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BHM: The Truth is Electric

February 6, 2019

During assembly on Wednesday, February 6, senior Bella Strawbridge spoke about the continuing and compelling relevance of writer and activist Eldridge Cleaver. Her remarks follow:

To be honest, Black History Month is something I didn’t used to take very seriously. As a younger person, I just didn’t really get it. Why is it only one month? Why is it its own thing? Why is our history separate from everyone else’s? Et cetera, et cetera. It was something that was confusing to me, and in turn was easy to put to the side. Today, though, Black History Month has grown into something very important to me. I make jokes about it — my friends know this — but nonetheless it’s now a time that actually means something to me. It’s a time that I choose to reflect on the Black men and women who inspire me. People from the past as well as the present. Just in our own assembly hall this year, I’ve been inspired: by Mr. Merritt and his talk on the 1968 Olympics, by Anita Jackson and her voice that brings me to tears, and most recently by Dr. Will Ross and his dedication to serve his community. All that said, without those inspiring examples, I wouldn’t have the courage to talk today.

Now shifting gears a little bit, I go to the bathroom everyday. And everyday when I go, there are a few magazines sitting on the back of the toilet. Generally speaking, I tend to pick up The Week. The Week is, a weekly news magazine, hence its title, that offers “commentary and analysis of the day's breaking news and current events." The reason I gravitate towards The Week is because, although they offer partisan views, they offer them from many different standpoints and angles. In fact, they have a whole section called “Viewpoint," which offers up a stance on something different every week, from someone of a varying viewpoint every week. The viewpoints are relatively short, but they pack a punch. For instance, if today I opened up the Viewpoint section of The Week I wouldn’t be surprised to see something that reads like this, a short criticism of America’s political scene:

Five years ago, even the most audacious visionary would not have dared predict the slashing do-or-die desperation and the sizzling up-tempo beat which has exploded into our politics, into our daily conversation, and into our nightmares and dreams. The ferment beneath the surface of our formal politics and public debate has grown more important in the last five years than at any time since the years preceding the Civil War. [There are continuing] pressing social problems which are feeding the conflagration raging in America’s soul; problems which can no longer be compromised or swept cleverly under that national rug of self-delusion. The possibility of concealment no longer exists, and the only ones deceived are the deceivers themselves. 

Because of the ongoing and growing tensions and polarities in America today, and the multiple different opinions on how to address the issue, that short piece would make perfect sense to be featured in a current issue of The Week. However, that particular piece is actually an excerpt from an essay in a book by Eldridge Cleaver, written and published fifty-one years ago, in 1968.

Eldridge Cleaver, a former member of the Black Panther Party, was famous for his book Soul on Ice, a collection of critical essays about America and the world in 1968. The excerpt I just read is from his essay "Rallying Around the Flag." This essay, as well as Cleaver's other essays, are so interesting because of how relevant they are to our current-day issues.

Later in "Rallying Around the Flag," Cleaver talks about the polarities plaguing America. He speaks about a “new left” and a “new right,” and how they propose two separate roads that America can walk down. He further says that the road we end up choosing could very well ultimately affect the fate of the world, because of the strong colonial grips America has around the globe. This new left and new right both still exist today. The political scene in the U.S. is so polarized, and as a result everything has become so high strung, that “republican” and “democrat” have become bad words. Everything has become charged, and people are perpetually on edge. Instead of learning to work together, we are learning to criticize, humiliate and alienate people who don’t share our own beliefs. We are trapped in a relentless and unbroken war of right and wrong. Left and right. Good and bad. In 1968, Cleaver recognized those loose threads that would soon lead to the slow unraveling of America’s social, cultural and political tapestry, and unfortunately today we still can’t figure out how to tie those loose ends up.

In another one of Cleaver’s essays, "A Day in Folsom Prison," which as the title suggests, was written during Cleaver’s time in jail, is another example of his works being relevant to modern day. In his final paragraph of the essay, Cleaver summarizes his experience in the US prison system:

I want to devote my time to reading and writing, with everything else secondary, but I can't do that in prison. I have to keep my eyes open at all times or I won't make it. There is always some madness going on, and whether you like it or not you're involved. There is no choice in the matter: you cannot sit and wait for things to come to you. So I engage in all kinds of petty intrigue which I found necessary to survival. It consumes a lot of time and energy. But it is necessary. 

In the year 1968, the last year formally recorded as the Civil Rights Era, Black men and women were restricted, categorized and contained. Because of that, the summary Cleaver wrote about his time locked up can be seen as a microcosm of life in the United States as a Black man in 1968:

One. He cannot focus on his passion.
Two. He must keep his eyes open at all times or he won’t make it.
Three. There is always some madness going on for him.
Four. Because he is black, he is involved; he has no choice in that matter.
Five. Petty intrigue is necessary to his survival.
Six. His time and energy are, in turn, mindlessly consumed.

In the year 2019, fifty-one years after the “end” of the Civil Rights Era, Blacks are one group of many that continue to be restricted, and though we have effectively demanded and ripped many of his basic rights out of the hands of the power structure since ‘68, many are still denied simple freedoms:

One. He may not wear hoodies. Rest in peace, Trayvon Martin. 17 years old.
Two. He may not surrender. Rest in peace, Michael Brown. 18 years old.
Three. He may not wield a toy gun. Rest in peace, Tamir Rice. 12 years old.
Four. He may not be allowed to breathe. Rest in peace, Eric Garner. 43 years old.
Five. He may not be in his own home. Rest in peace, Botham Jean. 26 years old.
Six. He may be killed, senselessly, and without punishment. Rest in peace, the unarmed, unnamed and unknown hundreds of others.

Not only is Cleaver’s work relevant to our present day situation, but he also pointed out what the problems were with that situation. He warned us about it, and he told us what lies in store if we continue down this path. And just about everything he said was damning. He did, however, leave a small glimmer of something hopeful behind. Cleaver talked about truth. What happens when the masses know all the workings, all the ulterior motives, and all the back doors of the system they live in? The only way that LBJ gained the American people’s support of the Vietnam War, Cleaver said, is “by keeping them confused and hysterical." Despite his statement being specific to the Vietnam War, what Cleaver suggests is expandable and still rings true today. Cleaver places a great amount of significance and power on truth, and I believe that when we find our truth, and one day we will, eventually we can begin to tie up the loose ends of that old, worn out tapestry we destroyed so many years ago. “The truth,” Cleaver says, “is electric. And it spreads, spreads, spreads."