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True Stories

Of Pants, God, and Politics

Whether reporters called them "virility trousers" or joked that the man wearing them would be the "cock of the walk," the pants--known as The Cleavers--caught the attention of American reporters fascinated by the sartorial adventures of one of the most electric and controversial intellectuals of the radical left. They were designed and worn by Eldridge Cleaver, the Black Panthers' former Minister of Information. At some point in 1975 (and I'm still waiting to dig through archives from Texas A&M to figure out precisely when) Cleaver decided to add fashion design to his impressive resume. The Cleavers made a lot of people laugh, but Eldridge thought they were essential for men to regain their masculinity and avoid becoming "unisex."

 

Born in the mid-1940s in Arkansas, Cleaver had spent much of his youth and young adulthood in California behind bars, but he seems to have spent a great deal of his time there reading, thinking, and writing. After his release from Soledad prison in 1966 he had become a darling of the West Coast intellectual left. His first book, Soul on Ice, was a set of essays that combined memoir and manifesto about black masculinity, sex-based theories of class and race, the brilliance of Malcolm X, and the dangers of black men's emasculation (including an infamously cruel portrait of writer James Baldwin, who was gay); it sold tens of thousands of copies. He joined the Black Panther Party based in Oakland in 1967 after seeing Huey Newton, one of the group's founders, stand up to San Francisco police officers. By the time Cleaver found himself trapped in a basement with teenager Bobbie Hutton on April 6, 1968, confronting a barrage of bullets and tear gas, he had become one of the most visible and influential forces in the group's rise to national prominence as a voice for black liberation. Cleaver went back to jail for violating his parole, was released when a judge threw out the parole violation, but faced another hearing in late November 1968, when he slipped out of the country, traveled to Canada, and made his way to Cuba for asylum. After a couple of years among other political exiles in Algiers, during which time his wife Kathleen (Neal) Cleaver bore two children, Cleaver and his family moved to France.

 

It was in France that Cleaver had the epiphanies that would change the course of his life. In an order I've yet to nail down, he (1) became a Christian, (2) designed his eponymous pants, and (3) rejected left politics.

 

His story is on the one hand evocative of many of the stories of religious conversion I've learned about for my new book. Many of these people found a new faith while in the midst of a series of life changes. In the way he combined spiritual, political, and gendered/sexual transformations, Cleaver reminds me of Whittaker Chambers. A former spy (and key witness at the 1948-1949 espionage trial of State Department employee Alger Hiss), Chambers found God as he was leaving the Soviet underground in 1938, and he further associated his conversion with his rejection of his homosexuality. 

 

Cleaver was also akin to the many members of the 1960s Left who joined the conservative political movement (and in Cleaver's case, also associated with the New Christian Right) in the 1970s. 

 

Yet in so many other ways, Cleaver is an original.

 

He designed the pants, he said, to free the male sex organs from their uncomfortable "fig leaf" concealment within traditional men's trousers. The fact that men and women now wore similarly styled pants seemed to irk him. As he told a reporter for Jet magazine, "These pants will give men a chance to assert their masculinity. How can clothing shops sell trousers to girls and expect men to buy girls [sic] pants?" He offered two designs: one, as pictured above, was a form-fitting sheath for the penis, with a small sack below for the scrotum. Another version had what is best described as a codpiece, a single pouch that rested outside the rest of the trouser front. Cleaver prefered a contrasting fabric color for the codpiece or sheath; making the male sex organs obviously visible was his point.

 

In 1975, after seeing the face of Jesus Christ in the moon from his apartment in the south of France, Eldridge told Kathleen that he was ready to turn himself in and return to the United States to face the legal consequences. And he also told her that he planned to wear the new pants when he did so.

 

That November, accompanied by two FBI agents, Cleaver flew to New York where he was taken into custody, then flown to San Diego and on to the Alameda County Jail to await trial. Kathleen and Eldridge's lawyers talked him out of wearing The Cleavers.

 

In an opinion piece published in the New York Times on November 19, Cleaver announced that he was returning because the United States was "the freest and most democratic" nation in the world. With Nixon's resignation and with the Senate's Church Committee revealing the extent of the FBI's efforts to undermine the Black Panthers and other radical groups, Cleaver believed he stood a chance of justice in a nation he once vowed to destroy and rebuild from scratch.

