Prison Reading and the Life of Eldridge Cleaver

face of a prisoner

In a scholarly article entitled “Reading in Prison: Structures and Strictures,” a leading scholar of prison libraries and of publications by prisoners explained:

The very act of entering a prison is a critical cultural change at its most basic level. The convict’s first thought, as he sees and hears the gates close around him, is of escape. Reading is one primary strategy for escape and survival when the gates slam shut.^

Public texts help to construct the conventional starkness of imprisonment:

The prisoner’s strategy is to justify his behavior and to survive his confinement by any means necessary. His primary goal is to escape from the control of his keepers. Lacking the means to effect physical escape, he finds a release from and adaptation to the carceral world through literature. No middle ground exists. The keepers use literature to control, the kept to resist.^

This literary effect can be perceived in a brochure that the San Quentin State Prison Library produced in 1963 to celebrate National Library Week. The highly professional prison librarian at San Quentin State Prison apparently asked prisoners to write essays about “what the prison library means to me.”^ An introductory essay by the prison librarian, followed by thirty-one of these essays by prisoners, made up the prison’s National Library Week brochure. Introducing the essays, the prison librarian wrote: “these essays may yet be the deepest and truest responses of the inmates’ attempt at describing their efforts to obtain a deeper awareness of the realities of living.”^ An abridged version of the brochure was printed in the journal California Librarian under the title “…Nor Iron Bars a Cage.”

The prisoners’ essays show considerable appreciation for the realities of writing and reading. One prisoner began his essay thus:

To the imprisoned, books are an extension reaching beyond the walls; an extension which can, quite possibly, save a long-termer from that final de-humanization – the accumulative effect of living for many years in a uniform, officially sexless society. Between the covers of a novel, a man can commune vicariously (but almost tangibly) with the other half of humanity.^

The contrast between “that final de-humanization” and communing vicariously (“but almost tangibly”) between the covers with the opposite sex demonstrates literary control over desire and anxiety about desire. Literary skill — diction and abstraction above that of ordinary communication — help make that writing work. Another prisoner, L. Eldridge Cleaver, also showed high literary skill:

We do not want to suggest that one can read one’s way out of prison, although the point, doubtless, could be argued. But it is largely in books that mankind’s heritage is preserved and transmitted from generation to generation, and a man adequately equipped with this legacy should be equal to the tasks of his age or else civilization is a lie, and hope a delusion.^

Eldridge Cleaver explained, “information is the raw material out of which new ideas are formed.” Yet he also wrote of an “awakening to ourselves” that seems to be related not to particular information transmitted in books, but to a general orientation to the world and to other persons:

if, awakening to ourselves, we can grasp the truth of the universality of humanity and learn to value no man less nor more than another, we will cease to sell or allow ourselves to be sold short, having grown so large that a painted corner, a prison cell, can’t contain us.^

Cleaver’s famous phrase “a prison cell can’t contain us” draws on the ideas of Walt Whitman’s influential work, Leaves of Grass (1855). He and other prisoners showed considerable literary skill in fulfilling a writing assignment that the prison librarian gave them.^

view through text

Immersion in reading and writing affects communication. Thirty-six years after writing about awakening to ourselves for the San Quentin State Prison’s National Library Week brochure, Eldridge Cleaver described a scene of awaking in a much more concrete, conversational style:

I had to change my life. It was heavy, because I was a fugitive. My wife was not a fugitive, my children were not fugitives, but because of me they were locked outside of our country. I began to think I should just check on out. Maybe I’d just blow myself away, and then they could be free to come back home. We had a house in Paris, and I also had an apartment down south on the Mediterranean, a place that my publisher had gotten for me to write. I thought I’d just go down there and blow myself away. I felt so sad, thinking my whole life had come to an end.

