As major American cities boil over with rage, many of us are pondering how we feel about race relations, social change, and civil disturbances. I will not devote a post to the current disturbance. I addressed my feelings on protests and riots in 2015, and my feelings have not changed. But amid this crisis, some are revisiting the legacy of militant groups of the 1960s, holding them up as inspiration. This has led me to think of how my romanticized view of Black nationalist and militant groups has shifted over the years. Today’s blog post will detail how I fell out of love with the Black Panthers and nationalist/conscious ideology in general.
In June 1994 I graduated from middle school. As a parting gift, my English teacher gifted me with a certificate to the University of Washington bookstore. An avid bibliophile, I looked forward to using the gift certificate! So, on a summer day in July I caught King County Metro bus #48 to the University District to do just that. I spent my gift certificate on two books: “Queen” by Alex Haley and “Soul on Ice”, by Eldridge Cleaver. Having read “Roots” the year before, I wanted to compare “Queen” to it. I did not find it as compelling Haley’s most famous work, but it was a decent read. It had no negative or positive impact on me.I cannot say the same for Cleaver’s “Soul on Ice”.
My interest in the book stemmed from my infatuation with Black Nationalism. My fixation began when I read another book linked to Alex Haley-The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Cliché as it sounds, it is my truth. The Autobiography of Malcolm X led me to spend hours at the Douglass-Truth library in Seattle’s Central District, hungry for knowledge about Black American history and culture. My family and my church informed my understanding as well, passing their reverence of Martin Luther King Junior down. MLK’s weary face stared back at me from the fans that Black-owned mortuaries gave to our churches. His face looked down at me from the black velvet portraits gracing my Grandma and great-Aunts wall. It was MLK’s words that we were taught to recite faithfully every year during our Black History Month with programs. But it was the fiery words of Malcolm that resonated with me, that made my pulse quicken! I began to gravitate towards Black Nationalism.
In my desire to learn more about the other militant heroes of the 1960s, I figured I should read “Soul on Ice” as well. After all, the Black Panther Party was lionized most of my readings. I liked the Black Panther Party. Their image alone was so powerful to me! Their billowing afros defied Eurocentric beauty standards! Their habit of publicly exercising their Second Amendment rights fearlessly thrilled me. Eldridge Cleaver was one of them, and I was sure I would gain more knowledge from his words.
And then I started reading.
By the time I finished “Soul on Ice”, I was thoroughly confused. I felt deceived. I did not understand why Cleaver was admired. In his book Cleaver detailed his serial rapes of women. Cleaver showed no remorse for his deeds. On the contrary, he attempted to paint his rape of white women (after he finished “practicing” rape on Black women in the ‘hood) as a revolutionary act. I was disgusted. Rape was a crime, one which I knew there was no justification for. After reading Cleaver recount his crimes in his own words, I could not look at him the same.
My discovery that Cleaver’s serial rapes did not disqualify him from leadership in the Black Panther Party led me to question the party itself. My Grandma had insisted that “birds of a feather flock together”, that whom you choose to associate and align yourself with reflects your character. What did that say about the BPP that a serial rapist was not just allowed to become a member, but was admitted to its inner sanctum?
I did not want to contemplate the answer to my question. I did not even want to share it with anyone. I feared answering that question, not ready to face what it might say about the movements I looked up to. But the question and the contradiction it posed for me, never went away. Indeed, it was the first of many cracks that would eventually shatter my views.