but it was also the year Eldridge Cleaver came out of prison proclaiming himself in one of his essays “a full time revolutionary in the struggle for black liberation,” and declaring in another that “we shall have our manhood . . . or the earth shall be leveled in our attempts to gain it.” As an especially vocal advocate of the idea that blacks should go their own way in America, Cleaver has now emerged as one of the leading reapers of the wave of frustration and disillusionment that followed the demise of the old civil-rights movement which had been set upon a course of such great promise in the crucial year of 1954.
Today we are not so impressed as we once were that convicts of whom we had ceased to expect anything worthwhile manage to transform and make something of themselves in prison. As a recent reviewer of Soul on Ice observed, prison has after all been the traditional finishing school of revolutionaries, and even, by now, of a fair number of writers. Nor does it seem that the prisoners themselves are any more impressed, judging from Malcolm X's remark in his Autobiography that prison is just about the best place to go if a man wants to do some serious thinking. However, if we are not concerned with the place where Cleaver did his thinking, we can scarcely avoid considering the kind of man he has become, the kinds of views he now holds, and the bearing they have on what may become of politics and race relations in America. It cannot be a matter of indifference that Cleaver now preaches total contempt for the value of cooperation with white Americans except where that relationship serves the immediate self-interest of black nationalism—as evidenced by the expedient collaboration between the Black Panthers and the Peace and Freedom party; that he is interested mainly in mending and institutionalizing the walls between black and white America; that while espousing the cause of black pride and manhood, he cannot see the world and its other problems except as they all represent an enormous conspiracy against black people; that he detects no difference between the struggle of the Vietcong and the struggle of black Americans and in fact advocates a linking of both; that he believes armed rebellion may be the only means by which blacks can secure their objectives in America.
But he speaks better for himself on some of these and other related matters. On black prisoners:
Rather than owing and paying a debt to society, Negro prisoners feel that they are being abused, that their imprisonment is simply another form of the oppression which they have known all their lives. Negro inmates feel that they are being robbed, that it is “society” that owes them, that should be paying them, a debt.
On rebellious white youth:
What has suddenly happened is that the white race has lost its heroes. Worse, its heroes have been revealed as villains and its greatest heroes as arch villains. . . . It is among the white youth of the world that the greatest change is taking place. . . . The “American Way of Life” is a fossil of history.
But there is an aspect of the crystal of our nature that eschews the harness, scorns sublimation, and demands to be seen in its raw nakedness, crying out to us for the sight and smell of blood.
On cooling riots:
The stupidity of the Uncle Tom cool-out reached perhaps its most grotesque incarnation when, after Negroes rioted and burned in Harlem, the black friends of the white power structure issued a pamphlet with the headline Cool It, Baby!
On Vietnam and the black struggle:
The American racial problem can no longer be spoken of or solved in isolation. The relationship between genocide in Vietnam and the smiles of the white man toward black Americans is a direct relationship.
On ownership of property:
Out of their hatred for the system, blacks are seriously questioning the sanctity surrounding the idea of private property. . . . Blacks in America see that the deed is not eternal, that it is not signed by God, and that new deeds can be drawn up making blacks the owners.
Finally, on the black revolution:
The black man has already come to the realization that to be free it is necessary for him to throw his life—everything—on the line, because the oppressors refuse to understand that it is now impossible for them to come up with another trick to squelch the black revolution. The black man can't afford to take a chance. He can't afford to put things off. He must stop the whole show NOW.
These are not meant by any means to represent the full range and tone of Cleaver's thought; they merely convey the essential flavor of his political outlook. The passages reveal, however, how much of what Cleaver regards as truth rests merely upon its urgency and usefulness as agitation and upon the sheer throb and sensation of language. It is true that his rhetoric is cleaner and sparer than that which we are used to encountering in political discussion and exhortation, yet it is anything but disinterested, and only the utmost of critical vigilance on the reader's part can prevent it from smuggling in halftruths or untruths under his very nose. Like much of the language of the “now” political generation, one of its main characteristics is that it either tends to subvert rational judgment or makes such judgment seem dull, reactionary, or downright square.
