My Friend The Devil
A Memoir of Marvin X's Association
With Eldridge Cleaver
It all began at Soledad Prison, sometime during 1966. Black Dialogue magazine was approached by attorney Beverly Axelrod about making a visit to the Soledad Prison Black Culture Club. The editors agreed to make the visit, including myself as fiction editor. The other editors included Art Sheridan, Gerald, Aubrey and Peter LaBrie, Sadaat Ahmed, Joe Goncalves, Duke Williams, et al. We made our way down the coast to Soledad. I was both excited and sad because my brother Ollie was probably an inmate at the time, though I can't remember.
Our staff was taken to the hosting officer's apartment and briefed on what to do and not to do. No contact with inmates, no passing or taking of literature. We agreed but it didn't mean a thing. Soon as we got inside the meeting room we knew what we were going to do. At first we got inside and saw the brothers seated, with the meeting in progress. Eldridge was chair and his lieutenant was Alprentice Bunchey Carter. Bunchy was a very handsome black man, so handsome it belied his leadership qualities as head of the Los Angeles Slauson gang.
But chairman Cleaver was a giant of a man, tell, light skinned and articulate. But more than the words said, I was immediately impressed with the organizational structure with brothers on post with military style discipline. It was probably the first time I'd seen black men so organized. We know now according to brother Kumasi that this was the beginning of the prison movement in California and the nation, this black culture club of mostly young black men confined to the dungeon as so many are today, causing havoc in black family and community life. In this Soledad dungeon would come a prison movement on par with the black student movement, black arts and black studies. As I listened to Chairman Eldridge speak, I said to myself this is a dangerous Negro if allowed to depart these walls. Clearly, he was well read after a total of eighteen years of confinement in the California Gulags. I would learn later he was soaked in Marxist Leninism and literature in general. And when Black Dialogue obtained his writings for publication, especially My, Queen, I Greet You, we suspected this was a man with the passion and writing skills of Baldwin. And of course he must have sensed this comparison and thus his need to denounce Baldwin to take a shot at the black literary crown, although he did it by a homophobic denunciation which led one to suspect his own sexual improprieties, especially after so long in prison.
But at that first meeting, we were humbled to be with the brothers, to share with them by reading our writings from Black Dialogue. At the end of the meeting we all embraced and exchanged materials in violation of the officer's request. We gave them copies of Dialogue and they gave us manuscripts of their writings which were later published in Dialogue and Journal of Black Poetry. As I said, we published My Queen, I Greet You, in Dialogue and Joe Gonalves published the poetry of Bunchy and others in JBP. We left Soledad and headed back up the coast to San Francisco. Thus was established a connection between the prison movement and black students, the black arts movement and eventually the Black Panther Party when I introduced Eldrdige to Bobby Seale soon after his release from prison.
Part Two: My Friend the Devil
Several months passed before I met Eldridge again. Somebody called me to come over Sister Mary Anna's house. Maryanna Waddy was the daughter of painter Ruth Waddy, but more importantly, she was the student, though somewhat older at the time, who aggressively pushed for the name change from Negro Students Association to the Black Students Union. Maryanna was a strong black woman who took no jive, maybe the result of black consciousness taught by her mother. But when I entered her house, Eldridge was there trying to introduce his plans to the community. There seemed to be some tension between him and Maryanna, a black man/black woman power battle. Maybe Maryanna knew about Eldridge's white woman lawyer, Beverley Axelrod, who had smuggled his manuscript Soul on Ice out of Soledad. We would learn that Eldridge had promised to marry her, so his blackness was suspect from the beginning--but we would handle that matter a few months down the road. Maryanna and most of those present, maybe members of the BSU, including those of us from Black Dialogue. If I recall correctly, Eldridge gave me a ride home and we agreed to meet again soon.
