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See the article in its original context from June 17, 2000, Section B, Page 9 Buy Reprints
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Thirty years ago, Kathleen Neal Cleaver, instantly recognizable by her iconic Afro and knee-high leather boots, was writing to agitate for the Black Panther Party.
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 happened.”
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 as unreliable).
”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 business.”
Memories Of a Proper Girl Who Was A Panther
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 says.)
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 explained.
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.