But this is simply one of its main tendencies, for Cleaver is also able to express ideas, states of mind, and perceptions in a way that fuses with brilliance and illumination—though almost always self-servingly—the perceptions of imagination, reason, and emotion. It is this ambiguity of tone, however—imaginative on the one hand and openly agitational on the other—which makes many people suspect that his ideas derive as much from racism as from legitimate insights into the nature of the racial situation and a commitment to the cause of black freedom.
Cleaver, to be sure, denies that he is a racist. He finds that “there is in America today a generation of white youth that is truly worthy of a black man's respect . . . a rare event in the foul annals of American history.” And he says, “If a man like Malcolm X could change and repudiate racism, if I myself and other former Muslims can change, if young whites can change, then there is hope for America.” Yet it is certainly not possible to invoke one's humanity at the expense of the humanity of others and still manage to avoid hating and despising others. It is certainly no more possible for the Black Panthers to disclaim an interest in racial hostility than it is for the Ku Klux Klan, whose politics and program would equally seem to start at the mouth of a gun, to do the same. And it is no more possible for Cleaver than it is for George Wallace (who also denies being a racist) to preach to the exclusive interests and fears of whites and blacks without encouraging or reinforcing racism.
The reply that will be made to all of this, of course, is that it is one of the traditional strategies in America to stigmatize as black racists those who choose the most militant means available to assert their pride and win their freedom; that since, in such a struggle, it is the interests and attitudes of the whites which must be opposed, one cannot resist these and yet not appear to be fighting whites. It is an argument with some appeal, but it more accurately describes the dilemma of those working for radical reform in America than those trying to trigger race war.
The black American struggle, being that of a minority group, is unique among the struggles of colonials or other non-white majorities around the world. And unless the objective of the struggle here is to set up a separate state—which scarcely seems possible on this continent—or to return to Africa, it imposes upon those who lead it rather unique burdens. One of those burdens is to maintain a militant and vigorous advocacy of black freedom without falling into an appeal to latent racist passions. It is not always clear if those pursuing the struggle—and Cleaver is a good example—are interested in whether or not they cross this delicate line: whether they are working within the essential spirit and purpose of humanism and freedom or merely seeking to enter into and further the historical cycle of hate and vengeance.
As a writer-activist Cleaver also bears a very important relation to the style and tradition of Negro writing, one not quite so controversial as his relation to nationalist agitation. Norman Mailer describes style as “manners meant to keep out all intrusions from what we want to say to each other.” In this sense, Cleaver is the essential stylist of the new black generation, not only in the direct and irreverent manner in which he expresses feeling and attitude, but also in the way those qualities mark his writing. To the militant black intelligentsia, Cleaver is the kind of man and the kind of writer who most clearly expresses them, what they want to say now to America, and how they want to say it.
Thus Cleaver's style as social advocate and writer illuminates both the sense of itself which the militant generation now has and the ways in which Cleaver differs from the majority of Negro writers who preceded him.
First, his relationship to what the young blacks feel of themselves. As he puts it in Soul on Ice, American style is “a perverse national modesty that reveals us as a nation of peep freaks who prefer the bikini to the naked body, the white lie to the naked truth, Hollywood smiles and canned laughter to a soulful Bronx cheer.” Some of this is true, and, to the degree that it is, it has had the effect of placing an embargo on the feel which black Americans have of their own expression, has suggested that such an expression is in some ways inferior to the one preferred by the majority culture. And Cleaver's own distaste for the prevailing national style lends support to the demand which the black intelligentsia are now making on their people to “dig” themselves: the meaning of that demand being that they should trust their own sense of life and reality, speak in their own voice, make an estimate of their own worth and abide by that estimate.
Of course, while such a demand may be more vociferous and resonant today, it is by no means new; older black writers made the same demand in the past, insisting on the distinct nuances of the black American sense of reality and expression. In pressing this point, the older writers and intellectuals were calling attention not only to the legitimacy of a black subcultural view but also to one of the obstacles that stood in the way of their ability to bear true witness to the nuances of that view. And they brought a deeper sensitivity than Cleaver and some of his contemporaries have shown to the tension between the majority view of American reality and the shadings and tonalities of their own.