Things were going bad for us at Black Arts West Theatre on Fillmore Street, across the street from Tree's poolhall and around the corner from the Sun Reporter newspaper, published by the millionaire Communist Dr. Carlton Goodlett. BAW was breaking up because of egos and other psychopathic behavior in our crew which included Ed Bullins, Duncan Barber, Hillary Broadous, Carl Bossiere and Ethna Wyatt. All of us wanted to make BAW happen but our egos got in the way, along with deeper mental problems. In spite of these problems, we did my plays and the plays of Ed Bullins. We had jazz concerts with the Bay Area's best, including Raphael Garrett, Monte Waters, Dewey Redman, Oliver Jackson, B.J., and others. Only thing with the musicians, many had white women which we would not allow in the theatre, since we were black nationalists on the road to becoming members of the Nation of Islam. A long time criminal Muslim came to our theatre to recruit us, Alonzo Harris Batin, who became the guru and mentor of BAW. Batin was a criminal with a heart of gold. He wanted us to join the Nation even though most of the time he was not in good standing and considered a hypocrite. Soon we were indoctrinated by Batin and eventually most of joined the Nation except Ed Bullins. Bullins was into his art and living or at least staying in the Beatnik area of North Beach.
For awhile, Ethna was the glue that held BAW together. She fed us when we were low on money to buy food. She would cook something that would be enough for the crew and she would try to stop us from killing each other as we ego-tripped. Ethna had come from Chicago, maybe during or around the time of that Summer of Love. It seemed many beautiful women fled Chicago to the West coast. Ethna's friend had come, Sandra Williams, helping out at BAW. Danny Glover acted in BAW, performing in Dorothy Ahmed's play Papa's Daughter, about incest. Actress and SFSU student Vonetta McGee performed in Bullins'
play It Has No Choice and another play by Bullins that I can't remember the name.
And then one day the crew called me to the lobby of the theatre to meet a man they said spoke seven languages. After they called me several times to come to the lobby, I came from the theatre to meet a tall, jet black brother with straight hair, Ali Sharif Bey, who indeed did speak several languages, including English, Persian, Spanish, French, Ababic and Urdu. He became our on-site Islamic scholar and teacher, teaching us Arabic and his vast knowledge of Islam based on the Ahmediah sect, the great evangelists of Islam to the West. Ali Sharif Bey would surface later as the runner for the SLA when they kidnapped Patty Hearst. He is the source for my master thesis docudrama How I Met Isa. But in spite of all this community support--none from the Black bourgeoisie until later at the Black House which Eldridge convinced me to help organize since I told him I was tired of the bs at BAW and was ready to do something different. We discussed setting up what eventually became Black House, a political/cultural center on Broderick Street off Divisadero in the Fillmore. Ed Bullins soon joined Eldridge, Ethna and myself. For a few months Black House became the cultural center of the Bay with thousands of conscious hungry black flocking there for culture. Black House participants included Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Askia Toure, Chicago Art Ensemble, Sarah Webster Fabio, Reginald Lockett, Emory Douglas, Samuel Napier and Little Bobby Hutton. On the poltical side, Eldridge brought in a Communist party leader, Rosco Proctor.
Eldridge had no time for the culture, even though he couldn't help but be influenced by it since it was at the house he financed with his advance from Soul On Ice. He and Baraka had little to say to each other even though Baraka's Communication Project at San Francisco State College/now University, had it's off campus base at Black House. Years later these two men would switch ideologies with Baraka turning Communist and Eldridge finding religion. Eldridge would eventually go from Communist to Christian, to Mormon to Moonie to Religious Science. But at Black House he was strictly Communist and he pushed hard to get us to follow his path, though we resisted until Black House fell apart from ideological differences. Before it fell we had gone to Beverly Axelrod's house to literally remove Cleaver since we found it a contradiction for the chairman of Black House to be sleeping at the White House. One afternoon brother Batin and I made Eldridge move his things from the White House while Miss Ann cried. Among his belongings was that wicker chair, spear and rug made famous in that photo of Huey Newton.
Eldridge and Alonzo Batin were old prison comrades, having shared time throughout the California prison system. They were classic men, so classic they were made the subject of an off-Broadway play by Earl Anthony, produced by Woody King. Batin kept pressure on Eldridge to be black, something EC didn't want to do because he was suffering from the addiction to white supremacy. With all the cultural happenings at Black House, Eldridge preferred to listen over and over to what we called a white hippy folk singer named Bob Dylan.
