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Soul on Ice

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Widely read and enormously influential, the collection of Eldridge Cleaver's 1965–1966 prison letters and essays titled Soul on Ice (1968) remains one of the most important articulations of 1960s African American revolutionary nationalism. Published in 1968, Soul on Ice clearly captures the liberationist spirit of the moment through autobiographical accounts, personal letters, and sociopolitical essays. The volume generally outlines the devastating impact of American racism, especially on African American men, and suggests strategies for healing the profoundly wounded African American sense of identity and for bridging the seemingly irreconcilable racial divide in America.

The opening section, “Letters from Prison,” recounts Cleaver's early criminal and prison careers, details the everyday racial tension in the California penitentiary system, and provides vignettes of prison life and portraits of other prisoners, an influential teacher in San Quentin prison, and Malcolm X. The second section, “Blood of the Beast,” perhaps the most important part of the volume, offers sociocultural readings of the state of race relations in 1960s America. Cleaver acknowledges his admiration for the new generation of white youth who had jettisoned an unrealistic version of American history and thus their racist attitudes. He offers an allegorical interpretation of the Muhammad Ali-Floyd Patterson fight as signifying the Lazarus-like awakening of the African American. Cleaver goes on to attack James Baldwin for his supposed racial self-hatred and his homosexuality, elevating Richard Wright as a masculine literary standard. Several essays linking the 1960s African American liberation movement with anticolonial struggles throughout the world, especially the war in Vietnam, conclude the second part of Soul on Ice. The last two sections, “Prelude to Love—Three Letters” and “White Woman, Black Man,” focus more fully on gender issues, particularly on the psychological emasculation of the African American male and on the pathological impact of racism on human sexuality.

While Cleaver's discussion of sexual roles often seems masculinist and oversimplified, his description of the condition of the African American prisoner remains powerful and timely.

—Roger A. Berger

Subjects: Literature

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