Volume 1, Issue 1, Article 12 - 2018


Re-Dressing Race and Gender:
The Performance and Politics of Eldridge Cleaver’s Pants

 

BY ART BLAKE


 

Abstract:

In Paris in 1975 Eldridge Cleaver, exiled revolutionary African American activist, former Minister of Information for the Black Panther Party, appeared in photographs and newspaper articles wearing, and discussing, pants he had designed. The major innovation in Cleaver’s pants was a redesigned crotch: instead of the usual button and zip front opening, his pants featured a soft panel with a protuberant fabric appendage into which Cleaver intended the wearer’s penis to fit. Why did Cleaver channel his intelligence and creativity into menswear at that moment? How did Cleaver’s penis-positive pants design resonate in 1975 with black politics and gender politics? And why am I, a queer transgendered man, writing about these pants? Through this article I hope to contribute to a discussion in fashion studies about the materiality of bodies and the role of self-fashioning, particularly for those living in resistance to dominant codes of gender and race. I situate and analyze Cleaver’s pants in a broad context of the postwar politics of dressing and redressing race and gender in the United States, with references to a longer American history, as well as to a global context of clothing in a postcolonial era. The pants, in both their design and in the act of being worn, materialize acts of raced and gendered insurrection, but in a web of historical power relations that privilege whiteness and cisgender masculinity.

 
 

KEYWORDS:

  • race

  • gender

  • body

  • dressing

  • pants

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In the spring of 1975, Magnum photographer and filmmaker René Burri stood on a Parisian sidewalk across from St. Eustache Church, located in Les Halles, the newly renovated market and shopping area in central Paris. To a passerby it would appear Burri was photographing naked female mannequins through the plate glass window of a fashionable boutique (see fig. 1). But among the mannequins stood a tall black man, hands on his hips, looking out at the viewer. Eldridge Cleaver, a former leader of the Black Panther Party and fugitive in exile from the United States, modelled for Burri the pants he had designed: high-waisted black pants with a white panel in the centre and continuing down the inside leg, and a soft black panel at the crotch featuring a protuberant fabric appendage into which Cleaver’s penis fit snugly.1

 
 

FIGURE 1

Eldridge Cleaver, Paris, 1975. Photo by René Burri. Courtesy of Magnum Photos.

 
 
 

          Cleaver’s foray into fashion seems peculiar, an unusual trajectory for a black revolutionary in an era still shaped, in the United States, by the demands of the black power movement and the U.S. government’s attempts to suppress such challenges to the white state. In Europe, particularly in 1975, race politics resonated geographically both west to the United States and African American liberation struggles, east to France’s former colony, Vietnam, and its post-colonial civil war violently shaped as a proxy Cold War battle by the United States, as well as south to France’s former colonies in North Africa. 

 
 

So why did Cleaver, a revolutionary in exile from the United States, channel his intelligence and creativity into menswear at that moment? How did Cleaver’s penis-positive pants design resonate in 1975 with black politics and gender politics?

 
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To answer these questions (and raise others I cannot answer), this article analyzes Cleaver’s pants through the context of US black history (Spencer; Blain) as well as a nod to Foucauldian theories of power relations applied to raced and gendered bodies.2 Through this article I hope to contribute to a discussion in fashion studies about the materiality of bodies and the role of self-fashioning, particularly for those living in resistance to dominant codes of gender and race.

      One aspect of contributing to such a discussion is providing readers with some context to my writing this article. This interjection goes against established tenets of academic writing but I choose to challenge those tenets in order to address the politics of scholarly research and writing. As a white, queer, transgender man, and a tenured academic, my subject position begs examination in relation to the contents of this essay. Why am I writing about a black revolutionary’s least known and, when known, frequently mocked efforts in clothing design? My privilege empowers me to spend time thinking about this topic and to obtain research funding to look through Cleaver’s private archives held in a university far from my home; my privilege also allows me to feel entitled to step into, examine, and write about a black man’s life and work. Given that privilege, I am ethically bound to do my best not to harm through my words and actions a man, and others like him, who suffered violence, police scrutiny, incarceration, and impoverishment by the white supremacy from which I, and others like me, have benefited. This acknowledgment serves neither to excuse me nor any other scholar from responsibility, nor to preempt criticism. This acknowledgment serves to put me, and you my readers, on notice that my acts of research and writing may have done harm. I call on myself, and you, my readers, to hold me accountable.