Black House people didn't give a damn about Bob Dylan, hardly knew who he was, but Eldridge played his music continuously, trying to make us listen to it at every turn. But our favorite singer soon joined us to live at Black House, Willie Dale. Willie was another prison comrade of Eldridge's who sang the Black National Anthem of the 60s, Louis Farrakhan's The White Man's Heaven is a Black Man's Hell. Willie, with his booming voice, could sing it better than Farrakhan. After moving Eldridge fully into Black House, we wanted to secure him a black woman, so Willie's wife, Vernasteen, went down to their home town, Bakersfield, and brought back Marilyn, who came to stay with Eldridge until he met the love of his life, Kathleen.
The Black House became a half way house for black revolutionaries who were first indoctrinated with black consciousness then joined political organizations. Despite his resistance to blackness, Eldridge was touched by simply being in the house with so much culture going on. And then came Emory Douglass from San Francisco City College reading a poem Revolutionary Things. Emory became Black Panther Minister of Culture. Then came Samuel Napier, a worker who wanted to get involved. Sam went on to become Minister of Distribution of the Black Panther newspaper. George Murray was part of Baraka's Communication project, and became the Black Panther Minister of Education. Thus it is my theory, contrary to Larry Neal's assertion that BAM was the sister of BLM, BAM was the Mother who nurtured her children and prepared them with the necessary consciousness for revolutionary struggle, hence the prime importance of the cultural revolution. For a long time I couldn't figure out what Huey Newton meant when he said I taught him things, for it was Huey who had taught me consciousness at Merritt College, but after thinking about it for years, I concluded maybe I did teach Huey simple street theatre which the Panthers executed to the max, with their costumes and political rhetoric. Of course Bobby Seale was in my second play Come Next Summer, 1966, months before he and Huey founded the BPP. He played a young man trying to find himself, ultimately joining the revolution. The San Francisco State BSU's Communication Project, directed by Baraka, recruited several BSU brothers and sisters to do the plays of Baraka, Ben Caldwell, Bullins, and Jimmy Garrett. These actors became real live revolutionaries when they initiated the Third World Strike at SFSU, one of the most violent and the longest in American academic history, again illustrating the necessity of cultural consciousness in liberation. The strike led to the founding of Black and Ethnic Studies at SFSU.
Part Four: My Friend the Devil
Eldridge had no knowledge of the Black Panthers until I informed him out of our artistic desire to get rid of him as chair of Black House, even though he had made it happen by putting up the money, but we rejected his desire to push Marxism at any cost, even though he paid the cost to be the boss. I didn't think he was so dogmatic about his mission which was to create a Communist organization. Thus when we realized he was merely using artists to advance his political goals, we objected. For a short time we went along with his sessions on Communism, sometimes they included Rosco Proctor. I think Rosco was secretary of the Communist party of California. We didn't mind reading Mao's Talks at Yenan Forum on Art and Literature or Robert F. Williams Negroes With Guns. But when we tired of the Marxist approach of Cleaver, I suggested he meet some of my friends across the Bay who were arming themselves for self defense against the police. I thought this would be a way to get rid of Cleaver so we could do our cultural work. Cleaver best describes meeting the Panthers for the first time in his book Post-Prison Writings. But I took him to meet Bobby Seale one night after a radio interview at a station in Jack London Square. I took him by Bobby Seale's house in North Oakland, got Bobby to come outside to Cleaver's car. Bobby got in and the world knows the rest. Hooking up with the Panthers was not the idea Cleaver came out of prison to pursue, but it was still a dream come true, although I knew there would be hell to pay for somebody, in particular Bobby and Huey who I knew were no match for Cleaver's chicanery. Even though Bobby and Huey were well read, they were no match for Cleaver, especially in terms of Marxism. Nor were they on par with Cleaver's organizational skills and especially his ability to move on those in opposition to his mission, even to the point of murder. Who knows how many bodies Cleaver left behind in the Gulag, or his special skills in getting rid of enemies. Huey may have been a psychopath but still he was no match for Cleaver. I was glad Cleaver was hooking up with the Panthers because it took pressure off us artists. But I felt sorry for what awaited the Panthers because I knew Cleaver was a man who had to be in control, especially because he had superior knowledge and had proven organizational skills as evidenced by the Soledad Prison Black Culture Club, which was a military organization as well.
