Friday, March 2, 2007

Q&A: Eldridge Cleaver (pt. 3)

Here is the last of my 1982 conversation with former Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver. (I had saved my question about “the pants” for the very end.)

I interviewed Cleaver at the University of Maryland before he gave a speech. During that speech, Cleaver got heckled. It didn’t surprise him. He had been getting that a lot on his college tour…
DAVID MILLS: Kwame Toure – whom you knew as Stokely Carmichael – has come to this campus a few times. He was sponsored by the Black Student Union, which I would guess sympathizes more with his pan-Africanist philosophy than with your conservatism.

ELDRIDGE CLEAVER: I would guess so too.

MILLS: What do you think of that?

CLEAVER: This is a problem I’m working on. First of all, I don’t think [black students] have heard what I’ve got to say. But there have been very powerful condemnations of me. Probably a lot of them think I’m an FBI agent or a CIA agent.

When I show up [at a college], they think I’m the one on the spot. But I show up with the understanding that they’re the ones on the spot. They’re often surprised because they think they’re on such solid ground. And it’s because they’ve been exposed to that kind of emotional rhetoric.

At the time the Black Power movement came into being, I think it was a very positive movement. I think it did a lot of good for black people and white people. But like many other things, it runs its course, and there are extremes.

It’s very appealing to black students to be told that they’re great, and that black is beautiful, and to have a whole cosmos of black interests spelled out in a way that is very ego-satisfying to them, and to condemn the white man.

MILLS: So how have black students reacted to your message?

CLEAVER: I’ve experienced all kinds of reactions. The one that I find unacceptable is the one that tries to stop me from talking by hissing, running commentary – I find the communists do this and some of Stokely’s people do this. Just being very emotional and shouting.

All I want is the opportunity to express my point of view.

MILLS: Is it true that in California during the ’60s, when you started speaking out against the Vietnam War and for revolution, Gov. Ronald Reagan got the parole officials to harass you to make you shut up?

CLEAVER: There’s no doubt about that.

I was chosen by students to be a lecturer at Berkeley. And as governor, Ronald Reagan was on the board of regents of the University of California system. He used to try to prevent me from speaking on campuses.

We referred to Ronald Reagan as the father of the Black Panther Party. It started under his administration. Reagan was always trying to get me off the streets. They were always trying to revoke my parole.

MILLS: How do you feel about Reagan as president?

CLEAVER: I voted for him. I supported him over Jimmy Carter in 1980.

I voted for Jimmy Carter in 1976, but I was completely upset by his performance. One of the things that had me upset was his very weak foreign policy, his weak way of dealing with every problem that we had, from Iran to the Soviet Union, Afghanistan, stuff that was jumping off in Latin America.

I felt that I had seen enough of Carter’s policies to recognize that he was basically accommodating America to the expansion of Communism in the world. So when it came to the election, I chose Ronald Reagan because I felt he would give the country a very strong foreign policy, and I had no doubt that he would do the things he was talking about to the economy. I still feel this.

MILLS: You’ve been an atheist, a Black Muslim, a born-again Christian. What is your current religious status?

CLEAVER: I don’t know how to describe my own religious status. I’m not a member of any church, but I’m someone who’s convinced that none of our problems can be solved without addressing the spiritual element.

MILLS: Are you a follower of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon?

CLEAVER: Rev. Moon to me is one of the most significant religious and spiritual leaders in the history of the whole world. That’s saying a lot. I have been helped to a great extent by studying Rev. Moon’s teachings. I’m not a follower in the sense that I’m not a member of the church.

I started studying the Unification Church’s teachings in 1979, so I’ve had quite a bit of time to consider it and ponder it. The world is going through a lot of changes about Rev. Moon, but I do believe that in time they’ll be able to view him objectively.

MILLS: A few years ago, you were in the news for designing pants for men with a pouch in front to contain the genitals. Whatever became of those pants?

CLEAVER: As far as a business venture? I’m not a businessman so I wasn’t able to do any spectacular business. I lost money. But from an aesthetic point of view, from the point of view of clothing, I think this whole thing has been misunderstood.

My design had to do with an argument against what’s being done with our clothing. Who controls our clothing? If you notice, the clothing industry is dominated by homosexuals. They want men and women to look basically the same.