I remember that night sitting out on the balcony with my pistol, just waiting for the right feeling to come over me.^

Then, in a less confident voice Eldridge Cleaver spoke again of a stylistically uncanny vision he had written out in a text twenty years earlier:

It was a beautiful Mediterranean night – sky, stars, moon hanging there in a sable void. I was brooding, downcast, at the end of my rope. I looked up at the moon and saw certain shadows … and the shadows became a man in the moon, and I saw a profile of myself (a profile that we had used on posters for the Black Panther Party – something I had seen a thousand times). I was already upset and this scared me. When I saw that image, I started trembling. It was a shaking that came from deep inside, and it had a threat about it that this mood was getting worse, that I could possibly disintegrate on the scene and fall apart. As I stared at this image, it changed, and I saw my former heroes paraded before my eyes. Here were Fidel Castro, Mao Tse-tung, Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, passing in review – each one appearing for a moment of time, then dropping out of sight, like fallen heroes. Finally at the end of the procession, in dazzling, shimmering light, the image of Jesus Christ appeared. That was the last straw.

Sky, stars, man in the moon, a procession of textually and practically influential revolutionary figures, the last straw – this is a difficult text. The relationship to a text then becomes a central focus of the account:

I just crumbled and started crying. I fell to my knees, grabbing hold of the banister; and in the midst of this shaking and crying the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm came into my mind. I hadn’t thought about these prayers for years. I started repeating them, and after a time I gained some control over the trembling and crying. Then I jumped up and ran to my bookshelf and got the Bible. It was the family Bible my mother had given to me because I am the oldest boy – the oldest son.

He then links that material text to a more recent memory:

And this Bible… when Kathleen left the United States, she brought with her a very small bag, and instead of grabbing the Communist Manifesto or Das Kapital, she packed that Bible. That is the Bible that I grabbed from the shelf that night and in which I turned to the 23rd Psalm.

Then he describes difficulties with the text:

I discovered that my memory really had not served me that well. I got lost somewhere between the Valley of the Shadow of Death and the overflowing cup. But it was the Bible in which I searched and found that psalm. I read through it. At the time I didn’t even know where to find the Lord’s Prayer. I looked for it desperately. Pretty soon the type started swimming before my eyes, and I lay down on the bed and went to sleep.^

While this personal transformation presents many interpretative difficulties, one point is clear: public texts saturated Eldridge Cleaver’s communication. Cleaver’s biography has similarities with that of the great nineteenth-century prison reformer and spiritualist John W. Edmonds. Both experienced harsh public criticism. A book reviewer in the Los Angeles Times described Cleaver’s conversion account as presenting:

a scene so palpably false it defies criticism. And what of Kathleen, his beautiful wife, once as fiery a radical as her husband? Did she too experience a spiritual rebirth? We never find out. There are so many things about Cleaver we never find out it is impossible to believe he has really found the peace he claims.^

Kathleen Cleaver subsequently answered some of the questions about her and Eldridge Cleaver’s relationship:

his public role as a famous “born again Christian” put tremendous strains on our marriage. We grew distant from each other, no longer sharing the same aspirations and beliefs. By the time he ultimately pled guilty to weapons possession and was sentenced in Oakland in 1980, our relationship had fallen apart. During the later summer of 1981, we separated. I took our two children then twelve and eleven with me when I moved to Connecticut, where I went back to college {Yale University}, and then entered Yale Law School. In 1987 we divorced.^

Kathleen Cleaver then worked for the law firm of Cravath, Swaine and Moore and for Yale University. By the 1990s, Eldridge Cleaver was poor, unemployed, and in bad health. Kathleen Cleaver observed in 1997:

Eldridge looked far older than his sixty-one years – his hair had turned white, his shoulders seemed stooped, and his mismatched, poorly fitting suit looked like one salvaged by Goodwill. … Eldridge walked up to me. Still a tall, imposing presence, I looked up as we greeted each other. Suddenly, as if he’d been holding his breath, he blurted out, “Kathleen, I love you!” His words evoked such intensely conflicting emotions, I didn’t know what to say. I scurried away, mumbling something about getting back into the courtroom; seeing how he had deteriorated distressed me.^

Eldridge Cleaver’s conversion narrative has similar literary form and substance to other written conversion narratives throughout history.^ Cleaver’s conversion narrative differs greatly from Cleaver’s personal words to his ex-wife, “Kathleen, I love you!” The public importance of personal communication like those words has not been adequately recognized.

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