      My interest in Eldridge Cleaver’s pants design was first piqued in graduate school, when I heard fellow students of American history discuss something about a design called “the Cleaver sleeve.” I heard it was some sort of codpiece designed to enhance Cleaver’s penis and thus his masculinity. At that time, I was trying to name and live my own gender and sexual identity. I understood myself as a gay man but I lived in a body designated “female”; I expressed my queer masculinity as a “boyish” lesbian (neither then nor now am I butch enough for “butch”). I never saw an image or read a description of this “Cleaver sleeve,” as then I could not “Google image” myself into that curiosity. The relationship between clothing and gender presented a site of struggle for me as well as other queers: I searched then, as I still do now, in boys and menswear sections of retail stores for clothes to dress (and represent publicly) my embodied self. I joked back then about opening a clothing store that would solve such problems, and I planned to call it “Victor’s Secret.”

      I returned to Eldridge Cleaver’s pants design last year, now able to actually see images of what he had made thanks to the treasure trove of evidence existing online. After having transitioned, I am perhaps even more interested in how other people dress their crotches in particular — dressing the body parts they wish to emphasize, or hide, or disguise; dressing the genitals that they wish were or were not there; dressing to “pass” or dressing to differ. My dressed body appears male; my undressed body appears trans — edited and enhanced according to my choices by surgery and by hormone therapy. My body is re-dressed — I have provided redress to my body myself from the harm done by a rigid binary of “male” and “female”; and I continue to dress and re-dress my body through explorations of gender expression. Clothing my body as redress facilitates a conversation with myself, and others I invite, about the cut, colour, texture, movement, and associated meanings of the clothing I choose or desire.

      I love Eldridge Cleaver’s pants. I’d wear them. I love their audacity. I love their absurd over-expression of embodied masculinity — in those pants his penis was dressed yet also almost undressed. He exposed his racialized masculinity according to his choice and design. But I am also a little afraid of what Cleaver meant by this design, by this redressing of his racialized masculinity. Cleaver’s violence towards his partner Kathleen Cleaver remains a persistent rumour; Cleaver’s history of sexual assault is undeniable; his homophobia and misogyny stand out clearly; Cleaver’s association with anti-feminists such as Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum is documented in his own archives.

 
 

This essay situates and analyzes Cleaver’s pants in a broad context of the postwar politics of dressing and redressing race and gender in the United States, with references to a longer American history, as well as to a broader global context of clothing in a postcolonial era. 

 
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And lurking in the background of all that is me, trying on his pants in my imagination, and wondering how I’d feel dressed in pants built for a penis, in pants built perhaps to signify the designer’s misogyny and homophobia, in pants that also represent an insurrection against the power of white men over black bodies.

      Joanne Entwistle, in her essay “Addressing the Body” (2007), provides dress scholars with a theoretical framing of what she refers to as “[t]his meeting between the intimate experience of the body and the public realm, through the experience of fashion and dress,” the subject of her reflections (274). Her emphasis on the embodied experience of “getting dressed” places the varieties of the human body at the centre of what clothing means and why bodies and clothing should be central to social science and humanities scholarship. Taking issue not only with such scholarship’s refusal to address actual bodies but also with dress studies’ separation of dress from the body, Entwistle argues for “the idea of dress as situated bodily practice as a theoretical and methodological framework for understanding the complex dynamic relationship between the body, dress and culture” (276-7). Entwistle demonstrates the efficacy of drawing on Michel Foucault’s analysis of power via his examination of the relationship between power and knowledge, expressed through the state’s imposition of discourses — “regimes of knowledge” — with the body as the particular focus of the disciplining effect of discourse. Control of the body (and thus the “body politic”) is achieved through systems of surveillance. Foucault’s most powerful (and well-known) example was that of the carceral state, exemplified for him metaphorically through Jeremy Bentham’s “Panopticon” — the perfect prison of constant assumed surveillance that would produce self-surveillance among prisoners and thus submission to the disciplining regime without the state needing to employ physical control (281-2). Entwistle then points to the limits of Foucault’s discourse theory, namely “his failure to acknowledge embodiment and agency.” To amend these limits of Foucault’s post-structuralist theory, particularly when applied to the study of dress, Entwistle discusses how feminist theorists have used the notion of “reverse discourse” (contained within Foucault’s original theory), which acknowledges agency and the possibility of resistance — rather than assuming all bodies are passive objects of power. Feminist scholar Lois McNay provides, for Entwistle, a possible way through the limits of Foucault’s power-body theory by drawing our attention to his later work, in which he accepted that he had “perhaps insisted too much on the technologies of domination” (288). Foucault, McNay points out, proposed in his later work (such as that found in volumes of his History of Sexuality) that “technologies of self” operated in dialogue with, and potentially in resistance to, technologies of domination within discourses of control. For the purposes of a version of fashion studies that pays attention to how subjects fashion themselves through bodily techniques (as suggested by Marcel Mauss’ theory of embodiment), “reverse discourse” offers us a way to analyze how forms of dress (actual garments or different ways of wearing conventional garments) operate within a productive tension between submission and resistance (286-8). But while Entwistle and McNay’s work has drawn important attention to issues of gender, it has not addressed the historical and contemporary constructions of race in relation to technologies of self or bodily techniques. And, as I hope to address through my own scholarship, fashion studies has yet to address the power of transgender bodies. The tension between submission and resistance, in relation to both gender and race, offers a starting point to interpreting Eldridge Cleaver’s engagement with clothing design in the 1970s, in particular his seemingly incomprehensible pants. I’ll argue here that Cleaver’s designs and the contexts in which he created, executed, marketed, and then abandoned them occupy the African-American male’s white-enforced subject position between submission and resistance.

