The 1960’s and 70’s can be described as a very painful time in American history. Black people endured a struggle against an oppressive government which supported the mentality of white supremacy. White people struggled against one another. One sector of white America wanted to maintain the segregation and laws that kept black people in bondage. Another sector of white America wanted to see racism end. They were on the buses with the Freedom Riders. They risked their safety on a daily basis to break down the walls of racism. Many black writers and activist, including Richard Wright and Malcolm X were very influential in terms of their ability to keep the black struggle fresh in the minds of American people. To add to this list of brilliant people, Eldridge Cleaver and Norman Mailer wrote powerful books. Their books reflected several things about the atmosphere of their time. Eldridge Cleaver’s book, “Soul on Ice” explained the politics, racial and black power climates of his day. Norman Mailer’s book entitled, “Miami and the Siege of Chicago” explained the political and social climates in the year 1968.
Eldridge Cleaver was born in August of 1935 and died in May of 19984. He might be most remembered for opposing roles that he decided to take on during his adult life. He was involved in criminal activities, but later he changed. Cleaver decided to live life with honor and a positive purpose by becoming a highly ranked official in the Black Panther Party. He was a rapist who denounced his acts of violence against women after he entered the prison system. Even more passionate was his denouncement of what white America had done to all people of color on both a national and international scale. In his essays written while inside of Folsom Prison, on October 9, 1965 Cleaver wrote, “The blood of Vietnamese peasants has paid off my debts. The Vietnamese people, afflicted with a rampant disease called Yankees, through their sufferings”1(p.37) as a way of explaining not only his view of the war, but likely the view of
everyone who protested the war outside of his prison fences. The government’s placement of
black U.S. troops in a foreign land and forcing them to kill innocent Vietnam people, should be something that pays for his freedom from prison, according to Cleaver.
Cleaver addressed the issue of race in his book by discussing a problem which placed him (unknowingly) ahead of his times. It had to do with the race relationships among men and women. Specifically, he mentioned his love for white women that simultaneously fed his hatred for black women. After asking several men in the prison, he found that many of them expressed having no love for Black women as well. At the same time, Cleaver expressed, “I know one black bitch who always says there ain’t nothing a black man can do for her except leave her along or bring her a message from, or carry a message to, a white man.” 1 (p. 187) He went on to say that there is no love left between a black woman and a black man. Black women are described in the book as being “granite-hard and resisting, not soft and submissive like a white woman.”1(p. 188) This was a sickness in the reality of black society at this time. Fortunately, Cleaver understood the linkage between this heinous mentality and slavery. It is hard to imagine that during an era when black people were marching for civil rights, partnering with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., or listening to speeches by Malcolm X, the glue between the black man and woman was crumbling. His understanding of relations in the black community and the white man’s role in wreaking havoc in this area were absolutely accurate. Through intense dedication and studying, he was able to detox his mind from the poisonous contempt he held for black women. Cleaver wrote an apologetic chapter wherein he expressed a strong love for the black woman, to whom referred as, the Queen.1 (p. 236)
While in prison Cleaver explained an event that sent him into rage. It was likely the same sentiment that was felt by many people who saw in person, what he saw on a television screen. It was the brutal murder of Emmett Till. Emmett was beaten and killed by two white men after he was accused of whistling at a white woman. This forced Cleaver to become disgusted with himself equally as much as the killers. His feelings were also echoed by the whole nation of black people who were sick and tired of injustice. There were two elements in the air during his expression of sentiments over Emmett Tills death. First, he was so disgusted that after having a nervous breakdown 1 (p. 30), he saw a psychologist. The other sentiment emphasized in the book was that of empowerment. Cleaver became empowered by educating himself with books. In the world outside of prison, black people were uniting over the pain of Emmett Till’s death and the impunity with which his murderers behaved.
The political climate has also been insinuated by Mailer’s description of the protesters in Chicago. The protesters were against the War in Vietnam. They were fighting also to be heard because they felt ignored by the government and were bombarded by police. The police bombed protesters using tear gas and the moved against them with a vengeance. Many people who were a part of the media were attacked as well. Norman Mailer provided more insight about the American climate during the 1960’s. In politics. He explained on page 14 of his book, “The Democratic Convention in 1960 in Los Angeles which nominated John F. Kennedy, and the Republican in San Francisco in 1964 which installed Barry Goldwater”2 had encouraged the writing of reporters at that time. Mailer thoroughly explained the agendas of political candidates and how they were perceived by the media and voters. Mailer spoke candidly about the protesters in the streets of Chicago and the reaction of the police towards the protesters. In fact, he expressed being sick of hearing about the demands that black people were making about receiving justice and equality.3 Finally, the climate was full of resentment on the part of Mayor Richard J. Daley. He was against allowing the convention to relocate out of Chicago. He felt so strongly about this that he threatened to withdraw his support for Humphrey (who was the nominee at that time) if the convention were to be moved out of his city. Daley claimed to have received information that protesters were planning to assassinate the candidates. This was the reason he used to justify excusing police for their excessive force on the people in the city.
In conclusion, both authors did a great job of sharing the intensity of the events during their times. There was an enormous amount of pressure on political candidates as well as activists who worked to hold them accountable. Through these authors, multiple points of view were given. This enabled readers to form their own perspectives with such abundant information within reach. Between the protesters described in Mailer’s book and the issues with women described in Cleaver’s book, the climate for blacks in the 60’s was made of pain. Cleaver expressed his feelings of both love and hatred towards white women. He also referenced Richard Wright’s book entitled, Native Son4 because of what the character Bigger struggled with. He killed a white woman in that book and Cleaver probably understood Bigger’s frame of mind. It is likely that man black men felt the same admiration and simultaneous resentment towards white women as a result of 400 years of treatment from white slave owners. Most importantly, Cleaver made amends with his issues with women in the end of the book. Perhaps he was also singing the sentiments that all black men would grow to feel for black women.
- Cleaver, Eldridge. Soul on Ice. New York: Random House, 1992 PP.
- Mailer, Norman. Miami and the Siege of Chicago. New York: The New York Review of Books, 1968
- Art & Social Issues in American Culture. Accessed April 6, 2016. http://artandsocialissues.cmaohio.org/web-ontent/pdf/1968_Democratic_Convention.pdf.
- Wright, Richard. Native Son. New York: Harper & Bros, 1940.