- Meeting at the Watchtower:Eldridge Cleaver, James Baldwin's No Name in the Street, and Racializing Homophobic Vernacular
His Goat, Our Lamb: Soul on Ice and James Baldwin as Instructive Victim
In his prison-time memoir Soul on Ice, Eldridge Cleaver, Black Power ideologue provocateur, attacked the racial authenticity and manhood of perhaps the most acclaimed and accomplished African American author of the decade, James Baldwin. Cleaver's critical aim was Baldwin's personal sexual practices and corresponding racial psychology, not his prose. Cleaver asserted that Baldwin's sexuality was, in essence, the manifestation of a "racial death-wish" (101). He argued that Baldwin's sexuality was a concession of his black manhood and signaled his engagement in an unachievable attempt to "becom[e] a white man in a black body" (103). Baldwin stood as the formative example of an evidential link between black male homosexuality and interracial homosocial obedience; a type of "succumb[ing] psychologically" (135) that manifested not solely as an involuntarily induced psychic condition but also as a literal act of masochistic interracial submission.
Soul on Ice has acquired an infamous canonical status in African American letters as the era's most candid and illustrative declaration of the phallocentric interplay of racial and sexual politics. Cleaver's attack on James Baldwin is the most notorious and frequently cited example of homophobia in the Black Power era. The essay "Notes on a Native Son," in which Cleaver addresses Baldwin, has emerged in particular as ground zero terrain for considerations of black gay men as, to borrow a phrase from Robert Reid-Pharr, intraracial abject "scapegoat[s]" (603): those sacrificed in efforts to stabilize heterosexual black masculine subjectivity and prospective nationalist collectivity. Following this reasoning, Baldwin has served as the iconic embodiment of an internal racial boundary that at once threatened and fortified the union of heterosexuality with authentic black masculinity. Marlon Ross has suggested that the consistent centering of Cleaver's lambasting of Baldwin has overdetermined the perception of Black Power as unequivocally coupled with openly homophobic masculine posturing ("White Fantasies"). I agree with Ross that Cleaver's position on homosexuality and his focus on Baldwin to illustrate his position has significantly, and unfairly, saturated scholarly consideration of the relationship between masculinity and the Black Power ethos. A significant consequence of Ross's proposition is that Baldwin has been repeatedly victimized through persistent reproductions of the terms of Cleaver's discourse. In this respect, in critical evaluations of Cleaver's position, Baldwin's subjectivity is ironically and repeatedly usurped by those very sexualized terms of discourse that are being interrogated.
In the context of Ross's argument, he suggests that centering Huey Newton's speech "On the Women's Liberation and Gay Liberation Movements" would make for a vastly different narrative of Black Power, masculinity, and sexuality. In matters of gender and sexual progressiveness, Newton rightfully stands as Cleaver's epochal [End Page 179] opposite. Newton's evolution and public disavowal of homophobia and sexism is largely credited to the influence of James Baldwin as well as Jean Genet. It is notable, however, that Newton's 1973 essay, "Eldridge Cleaver, He Is No James Baldwin," can be read as the pioneering work in the now-familiar positioning of Baldwin as victim to interrogate Cleaver's homophobia and sexism and to question his sexuality. Newton's essay, while in fact quite deft in much of its psychoanalytic reading of Soul on Ice, functions largely as a curious piece of popular archival gossip. The most widely mentioned, but rarely closely considered, element of the essay is Newton's claim that in 1967, shortly after the publication of Soul on Ice, he saw Baldwin and Cleaver share an erotic kiss. Whether the story is true or revealing of Cleaver's "true" sexual identity is beside my point here. Newton's story is noteworthy because he uses Baldwin, whose privacy is presumably of no concern as he is, in Newton's words, "an admitted homosexual," as corporeal evidence of Cleaver's mindset and suppressed identity. Newton suggests that Baldwin kissed Cleaver to "expose" Cleaver. Of the kiss, Newton concludes that Baldwin, "who had neither written nor uttered a...