The Black Panther Who Fell for Reagan

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tags: Reagan, BlackPanthers, Eldridge Cleaver



Gil Troy, a native New Yorker, is Professor of History at McGill University. His tenth book on American history, The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s, will be published by Thomas Dunne Books of St. Martin’s Press this fall. Follow him on Twitter @GilTroy

When the former Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver endorsed the conservative Republican Ronald Reagan for re-election in 1984, it seemed as absurd as Jesse Jackson embracing Donald Trump would be today. The Cleaver-Reagan rapprochement showed how much Cleaver had changed—and how much America had changed—in twenty years.

In the 1960s, Cleaver epitomized the radical, the outrageous, the alternative, the angry—back when such terms were only starting to become compliments. Cleaver’s 1968 book of prison essays Soul on Ice detonated like a bomb in America’s living rooms, mixing the blind rage and sensitive targeting of a bruised insider.

Cleaver understood that in a media age, political subversives had to be performance artists. A godfather to rap, Cleaver crudely caricatured blacks and whites in ways that are impolite, impolitic, yet insightful. He believed the ghetto made blacks “Supermasculine Menials and Amazons” alienated from the mind, while suburbia made whites “Omnipotent Administrators and Ultrafeminines” alienated from the body. That made “The Twist… a guided missile, launched from the ghetto into the very heart of suburbia,” succeeding “as politics, religion, and law could never do, in writing in the heart and soul what the Supreme Court could only write on the books.” The rock n’ roll and Brown v. Board of Education revolutions, Cleaver argued, reunited whites with their bodies, and blacks with their minds.

Eldridge Cleaver was only 33 and had spent half his life in jail when he wrote this American classic. Fueled, he said, by fury against whites—“We cursed everything American—including baseball and hot dogs”—he raped black and white women—demonstrating the misogyny that was long overlooked, and sometimes excused, in the black power movement. He called rape “an insurrectionary act” against white men, against white power, writing: “I felt I was getting revenge.”

Inspired to go straight by reading Malcolm X while in prison, paroled in 1966, Cleaver met other proud, furious, radicalized, blacks. By 1967, he was the Black Panthers’ “Minister of Information,” championing violent revolution. In their Che Guevara chic berets and long leather coats they telegraphed their intimidating anger, speaking volumes, Sixties’ style, through powerful imagery. By 1968, he was running for president under for an improvised “Peace and Freedom Party.” ...




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