Around the time I was introducing Cleaver to the Panthers, they were moving on a rival Panther organization the BPP called the Paper Panthers, led by their former associates in Donald Warden's AfroAmerican Association and co-students at Merritt: Ken and Carol Freeman, Ernie Allen, and others who were part of the group of neo black intellectuals at Merritt, including myself, Richard Thorne, Isaac Moore, Ann Williams, Maurice Dawson, John Thomas, Wayne Combash
and others. Several of us were associated with Soulbook, the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM) publication headed by Robert F. Williams and Max Stanford (now Muhammad Ahmed). But Huey and Bobby had separated from the socalled Paper Panthers because they did not recognize the supremacy of armed self-defense. They eventually gave the Paper Panthers an ultimatum: put up guns or shut up and stop calling themselves Black Panthers. Again, Cleaver gives a good description of this conflict in Post-Prison Writings. I am certain Ernie Allen and Ken Freeman's brother, Donald Freeman (Baba Lumumba) can give their side of the story with documentation. Baba Lumbuma has a letter from the BPP to the Black Panther Party of Northern California that invites them to stop using the Panther name, signed by Huey and Bobby. Eventually there was a confrontation between the two Panther groups in San Francisco at the headquarters of Bill Bradley (now Oba T'Shaka). (I am writing from total recall so events may be out of chronological order but I think the events happened close to the order I'm describing. There are a plethora of books on the BPP to confirm the sequence of events or correct my amnesia. If the reader has more accurate information, please submit it to me for inclusion in my narrative so I won't be guilty of revisionism.)
After introducing Eldrdige to the Panthers, events at Black House happened in rapid succession, leading toward the end of the cultural component and the establishment of Black House as the San Francisco headquarters of the BPP. Again, I may have the chronological order confused, after all, I am recalling events of forty years ago from memory. Anyway, Cleaver becomes minister of information of the BPP and soon followed the first publication of the BPP newspaper, headlined with the police murder of Denzil Dowell in Richmond. Eldridge and Emory Douglas laid out the paper. Besides Muhammad Speaks, the BPP newspaper would become the most powerful newspaper of the 60s revolution. And of course much of the distribution success can be attributed to Samuel Napier, Minister of Distribution. What I remember most about Samuel was his innocence and sincerity about wanting to get involved and giving his all once involved. I was never more depressed than when I learned he was murdered in the internecine violence when the BPP factions split between Huey's west coast army and Eldridge's east coast army. Sam was murdered then set afire in New York. When I performed my play One Day In the Life in 1997 at Sista's Place in New York, the brothers pulled me aside and said the following: "Marvin, we love you, but we don't give a damn about Huey Newton," (the play has a scene of my last meeting with Huey--the setting of the one-act play Salaam, Huey, Salaam, by Ed Bullins and Marvin X, New Federal Theatre, 2008). New York is Eldridge's turf, they told me. "His army is still here." When he died May 1, 1998, I organized his memorial service in Oakland, along with Sister Majedah Rahman, a former Panther. Many Panthers did not attend because of their loyalty to Huey. Those who did attend included: Emory Douglas, Tarika Lewis,
Richard Aoki (recently deceased, the first Asian Panther), Dr. Nathan Hare, Dr. Yusef Bey, Imam Alamin, Minister Keith Muhammad, Kathleen and Joju Cleaver. Kathleen said to me after the service, "Marvin, the service was great, but there were just too many Muslims." Well, if it weren't for us Muslims, there would have not been any recognition of Cleaver's contribution to the revolution. Kathleen had agreed to have a poem I wrote read at his funeral in Los Angeles.
But let's get back to the chronology. There was a group of youth who made the basement of Black House their playhouse and apparently there was a lot of things going on down there between the youth, like playing hooky from school and sexual abuse of girls. We got word from some of our bourgeoisie friends, in particular Dezzie Woods and Bennie Ivy that the police were going to raid Black House. The Black bourgeoisie did give financial support to Black House, in contrast to their lack of support for Black Arts West. Maybe the notoriety of Black House made them more giving, especially with the presence of EC in the house, about to become a best selling author. Everybody likes to be around a star.