 

Over the next few years Cleaver's conversion became well known. A network of wealthy Protestant evangelicals posted bail and supported his defense fund to get the charges against him dropped. (The leadership of the defense fund included civil rights lion Bayard Rustin and civil rights / feminist champion Eleanor Holmes Norton.) He teamed up with former Nixon aide and ex-convict Charles Colson (whose 1976 book Born Again had become a bestseller), founded the Eldridge Cleaver Crusades, spoke at churches and on college campuses around the country, and wrote Soul on Fire, his follow up memoir, to recast his prior experiences as foreshadowing his ultimate rebirth in Christ. The book made no mention of The Cleavers, but into the late 1970s he operated a small factory to produce the pants, which sold for about $40 a pair at a West Hollywood store.

 

Cleaver meanwhile testified to his religious conversion and political transformation in numerous appearances on secular television shows like Donahue (where Susan Brownmiller demanded he apologize for his defense of political rape in Soul on Ice) and Tom Snyder's Tomorrow, but he was even more often present on the Christian Broadcasting Network, on Jim and Tammy Bakker's P.T.L. Club, George Otis's High Adventure Ministries, and the Old Time Gospel Hour. He shared his conversion story to Christian institutions like Biola University. Viewers of these secular and religious programs sent Cleaver money to help with his defense.

 

Like the dick Cleaver had difficulty containing within his pants, Cleaver's story is uncomfortably contained within the pages of a single chapter. A few things are clear. Many histories of Black Power and the Black Panthers detail Cleaver's life prior to and during his time with the Party, and some include his break with Newton during his exile. Hardly any of them mention his post-exile politics, and even fewer discuss his religion or his pants. He is similarly absent from histories of rise of American evangelical politics, aside from a swift mention or two. And any attempt to understand the connection between his newly conservative politics, his new faith, and those pants (and all the theories about black men's emasculation, the dangers of androgyny, and the benefits of erotic disclosure that Cleaver believed the pants represented) is entirely absent from the current literature.

 

I'm trying to figure this out. Wish me luck.

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A Christian America?

Do we live in a "Christian America"? This question is one that historians and sociologists of American religion find exhausting -- and it is also one which they have exhaustively discussed. This past week I have been reading through several classic works that address this question, primarily so that I can get a better handle on the American religious scene of the 1970s and 1980s. What was new about the "age of evangelicalism," as one historian has described the 1970s? With the increased visibility of cults and Eastern expressions of faith, were Americans encountering a "spiritual marketplace"? Were the choices they encountered the result of a "third disestablishment" of religion, or the decline of the mainline religions?

 

It's easy to get lost in the weeds of these arguments, but I find a couple of main points interesting. First, scholars note an increasing emphasis on "personal fulfillment" and "individualism" in American religious life across the twentieth century, but especially since the 1960s. Second, the scholars who lament that trend are more likely to conclude that the United States has experienced not just one "disestablishment" of religion -- most famously after the First Amendment stated that, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion," and state constitutions followed suit -- but several, as attempts by "mainline" Protestants (and Catholics and Jews, sometimes) failed to pull the levers of government as they desired. What these scholars seem to be noting, however, is the decline of a certain kind of religion (often coded as "mainline," which is ecumenical in the sense of Church of Christ allied with Methodist and Episcopalian) in favor of nondenominational evangelicals and fundamentalists, spirituality that is celebrated beyond the bounds of organized religion, and eclecticism in the ways that believers choose rituals, theologies, and faith groups according to their desires. (And of course other scholars have stepped in to say that anything "mainline" in American religion has pretty much always been in decline, and that bemoaning those losses distracts us from the fact that Americans have become increasingly, not less, religious, since the Revolutionary era as they flow into the most dynamic and emotionally satisfying groups, rather than adhering to staid traditions.) Much of this scholarship dates from the 1970s through the 1990s. Perhaps by the time George W. Bush came into office it no longer made sense to talk about religion's public decline, but more recent scholarship has instead described the survival of a "moral establishment" despite the official separation of church and state that the First Amendment effected.

 

A third aspect of this scholarship that stands out for me is the extent to which the scholars arguing over disestablishment and the problems of "personal autonomy" use the economic language of market choice to describe these trends, and the degree to which most of them ignore the neoliberal economic trends that surrounded the changes they describe. The best exceptions to this lacuna in the scholarship are the historians Bethany Moreton and Darren Dochuk, with a signal contribution from the late Sarah Ruth Hammond, all of whom dispense with the questions of disestablishment and instead dig in to the copious evidence of the ways that Protestantism (the religion at the center of all three of their first books) both enabled and became entangled with late capitalism in the twentieth-century United States. Insights from scholars like Anthea Butler leave no doubt that we live in a new era of (for many of us, frightening) allegiance between a particular kind of evangelical Christianity, political power, and capital accumulation.

