Eldridge Cleaver's voice was soft and modulated and sprinkled with pauses as he discussed his latest venture--not his efforts to return to the United States, which he was loath to discuss, but his new role as entrepreneur, the designer of a new line of slightly obscene men's trousers.
"Well, the ideas for these pants came out of an article I'm writing about the uni-sex movement, attacking the uni-sex movement. While I was writing the article I started thinking of tangible ways to express my ideas, you know? And these pants are the natural outgrowth of that."
Cleaver took another sip of red wine. He only drinks red wine, he said. All this red wine and soft talking lent to the image of the new Eldridge Cleaver, who is really quite a relaxed guy. Not at all what you'd expect of a former convict, rapist, Black Panther Minister of Information, best-selling author of Soul on Ice.
A group of four young people, including three Harvard undergraduates, sat around and listened to Cleaver that night in August. Cleaver had come to visit his friend Jack Caball, an American expatriate novelist (one of a dying breed) and talk about his pants. The setting was intimate--the room in the Latin Quarter of Paris was dark and warm, with wood ceiling beams, tall bookshelves, a Calder print above the fireplace and a Chagall lithograph over the grand piano.
"Well, what exactly do these pants look like?" Mr. Caball's son Bruce asked. He knew very well what they looked like. His father already had described them to him, adding that "These pants are a disaster for Cleaver. I've seen writers invent plenty of ways of keeping from writing, but these pants are a disaster for Cleaver." But Bruce wanted to hear Cleaver describe the pants.
"Well these pants look like a regular pair of men's pants except around the groin, you know?" Cleaver said. "In a conventional pair of pants the penis gets tucked behind the pants, you know?" He imitated a tucking motion with his hands. "But in these pants, the penis is held in a sheath of cloth that sticks outside of the pants."
"You mean the penis protrudes out--it's hanging in this tube of cloth--outside the pants?," Bruce said loudly, his voice rising in glee. "Like a codpiece?"
"Yeah, that's the idea. Now you see how this is a direct attack on uni-sex. Women can't wear them, right? Take a look at what you guys are wearing. You're wearing sissy pants," Cleaver said.
"Well, uh," Bruce began, "couldn't these pants be dangerous? I mean, couldn't you get hurt wearing them?"
"No, man, how are you going to get hurt? What could happen?"
"But how about wearing them in social situations? Couldn't they be kind of embarrassing--like if you're dancing of something?"
"You mean, about getting an erection? You see, this is the thing I'm trying to get away from--that fig leaf mentality. I'm trying to get people in touch with their bodies and sexuality. It's amazing now to think that thousands of years ago men were walking around with no clothes on, and thought nothing of it. Now men walk around with clothes on and think nothing of it. What a shock it must have been then, to see the first person wear clothes! And what a shock now, to see a person without clothes. Or with these pants on.
"I'm really amused by the way people react to these pants. People who talk radical, about politics, then start talking conservative about these pants. What's wrong with getting an erection and letting people know about it? If a girl turns you on, why not let her know about it? There have been so many games going on between men and women for so long, that when sexuality finally comes out, it takes some pretty weird forms."
Cleaver took another sip of his wine and waited. He turned his head slowly. His face is striking mostly for its rich color and almost pliable quality of skin. At 39, he still seems to have a baby face. His eyes are distinctive in their brownness and almost quivering sensitivity. He has the thinnest eyebrows, and a thin moustache.
Now he sat straight in the chair, his legs folded, his big torso looking lumbering and ungainly. The way he walks, and talks, and moves--so slowly and precisely--belies what seems to be a hidden volcano within him.