Such distinctions aside, what is important is that all Negro writers have had to wrestle with the subtle embargo which the conventional national outlook places on their own sense of reality and their style of expressing it. To read what a few of them have had to say about it is to see how accurately it can translate into the everyday psychological dilemmas of most black Americans. Richard Wright was at one point distressed that Negro novels and poems were almost forced to be “decorous ambassadors who went abegging to white America.” Ralph Ellison found that the “greatest problem of the Negro writer was the problem of revealing what he truly felt, rather than serving up what Negroes were supposed to feel and were encouraged to feel. And linked to this was the difficulty . . . of depicting what really happened within our areas of American life.” James Baldwin's difficulty was that “I was in effect prohibited from examing my own experience too closely by the tremendous demands and the very real dangers of my social situation.” And in Soul on Ice, Cleaver finds it necessary to say “it may be that I will be harmed for speaking this way, but I do not care about that at all.”
While Ellison, Baldwin, and Wright later succeeded in breaking through the prohibitions upon their own way of describing and examining their experience, they were able to restrain or contain their impulse to agitation and propaganda within a sense of their vocation as artists. Thus the tone of each, while strong and independent, spoke to the social and moral quality of American life rather than to the imperatives of racial ideology and political action. And it is at this point that Cleaver as well as a writer like LeRoi Jones depart from the main tradition of Negro writing. They have become not only spokesmen for political rebellion and revolution but also active partisans in these activities. With Cleaver it is his position in the Black Panther party. With Jones it is his stridently anti-Semitic writings, his deification of blackness, and his call to the black masses to pick up guns. One cannot recall any other prominent black American writers to have been so engaged, except perhaps Wright, who worked for a while with the Communist party and then broke with it, or W.E.B. Du Bois, who joined the party shortly before his death, and then mostly as a gesture.
When one attempts to look for influences upon this new activist direction in Negro American writing, one can scarcely look beyond the figure of Malcolm X, for his life and ideas have played a large part in shaping not only the racial and political consciousness of Cleaver and Jones but also new tastes and new expectations of literature in the young black intelligentsia. There are other influences, to be sure, ranging from Lenin to Fanon to Guevara, but none has left as powerful a stamp on the consciousness and sensibility of the young militants as Malcolm X.
Particularly after his death. It was then that people began to respond to the legacy of his voice: a voice that had called for new assessments of the black condition, new strategies of struggle, more radical notions of freedom and self-determination, a linking of the black revolution with the revolution of the third world, a rejection of the conventional idea of black American citizenship, freedom by any means necessary, and for intellectuals to take their place in the pit of the struggle.
Among those who chose to relate such an outlook to the nature of literature, particularly those who had by then read Fanon, there was a reconsideration of the work and role and importance of such writers as Wright, Baldwin, and Ellison. It suddenly became important to observe how detached these writers were from the black revolutionary struggle. It became important to ask such questions as: where did they live, who were their friends, whom did they write for (blacks or whites), how much money had they made on their books, and why did the “white establishment” publish their work if they were telling the truth about black thinking and black life? Baldwin had once said that the artist's proper place is above the struggle. Among his black readership, even during a less militant period, this had always been contested; but now, among the new militants, it amounted to heresy (for which in his later work Baldwin did penance). The degree of the black writer's engagement with the struggle of his people became the only reliable guide to whether or not he was for real, whether or not he could be trusted—whether or not he was selling himself out, or, worse, selling his people out.
Except for the scores of relatively unknown writers who have emerged from this new climate, the only two who fully pass the test are Cleaver and Jones. And it may not be long before the unknown ones make it too—those who now stage their plays in the streets of black communities, who evangelistically chant their poems to the needs of black audiences, and who otherwise inject sermons of blackness and revolution into their stories and their songs.
