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Simmering in the Caldron of Recent History : Memoirs: Neck-deep in the '60s, she was a revolutionary and a housewife, an attorney and a diplomat's daughter. Now Kathleen Cleaver wants to talk about it.

June 28, 1995|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Friends warned her about the hazards of walking alone in the pedestrian tunnels that connect the New York subway. It's dangerous down there, they said, forgetting, if they ever knew, that for years Kathleen Cleaver lived with threats on her life; "the fact," she once remarked offhandedly, "that you might be killed any minute."

Still, it came as a rude shock when a young punk, a kid no older than her son, Maceo, put a gun to her temple. Cash , he hissed. Give it to me. And that ring. The money, she handed over willingly. The ring, she paused over. As a girl her father had placed it on her right hand. When she married, her husband slipped it on her left.

Her assailant cocked his weapon. She gave him the ring. She parted, at that moment, with her only tangible link to the two most influential men in her life. But later, as she mulled over the significance of the loss, she realized she had gained the opening to the memoir she had been struggling with, trying and trying to write, for more than a decade.

Here at the Bunting Institute at Radcliffe College, where she is spending the year writing full time, Kathleen Neal Cleaver tells this story as one chapter in a life of extraordinary witness. Diplomat's daughter, civil rights organizer, full-time revolutionary, suburban housewife, single mother, part-time cleaning lady, high-priced attorney, professor of law: 50 years old last month, she has simmered in the caldron of contemporary history. Her book, "Memories of Love and War" (under contract to W.W. Norton & Co.), will cover the years from 1954 to 1984; from Brown vs. the Board of Education to her own education, a summa cum laude diploma from Yale and a doctorate from Yale law school.

"I'd say in the time frame I'm covering, the United States was going through a transformation the level of which had not gone on since the Civil War," she said. "And it was tied to the Civil War, all the unresolved issues."

Until now, the autobiography had remained uncompleted because Cleaver was enmeshed in what she calls "the tyranny of the everyday," ordinary events that swallow every breathing moment. There were two kids to raise, Maceo, now 25 and researching the effect of stress and the environment on African American youth in Atlanta, and Joju, a 24-year-old Sarah Lawrence College graduate who hopes to become an actress. When the children were still in elementary school, Cleaver left her husband, the celebrated militant Eldridge Cleaver, and headed east to resume her education. Having left Barnard College in 1965 to work for SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, she entered Yale as an "older" student--that is, older than 30.

Among the jobs she held to finance her schooling was one cleaning houses. That shows up on her three-page resume, along with her current position as assistant professor of law at Atlanta's Emory University and two years as an associate at the kid-gloved Manhattan law firm of Cravath, Swaine & Moore. Her job as communications secretary for the Black Panthers in Oakland does not.

The organization was young then, founded in 1966 to combat what its members believed was a pattern of police violence against the African American community.

When the Panthers traveled en masse, their very presence made a statement, remembers Dugald Stermer, the former art director of Ramparts magazine. He recalled Kathleen Cleaver as a formidable figure who "didn't want anyone accusing her of being nobility."

She adopted "a more-radical-than-thou kind of personality," said Stermer, who is on the board of directors of the Delancey Street Foundation in San Francisco. "She was saying 'right on' a few more times than she had to."

Pictures from that era show Cleaver with a giant black Afro and an expression of intense determination. Today her hair is a mass of golden brown braids, Pre-Raphaelite style.

*

It was in 1967 that she met Eldridge Cleaver. He was handsome and he was charismatic. "The other thing was that he was so smart," his former wife recalled. The fact that he was also on parole from Soledad Prison was not a concern.

Cleaver had spent part of her childhood in India, where her father was in the Foreign Service. "Nehru had written a book in jail. To be with people who had been in jail had no stigma to me."

She thought of Eldridge as a writer, not an ex-con. "Soul on Ice" had just been published, and he was working for Ramparts, the now-defunct journal of 1960s leftist politics.

They married nine months after they met. Four months after their wedding, her husband was arrested following a shootout involving some Black Panthers and the Oakland police. Initially he was released, but when he was ordered to return to court, he left the country. His wife followed on what turned into a six-year sojourn in Algeria, Cuba and France.

It was a political whirlwind that saw the Cleavers expelled from the Panthers in 1971.

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