 
 

The pants, in both their design and in the act of being worn, materialize acts of raced and gendered insurrection in a web of historical power relations that privilege whiteness and cisgender masculinity.

 
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      Surveillance and incarceration shaped most of Eldridge Cleaver’s life. Born in rural Arkansas in 1935, he moved with his family at age eleven to Los Angeles. The Cleavers sought the expanding job and housing opportunities for African Americans that drew many other similar families from the American South and Southwest in the 1940s, their experiences closely following the account provided by urban cultural historian Josh Sides (36-56). According to Cleaver’s own account, as a teenager in L.A. Cleaver quickly became involved with illegal drugs and petty crime, spent time in youth detention centers, and moved on to more serious crimes (Soul on Fire 65-9). He was first incarcerated in an adult prison at age eighteen, in Soledad, on a felony drug charge. In 1958, he was convicted of rape and assault and spent nine years in prison in Folsom, San Quentin, and Soledad jails. In jail Cleaver educated himself through a prison study group and through copious reading. He joined the Black Muslims, revered Malcolm X, and read extensively in Marxist-Leninist theories (75-7). In December 1966, in his early 30s, he was released on bail and immediately became involved in radical left, and later specifically black, political movements. At the time of Cleaver’s release the Black Panther Party had existed for only two months, yet Cleaver, a gifted writer and speaker, quickly became their Minister of Information. In 1968 Cleaver led a group of Black Panther Party members on an ambush of Oakland police officers. Two police officers as well as Cleaver were wounded in the gunfire; seventeen-year-old Panther member Bobby Hutton was killed. Cleaver was charged with attempted murder and, in fear for his life within the California prison system, fled the United States into exile with the aid of supporters — first to Cuba, then to Algeria, and later to France (130-3).

      Having spent his young adulthood engaged in criminal activity and living in jails, Cleaver had no history of regular paid employment nor had he experienced any established romantic relationships until he met, and married, fellow black activist Kathleen Neal in 1967. Work with the Panthers and marriage to Kathleen occurred in a matter of months after leaving jail. Pregnant with their first child, Kathleen Cleaver joined her exiled husband in Algiers in 1969. Their second child was born in 1970 during a trip to North Korea. They lived in Algiers together until Eldridge moved to Paris in 1972, joined the next year by Kathleen and the two children (163-5). The Cleaver family lived on the temporary largesse of the new postcolonial Algerian government of Houari Boumédienne, who provided a $500 per month stipend to various political fugitives who passed through Algeria in the late 1960s. The North Vietnamese also aided the Cleavers, and by extension the Black Panther Party, by making the former Vietnamese embassy available to them as a home and as a place from which to continue their political work in exile (137-9).

      In his years in exile in Algeria beginning in 1969, and travelling through the socialist and communist states of the period, Cleaver played a central role coordinating international networks of anti-colonial and revolutionary movements. Visited in Algiers by fellow Black Panthers, by luminaries of the American left, and major cultural figures, Cleaver and his wife Kathleen presided over a rotating revolutionary salon. But as Americans in exile, beholden to the temporary generosity of a new postcolonial leadership, the Cleavers had few resources and could not settle into Algeria. Their move to Paris — Cleaver moved in 1972 and his family joined him in 1973 — represented a desire for greater stability for themselves and their two young children. It also represented the likelihood of an exile more disconnected than that in Algiers, especially in the face of Cleaver’s dramatic falling out with Huey Newton and other former comrades in the United States.3

 
 

As we can see from this rapid shift between 1967 and 1969 from incarceration, to emerging political revolutionary leader, to husband and father, to fugitive, Cleaver created a life for himself, and later for his family, out of his ability to perform a series of roles, changing rapidly between them as needed.