 

All of which is to say: American religious history demonstrates conclusively that the United States has never been a Christian nation in its official documents (which disestablished religion) or its population's faith (which is dynamic and diverse). Yet Christian groups have had unquestioned influence on our nation's laws, policies, and social norms. And I also think the obvious but too often overlooked answer to the question of whether we live in a "Christian America" is just what we mean by that phrase. What kind of Christianity are we talking about? The prophetic faith of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer, and Rev. William Barber? The transphobic, anti-gay, anti-feminist, anti-woman Christianity of Vice President Mike Pence? The Christianity whose scriptures Attorney General Jeff Sessions quotes to justify separation of children from their parents at the border? The Christianity of Catholic leaders who have spoken out against those separations? 

 

I am not invested in the pursuit of a Christian American of any particular variety; I'm not a Christian. My commitment to the separation of church and state is firmly in place. I am interested, in my research and writing, in figuring out how these debates over religious authority and power play out in American history. And I'm curious to see how future historians will explain the rise of a certain kind of Christian moralism that is unapologetically allied to neoliberal political economy and supportive of white nationalist politics, such that it celebrates the individual (white, straight, male, able-bodied) autonomous actor out of one side of its mouth while denigrating the choices of women, people of color, the disabled, and immigrants from the other side.

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Accidentally Of the Moment

My second book project was not intended to be a commentary on our current political moment.

 

It began, as a historian's work so often does, with an inquiry at an archive, a search through a finding aid for a manuscript collection, and the ensuing proliferation of new questions that demanded yet more research and investigation. I went to the Library of Congress hoping to find materials about how sex radicals in the 1920s thought about religion. My keyword searches in their database of manuscript collections instead pointed me to the massive archival records of Clare Boothe Luce, who wrote The Women, married Henry Luce (publisher of Time), and served two terms in Congress. She also converted from nominal Protestantism to Roman Catholicism in 1946, something that was, at the time, a scandalous breach of expectations about the presumably shared interests of Protestantism and the political establishment.

 

From Luce I found other converts, principally looking at celebrities who crossed lines of faith in bold and highly public ways, announcing their discovery of "truth" and authentic faith. I might be forgiven for having spent the next several years of reserach presuming that I was writing a book about American religious conversions in the twentieth century. Many years and chapter drafts later, I see this project as less about religious converts than about American conversations about the authentic self. What my book shows--and what, I argue, previous scholars have underplayed--is the extent to which religion provided a public language of authentic selfhood for Americans in the decades after World War II. Religion's salience is partiuclarly important because it was during these same decades that some Americans (and others) began to circulate theories about the mutability of gender, race, and even sexuality. It's ironic-- and thus, I argue, particuarly notable--that religion, which Americans overwhelmingly viewed as a choice, became a way to anchor the very identity categories (gender, sexuality, and race) whose stability we continue to debate.

 

The book became about far more than religious conversion; it has grown into a history that explores how Americans explained the essential versus chosen elements of who they are (and who they want to be). It explores the elasticity of religion as an identity category, such that even a person who undergoes multiple conversions to a variety of faiths is often viewed as an "authentic" person in touch with his or her "true" self. As in my previous book, this project connects these intellectual and cultural trends to their political moment, tracing how and why self-declared religious categories came to serve as a kind of shorthand for ideas about gender equality (or patriarchy) and about racial equality (or white privilege). 

 

While I wandered toward this understanding of my project's scope, current events demanded that I dig deeper into these questions of self-fashioning and authenticity. The increasing visibility of the trans* rights movement, the political fracas over spurrious "bathroom bills," and the public notoriety of Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who claims a Black identity, emphasized the extent to which Americans not only disagree over the permissible boundaries of self-fashioning, but do so today most often in the language of gender and sexuality. Where is religion in our debates today over trans* identity or racial passing? Has a vocabularly that proved especially meaningful in the 1940s through 1960s lost its utility? Or can we look for the intersections among religion, race, gender, sexuality, and class and trace changes in their use and power over time? 

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