The futility of judging such work by ordinary literary standards ought by now to be evident, though to say it is futile does not mean it is unnecessary. It is, of course, necessary to point out that much of this work is a leaden echo of the dismal cult of proletarian literature in the 30's, and that the value of literature no more lies in its agitational intent today than it did then. Nevertheless, it is still futile to say these things to the militant black writers today since they have disowned any interest in such judgments.
As an essayist, Cleaver is less vulnerable to such criticisms than the black novelists and poets of similar bent. Moreover, he is gifted enough as a prose stylist and powerful enough in his impact upon how blacks perceive the current state of their life in America to stand with the most prominent of our black literary intellectuals. Of these, it is Baldwin to whom Cleaver is closest in sensibility, which perhaps explains why Baldwin bothers Cleaver so much.
As Wright condemned the work of some of the black writers who preceded him, as Ellison refused to be bound by the literary ancestry of Wright alone but insisted on defining a more varied and complex ancestry, and as Baldwin denounced Wright partly to sever the umbilical ties he so clearly felt, so now does Cleaver launch a brilliant but mean and unfair attack upon Baldwin in Soul on Ice. He tries to make it appear that his attack is an attempt to avenge Baldwin's treatment of Wright; but it is an essay of such sustained nastiness that one suspects it was really Cleaver's way of demolishing Baldwin in order the more sensationally to announce his own arrival upon the scene.
Whatever Cleaver's motives, he could hardly have found anything more sensational to say about Baldwin than to attribute what he considers quirks or failures in Baldwin's work and outlook to homosexuality. Thus, for example, he asserts that Baldwin attacked Wright out of fear of Wright's masculinity. Along with this goes the charge of self-hatred. “There is,” Cleaver sums up, “in James Baldwin's work the most grueling, agonizing, total hatred of the blacks, particularly of himself, and the most shameful fanatical, fawning, sycophantic love of the whites that one can find in the writings of any black American writer of note in our time.” The absurdity of this characterization places it beneath serious discussion.
To read so complex a writer as Baldwin in this way is to display a sensibility so reductive and so steeped in formula that it can see nothing—not even sex—except in the crudest political terms, and that accordingly will not hesitate to dictate the form in which emotion must be expressed.
All this reflects one of the pervasive attitudes of black nationalist writing: the idea that race and racial consciousness are absolutes in themselves, immune to the influence of history and personal experience, and exempt from the faults and frailties common to all things human. It reflects also one of the essential differences between Cleaver and the older Negro writers, a difference to be detected in other terms between the old radicalism and the new: the old, trained and rooted in a tradition of ideas and maintaining a reasonable tension between moral complexity and political imperative; the new, marked by an impatience with ideas, a distrust of complexity, and a certain arrogance of rhetoric, feeling, and personal style.
One of the questions that liberal intellectuals are being forced to consider by the challenge of writers like Cleaver is whether the broad principles of humanism to which they have historically been committed are still relevant to the most pressing of contemporary issues. On the issue of race particularly, they are being asked to make up their minds as to whether Cleaver and others are right in seeing their blackness as an absolute, in rooting all their judgments about this country, the world, human beings, and the universe itself in the singular fact of their color. The temptation to agree that blackness is an absolute in this sense seems to be strong in certain intellectual circles, though full agreement is perhaps inhibited by the knowledge that if blackness is accepted as an absolute, then whiteness must also be—an idea which liberal intellectuals are not heard to express, at least in public. But there appears to be a way of evading the whole problem. Thus in a review of Soul on Ice in the New Republic, Richard Gilman writes:
The Negro doesn't feel the way whites do, nor does he think like whites—at the point at least when feeling and thought have moved beyond pure physical sensation or problems in mathematics. . . . Negro suffering is not the same as ours. Under the great flawless arc of Greco-Roman and Judaeo-Christian traditions we have implicitly believed that all men experience essentially the same things, that birth, love, pain, self, death are universals. . . . Imagine how it must be to know that you have not the right to feel that your birth, your pain, your joy or your death are proper, natural elements of the human universe but are, as it were, interlopers, unsanctioned realities, to be experienced on sufferance and without communal knowledge. . . . Soul on Ice is a book for which we have to make room but not on the shelves we have already built. . . . His [Cleaver's] is a Negro perspective, sight issuing from the “furious psychic stance of the Negro today,” and in its victories of understanding, its blindness and incompletions, its clean or inchoate energies, its internal motives and justifications, his writing remains in some profound sense not subject to correction or emendation or, most centrally, approval or rejection by those of us who are not blacks. . . . We want to be able to say that such and such a Negro is a bastard or a lousy writer. But we are nowhere near that stage and in some ways are moving farther from it as polarization increases.
