This is a very interesting article that I read in yesterday's New York Times
I hope it will be of interest to Sixties-list members.
Memories of a Proper Girl Who Was a Panther
By SOMINI SENGUPTA
hirty years ago, Kathleen Neal Cleaver, instantly recognizable by her iconic
Afro and knee-high leather boots, was writing to agitate for the Black
Today she is 55, the Afro has given way to a cascade of golden-brown locks,
and Ms. Cleaver is engaged in a rather different writing project. She is
plumbing her buried past for a book aptly titled "Memories of Love and War."
Unearthing those recollections has taken years. It has forced her to recall
the murder and incarceration of countless friends. It has pushed her to
reflect on what happened to many others, including her ex-husband, Eldridge,
the Panthers' information minister who became a Republican, a Mormon and a
drug abuser. It has compelled Ms. Cleaver to consider her own trajectory: the
constant surveillance by law enforcement officials, the raising of two
children on the lam, the dissolution of the Black Panthers and then the
breakup of her own marriage.
The story of Ms. Cleaver's memoir not only underscores the difficulty of
writing about a life spent literally under the gun. It also reveals how
tricky it can be for such a central figure to write a personal account of
such a contested period of American history. Does she confirm or defy
official Panther lore? Does she set the record straight on the unflattering
things written about her, most notably in the former Panther leader Elaine
Brown's 1993 memoir, "A Taste of Power," in which she and her ex-husband are
described as destructive elements of the organization?
Martin Duberman, a historian who has also written memoirs, says the history
of a movement written by an outsider is not necesssarily any more reliable
than one by a participant. "The counter-assumption tends to be, once a
historical account is conscientiously done by a so-called objective observer,
it is definitive," Mr. Duberman said. "There would be a variety of accounts,
none of which by itself will be a definitive version of what went on. All you
have to do is take part in a bridge game and later ask the four people what
For her part, Ms. Cleaver says she can't be bothered with answering other
people's accounts of history (although she does dismiss Ms. Brown's version
"It's a memoir," she said recently. "I'm entitled -- in fact, I am required
-- to be subjective and emotional and personal." She was speaking during a
conversation over sushi in Midtown Manhattan, a few blocks from the New York
Public Library, where she was one of 15 fellows this year at the Center for
Scholars and Writers.
"That's not going to be, by definition, historical."
Revealing herself took some getting used to, however. Once she offered an
early manuscript to a writing teacher. "It doesn't really say much about
you," she recalls him saying. "Well," she snapped, "that's nobody's
She offers a throaty laugh at this exchange now. It has taken a long time to
be able to pick through threads of memory. This book has undergone various
incarnations over the last 15 years. "I wrote agitational material," she
said. "I had no clue that if you tell a story in which you are a participant,
you have to write about yourself." Kathleen Neal, who was born in 1945, spent
her earliest years in what she remembers as a sheltered, segregated black
community, almost Victorian in its conventions, in Tuskegee, Ala. Her mother
had an advanced degree in mathematics. Her father taught sociology at
Tuskegee University before joining the Foreign Service and taking the family
to India and the Philippines.
As a teenager, she attended a desegregated Quaker boarding school and
enrolled at Oberlin College in 1963. But it wasn't long before she dropped
out, moved to New York City and threw herself into the Student Nonviolent
Coordinating Committee, then a driving engine of the civil rights movement.
She was 21 when she met Cleaver and through him, the Panthers. He had just
been released from Folsom State Prison. "Soul on Ice," his groundbreaking
1967 prison memoir, was attracting enormous attention because of his
confessions of rape.
They were married within months, on Dec. 27, 1967. (The wedding date -- which
they had forgotten -- was one of the few useful pieces of information she has
culled from the files kept on her by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, she
In 1968, after a shootout with the Oakland, Calif., police in which another
Panther was killed and two policemen injured, Cleaver fled to Algeria. A few
months later, pregnant with their first child, Ms. Cleaver joined him. There,
they had a son and a daughter. By 1971, after bitter leadership battles
inside the organization, the Cleavers split from the Panthers.
Today she compares those four years in Algeria, then ruled by a military
dictatorship, to being shipwrecked. It was one of the only times in her life
she remembers being depressed. "I'd never been marooned," she said.
The task of raising her children kept her anchored. Youthful delusions of
immortality helped her survive, she says, and probably, too, the
contradictory conviction that life could end at any moment. "You don't have
to maintain your sanity if you think any day, you might get killed," she
In 1975, the Cleavers returned to the United States, and Cleaver, after
turning himself in to the authorities, drifted sharply to the right. It is a
metamorphosis that Ms. Cleaver doesn't discuss much. "It has nothing to do
with me," she declares.
She will say that she considered leaving him long before she actually did.
She was held back by two things: the knowledge that slavery had torn apart
black families for centuries, and that her other family, the Panthers, had by
then disintegrated into discord and paranoia. "I didn't initiate the collapse
of the movement, but I had to initiate the separation of my family," she
said. "That was very hard."
When she finally did leave -- in 1981 -- she picked up where she had left off
before she met Cleaver. She moved with her two children to New Haven and
enrolled at Yale University to complete her undergraduate degree.
They were divorced in 1987. Cleaver died two years ago.
Ms. Cleaver went on to earn a law degree, work with the white-shoe Manhattan
firm of Cravath, Swain & Moore, and teach law at Emory University, Sarah
Lawrence College and the Cardozo School of Law. In 1994, she took a year off
to work on the book full time.
Still, it has taken her a long time to pour the words onto the page. She
pulled from her briefcase a section she had just finished, about the peak
years of Panther activity. In 15 pages, she records three deaths, five
trials. "It's very traumatic, writing about assassinations, writing about
people getting killed, writing about people getting arrested," she said.
These days, when she isn't writing, she lectures widely about the Panthers.
Next Saturday she will appear for a question-and-answer session after the
screening of a documenary on the Panthers at the Human Rights Watch Film
Festival at the Walter Reade Theater.
She is still an advocate for political prisoners, and still delights in
watching street protests. She lives in an affluent village near New Haven
with St. Clair Bourne, a documentary filmmaker. If Ms. Cleaver's life today
seems like a sharp contrast to the days when her 1968 campaign poster for the
California State Assembly pictured her holding a gun, it is only the latest
curve in a story that has taken many unpredictable turns. In some ways, it's
possible to see the more radical twist as the one that led a girl with such a
proper past to a life with the Panthers.
Sometimes, there is a glimpse of the traditionalist in her. She bemoan the
fact that children who misbehave at school no longer fear that their mothers
will be called. Other times, she appears stunned to discover that many
parents no longer eat dinner with their children every night. You mean
Kathleen Cleaver, the young radical, had time for that sort of thing when her
children were young? "Yes!" she replies emphatically. "Cooked it, too!"
Does she sometimes miss the revolutionary life? Not at all, she declares. She
is happy she's not in jail. She is happy she's not a Republican, she says,
chuckling. She is happy, she adds, to be alive.
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