 
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An autodidact and master of word and image, Cleaver survived, and at times thrived, by performance. The archive of Cleaver’s life, including his own biographical works, reveals each performance, their stages, and how he dressed for each role. Looking back over his archive, one wonders how Cleaver’s life story might have evolved if he had been spared the pressure and necessity of so many performances — some of submission and some of resistance.

      In her groundbreaking study of the black dandy, cultural studies scholar Monica Miller framed her analysis of black male self-fashioning through a discussion of the performativity of blackness — the idea that, as she writes, “blackness is always already ‘performed’” (5). Early encounters between white North Americans and black Africans relied on the staging of race and the commodification of black bodies: slave auctions staged blackness through the display of black men, women, and children on the selling blocks, with a white audience of buyers in attendance. This was the first site of the construction of “blackness” as an identity, produced by the erasure of the slaves’ humanity as well as their previous identities based not on skin colour but on membership in a clan or tribe, a family group, or an ethnic group in the region of Africa from which they were sold.

      As Miller describes, and as other scholars have documented, the slave markets of the American South established the image of the “black buck,” the physically impressive African American man (3-5).4 Slave auctions afforded the captive men and women no dignity. Not regarded by buyers or sellers as humans entitled to limit the exposure of their bodies to the gaze or touch of others, African men and women endured fingers in their mouths and on their faces to examine their teeth and eyes, hands on their backs, arms, and legs to feel muscles and joints, questions to the trader about their approximate ages to factor into their potential reproductive capacity. Displayed naked or minimally clothed, a buyer’s touching of the human chattel could afford erotic pleasure to the buyer (and onlookers) and served to further assess the slaves’ bodies as commodities and as engines of reproduction. The sexual stereotyping of African men and women began at these auctions, continued at the sites of their enslavement and, as scholars such as Mark M. Smith have shown, embedded in a visceral white southern “sensorium” (37), combined with additional murderous violence after abolition and on through the following decades of “freedom.”5

 
 

White fantasies and mythmaking about black men’s genitals emerged from these sites of exposure and assault.

 
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      White fantasies endangered black men by producing the at-once feared and desired stereotype of the black rapist — the violent black male with a supposedly untamable sexual drive targeting white women. These fantasies, entangled with the value of the black slave’s body as an investment, increased the potential power of black men and thus the need by whites to restrict their freedoms. Sexual objectification and assault by whites of blacks gained power in an era when, especially for the slaveholding gentry class of the American South, seeing the naked body of someone of their own class and race rarely happened. The visual access to the exposed bodies of black men and women, bodies over which white owners and overseers had total control, produced sexual access for white men and sexual fears and desires among white women. White men, fearing their loss of control over black men and white women, contributed most to the myth of the black rapist, a man supposedly consumed by desire for white women’s bodies. As scholars of lynching have shown, now with the aid of new online data sets, white society justified their violent repression of enslaved black men, and their lynching of free black men in the south, by means of these and other fantasies and fears (Bailey and Tolnay 147). By the mid-1960s, a century after emancipation, these stereotypes continued to resonate, perhaps more than ever as a white response to African American political efforts challenging white supremacy and the growing success of civil rights cases in the courts.6 Denied a version of “manhood” so freely granted to (and defined by) white men, black men’s twentieth century gender identities developed in response to the distortions of white supremacy.

      Eldridge Cleaver’s behaviour towards women suggests his place within this legacy of American racialized sexual violence. An examination of his 1970s pants designs, of how Cleaver himself framed the meaning of those pants, and the connections to a longer history of misogyny and sexual violence requires reference in this article to one of the most difficult aspects of Cleaver’s life story, as told by himself in his two major publications, namely his admissions of rape. In Soul on Ice, Eldridge Cleaver’s famous collection of essays written during his incarceration in Folsom State Prison, California, Cleaver writes of his deliberate use of rape as a “weapon” against white authority. Understanding fully how white men had raped generations of black women, both slave and free, and how white men had produced the image of the black rapist as an over-compensation for their own fears, desires, and acts of violence, Cleaver’s assertion represented a twisted, “logical” response. Cleaver’s account in Soul on Ice claimed he approached his use of rape as a weapon systematically — recognizing that before he deployed the weapon against his intended target (white women) he needed to “practice” first, gaining skill and developing a method:

 

I became a rapist. To refine my technique and modus operandi, I started out by practicing on black girls in the ghetto … and when I considered myself smooth enough, I crossed the tracks and sought out white pre