Up Front: The Long and Winding Road
Clear blue waters. A skyscape of white buildings. The muezzin's early morning prayer call filtering through the air from a distant mosque. This was Camus country—Algeria, 1971. I had come on the coattails of the antiwar, anti-imperialist student movement to interview one of its high muckamucks, Eldridge Cleaver, for a US publication.
I only vaguely recall just how I made my way through a maze of Algerian bureaucrats—postrevolutionary types who sometimes still wore bandoliers—to find the Black Panther leader-in-exile. I do keenly remember meeting the man himself. He was articulate—very.
And so he was when, nearly 15 years later, REASON editor Bill Kauffman and I met with Eldridge Cleaver in Berkeley, California, to interview him for REASON magazine. In some ways, I felt a special affinity with this man. In my own small way, I'd traveled some of the same routes as he had. His was a rockier, more perilous road than mine. He'd carried guns, spent years in prison, lived in exile, mixed with real machine gun-toting revolutionaries. I had only marched in demonstrations and met a few intellectual would-be revolutionaries of the Tom Hayden ilk.
Still, like Cleaver, I remember the late '60s as a participant. My political ideas began to take shape then, pushed along by a gut desire to see justice, freedom, and other lofty if murky ideals materialize in a Great New World. At the time, the left seemed to speak to such ideals. I flirted briefly with socialist dogma—though ever-wary of Big Brother east and west. Eldridge Cleaver more energetically and wholeheartedly embraced the standard socialist dicta.
Yet here we were, years later, talking favorably about the private sector, individual rights, the ills of communism, the wonders of high technology—and justice and freedom. Yes, the thread of continuity was there for us both. Seated before me was not a man who had renounced his opposition to the war in Vietnam or his struggle against racism. Instead, here was a man who, cherishing freedom always, had never given up asking questions, probing, observing. And when those observations did not square with the dogma he'd first embraced, he rejected it with great courage and integrity.
Friends abandoned him. His former enemies didn't understand him. But he let neither stand in the way of rethinking the world and reformulating his views.
Those views now harmonize a distrust of governments and an appreciation of civil liberties and economic freedom. Though others profess a similar medley of values, Eldridge Cleaver is nobody's dupe. His interests are catholic—we glanced around the room to see books or files on religion, economics, prisons, Marx, Nixon, sperm (banks? whales?), and Jim Morrison, to name a few. And his ideas are original. Fifteen years ago, I remember leaving his Algerian villa and thinking that this was a complex, talented, articulate man. I left his Berkeley apartment with the same perceptions.
I wish I could have reinforced my memories about his '60s views with a rereading of that earlier interview I'd done. But I couldn't. My youthful inexperience—and a decided absence of photocopy machines in 1971 Algeria—led me to send the only existing copy of the interview off to its US destination. But it never arrived. Another lapse in the postal service's reliability? I suspect a more ignominious disappearance of the fated manuscript.
At the time, J. Edgar Hoover was at his most ardent in tracking down "enemies of the people." The interview, I fear, found its way into FBI hands—snatched from the mails as a suspect item postmarked from that Algerian hotbed of revolution.
And I'm not just prone to paranoid musings. One day, after returning to the United States, I received one of those "sit down this is serious" calls from my father. The FBI, he said, had paid him a visit, recounting with remarkable accuracy my whereabouts for the previous six months, including my trip to Algeria. Good old Dad indignantly sent the agents packing with the observation that it was none of their business what his daughter had been doing in Africa. But the visit left me forever wondering about that lost manuscript.
Mail mishap or not, my first interview with Eldridge Cleaver never made it into print. This time, I meticulously shepherded the interview tapes back to REASON—and into print.