This is a surprising statement. It presupposes in the first place that Negroes could have lived in this country for so long, some since the founding of the Republic, without being shaped by the same “Greco-Roman and Judaeo-Christian traditions” as white Americans. Yet the truth is that there are millions of Negroes who consider themselves no less legitimate heirs to these traditions than whites. And even those who do not yet feel justified in considering themselves fully American are, in their struggle, drawing heavily upon the moral and ethical principles of these traditions. Nor do Negroes have any notable difficulty in feeling that their birth, pain, joy, and death are “proper, natural elements of the human universe.” Indeed, to have had the kind of experience they have had in this country is to feel an additional nuance of these universals: their birth, their joy, their death, and their selves. Gilman asks us to imagine what it must be like to know that one is denied the “right” to feel these things. The question is really how anyone related to the “flawless arc” of the traditions he mentions can have acted as though birth, pain, joy, death, and self were not in fact universals. And, in any case, why Negroes especially? Why not the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, the Okies, the hippies, the Indians, and even the soldiers in Vietnam?
But even if it were true that we lack all intuitive knowledge of what others feel, we have always been able to understand the articulation by others of precisely what they feel. On this basis alone, what Cleaver or any other Negro writes is accessible and subject to the judgment of any reasonably intelligent white. And neither the fear of granting approval nor perhaps the greater fear of having to withhold it should deter anyone from finding that an individual Negro is “a bastard or a lousy writer.” To be thus deterred is both to be patronizing and to fail in a serious critical responsibility. We judge foreign literatures by the standards we know. Why now do we need separate standards by which to judge writing by black Americans?
It seems that if a liberal critic in good standing—whatever exactly that may be today—were to find that Cleaver is a “bastard or a lousy writer” he would place himself in danger of being thought less than sympathetic to the militant struggle—than which, God knows, there are few worse things to be thought today in liberal circles. On the other hand, he might find that Cleaver is neither a bastard nor a lousy writer, in which case, especially if he is white, he would be obliged seriously to re-examine and even reject a good many of the assumptions and values which Cleaver calls into question and to which he himself may be attached—than which, at any time, there are few more difficult or disagreeable things to do. All of these painful choices are avoided by the simple strategy of pleading ignorance, saying that Cleaver is after all writing for blacks and not for whites.
Yet suppose Cleaver were writing only for blacks. Are the problems which concern blacks a mystery to everyone but themselves? Are blacks not concerned about the quality of American life, about the moral quality of American society, about dignity and opportunity, about poverty, slums, powerlessness? How then can an address to the needs of blacks be incomprehensible to whites? Do not both groups share an experience of the uneven standard of American conduct?
My own view is that Cleaver is neither a bastard nor a lousy writer. He is an immensely talented essayist, one of the best in America at the present moment, who at the same time is lacking in certain fundamental moral qualities. His urgent concern for the humanity of black people—his demand that their morale and manhood be restored after centuries of humiliation—does not translate into a concern for the humanity of all people. His vision is so narrow and racially determined that it is incapable of accommodating the tragic sense or of displaying any interest in what we are used to calling the sadness and ambiguity of the human condition. Writing, to him, is a weapon he has discovered to take on the world, not a key to the understanding and exploration of the problems of experience. Though a powerful and in some ways a commanding writer, he has a mind which is neither broad, complex, nor compassionate enough to be really interesting. His passion takes him to the peripheries of hate, a tendency or a temptation that succeeds only in reducing the beauty which passion, anger, and outrage can take on in writing that is controlled by the moral imagination.
1 Introduction by Maxwell Geismar. McGraw-Hill, 210 pp., $5.95.