No one had time for the youth except me, certainly not Eldridge or Ed Bullins, so I was the liaison with the youth, some of whom I have been in contact with until today. Lil Bobby Hutton came to me one day with a directive from the Supreme Commander of the BPP, Huey P. Huey, saying the youth clubhouse had to be closed down. Lil Bobby was 16 and Huey was his hero. Lil Bobby was the third person to join the BPP and became Secretary, a model for youth of today to join the liberation struggle and forsake gang banging, set tripping and other reactionary activities. In my supreme arrogance, I told Lil Bobby, "Fuck the Supreme Commander!" I saw death in his eyes for me. But I felt Huey was an equal and even though the BPP had taken over Black House, they did not control me. Lil Bobby looked at me as if I had cursed God Almighty. "We go deal with you, Padna!" My days in the Black House were growing short. That night all I heard were Black Panthers clicking 45 automatics outside my bedroom door. Of course I was just as mad and psychopathic as any Panther. I was fearless. My attitude was, "Fuck you motherfuckers. Kiss my ass."
Nothing happened except the coming exit of myself and other artists from Black House, including Ed Bullins who would soon take off for New York. The BPP began to terrorize socalled cultural nationalists or those they considered would not take up armed struggle in the manner prescribed by the BPP. Musicians departed the Bay for the East coast. Askia Muhammad was threatened and fled East after coming to teach at San Francisco State College/now University.
Before my exit the BPP was next door in Eldridge's room planning their dramatic and historic invasiion of the State Capitol in Sacramento. I was planning my
departure from Black House. My next move was into the Nation of Islam, simply because I was wanted to be involved in a black nationalist organization that was spiritual as well. Easter Sunday, 1967, I went to Mosque #26 and joined the NOI.
Part Five: My Friend the Devil
Even before I joined the Nation of Islam, my girl/woman/friend/ revolutionary lover Ethna (now Hurriyah Asar) had gone home with me to Fresno and while there she joined the Nation of Islam, just goes to show you how far ahead women are--Ethna was always ahead of me in her dreams and plans--although I am Gemini, there is a slow side to me, so slow it is like a snail. She was a Virgo and well grounded in what she wanted as her dream. She always wanted a nation, a land of her own for us as a people. She was the child of a step mother who was a member of the Chicago Communist Party of the USA, another member of which was Angela Davis. Her mother, now in her 80s, is still a member of the Communist Party of the USA. We need to understand that there are a large percentage of Blacks who have no faith whatsoever in the political system of the USA, despite the election of Obama. Doesn't matter if they are Communists, Muslims, Nationalists or whatever, even common people with no ideology, they are completely alienated from American society and all that she proclaims to the world. There are blacks in the marsh and swamps of Louisiana who have no loyalty to the USA, no matter what you might think.
So Hurriyah (Freedom) was my pardner, guide and mentor as woman, lover, friend. She had her men and lovers and I had mine, but through it all we came together when time allowed and she is my friend now, my very best friend. She has not lost that feminine touch that some many women have that don't know to use, thelanguage of love. Hurriyah can totally disarm me with her language of love, knowing how to whisper to a man and make him conquer the world. This is what men need today. Forget that aggressive talk that turns men off, making women think men need Viagra when men only need the feminine language of love.
Just come at me right with the language of love, not that shit yu learned from the white man or white woman in college. Talk to me in the language that made grandpa stay with grandma for fifty years until death, not that neo-modern language that make Mama leave Daddy with five kids. Then at the death of Dad, Mom wants the urn with his ashes, because she loved him more than anyone could ever understand.
Eldridge told me how his mother wanted the urn of his father at his death, even though she had been divorced from him for years, revealing her unconditional devotion and love to him, the man who meant so much to her, in spite of his negrocities (Baraka term).
While in Fresno Ethna (Hurriyah, Grand lady of BAW) joined the Nation even before I was ready. During this time in Fresno we performed Baraka's Dutchman at Fresno State College, with Hurriyah in white face in the role of Lula. Actually I got a wig from Fresno's biggest pimp, Marcel, who came to see the performance at FSU. He said when he saw Clay (Marvin X) stabbed by Lulait donned on him that he would not know what to do if one of his white ho's stabbed him in his hotel room.. Who was he going to call, the white man, his black brothers? It was then he threw in his good pimping towel and joined the Nation of Islam, eventually becoming an Imam and making his haj to Mecca. This is the power of Black Arts, this is the power of the cultural revolution to save souls like Marcel, to revolutionize pimps and whores.