There are a lot of problems involved in the design of men’s clothing. The way our clothing is designed right now requires a man to wear his genitals in either his right or his left pants leg. There are a lot of implications to that. Scientifically, it’s been determined that that structure generates a lot of heat that has a decomposing effect on sperm. There’s a whole warping effect that comes from wearing your genitals in your pants leg.

There’s a lot of evil in society that comes from clothing. Most of us are completely ignorant of this. One of the things that distinguishes us from animals is that we have the control of our second skin. This is a great power, because we can go underwater, we can go to the moon, we can go to the desert, to Alaska, because we just don’t have scales or hair. We have a technology where we manage our second skin.

This is a sacred responsibility, yet like many other things it is dealt with frivolously. And one of the most obnoxious things that is happening today is what the homosexuals are doing to our clothing.

If you view your pants as an extension of the fig leaf – which is what clothing really is, symbolically speaking – you begin to see that this is very intimately connected with the whole condition of man in the world. Scripturally, the fig leaf came about as a fallout from the fall of man. And I think from that point on, we’ve made a lot of trouble for ourselves by the way we handle our clothing.


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S.O.L. said...

I know this must sound like a knee-jerk liberal reaction, but it's really and truly disheartening that this man's heroes were Ronald Reagan and the Rev. Sun Myung Moon.

I just don't see how anyone who has been exposed to suffering first hand (prisons, harrassement, prejudice) could back people like that.

His whole take on Jimmy Carter sounds like the Republican talking points of the day. Carter being "weak" on foreign policy rejects his overall accomplishments. I'm not saying it's right that he was shouted down at all -- everybody should have their say of course -- but he wasn't showing the original thinking that he claims. He was flacking for a majority party that wasn't doing a damn thing for poor people or minorities, was destroying the environment and disemboweling the school system and -- in a real geopolitical sense -- was laying the ground work for this administration's response to 9/11.

David - do you think he was just deluded? Or tired or did he really believe this stuff? And, seriously, did you get a sense how he was able to reconcile the realities of what the Reagan Republican movement was doing to poor people with his belief they were good leaders? Or did he just not get it?

This is such excellent stuff, David. I want to ask you how you were such a composed interviewer at such a young age. It took me years of being a journalist before I learned how to ask good questions -- If I had saved any of my interviews from my college days, I would dare share them. More than likely, I sounded like a moron.

Undercover Black Man said...

Thanks for all, S.O.L. Even back in college, my thing about interviews was just to get people to reveal their true selves... which meant making no judgements about anything they said. No problem for me, because I'm truly less interested in people's ideologies than in how they reveal themselves through language.

So even in the thick of the Reagan Era, I didn't get worked up about Cleaver flacking for him. I just grooved on the irony.

With the whole bit about the homosexual conspiracy involving men's pants, I guess a case could be made that Eldridge Cleaver was half-nuts by the age of 46. Whether that has anything to do with his change in politics, I don't know. He's certainly not the only ex-radical to swing to the right. He's clearly intelligent; maybe he just came to his conservativism through continual examination of the world.

In any case, I don't judge. I just get 'em talking.

Anonymous said...

Looks like yet another example of how totally believing hard-left Marxist ideology and then becoming disillusioned when one finally come around to how ridiculous and unworkable it is makes a person swing hard to the irrational right in order to "atone" for their past sins. I try not to buy into the radical leftist rhetoric, but with this administration at the helm, it is becoming increasingly difficult not to.

S.O.L. said...

Thanks,David. I think as a journalist, you really do have to leave your personal feelings out of it. The best stories I've done were about people who things that ran counter to my view of the world. I tried to keep my politics private anyway -- most of the time folks thought what they thought about you anyway.

Itainteazy - I dig your p.o.v. totally but I'm starting to think our current administration is driving more folks waaay across the aisle and over the fence and through the woods to the other side. I hope there's a 'middle ground' there somewhere that's rational and responsible. But who knows?

Susie said...

So what was he wearing when you interviewed him? I am now dying to see the pouch pants, must go look on the internet.

All of your interviews are wonderful to read David not only because you get them talking, but also because you ask the questions I'd like to hear answered.