Campus Kicks Off Annual Exhibition and Lecture Series Exploring the Work and Life of Eldridge Cleaver

Opening reception featured students performing slam poetry and conducting guided exhibition tours

Students provide guided tour of exhibition they curated.
Birss Fellows Brett Lowder (left) and Sam Munhall (center, blue shirt) provide a guided tour of the exhibition on Eldridge Cleaver they helped curate.
Jill Rodrigues '05 and Justin Wilder

BRISTOL, R.I. – It’s a memoir that shocked and outraged 1960’s America, but Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver remains one of the most important literary works of the black experience and the state of civil rights in America.

As RWU continues to offer the campus community multiple ways to engage in dialogue on equality, inclusion and race, including our Thriving RWU 2030 initiative and “Talking About Race, Gender and Power” series, yesterday’s kick-off of the 18th Annual Professor John Howard Birss, Jr. Series celebrated the historic work and life of Cleaver, featuring students performing powerful slam poetry and guided exhibition tours.

Each year this series explores a significant or culturally impactful text through classroom discussions, a curated library exhibition, and keynote lecture.

Student slam poet Birss

With vivid phrases like “trading shackles for handcuffs,” student-poets Kat Vicente and Melissa Mota provided a stark reminder, on the eve of Black History Month, of the continuing struggles within the Black community in America.

Students explain pieces in the library exhibit.

Birss Fellows Sam Munhall (center) and Brett Lowder (right) offered insights about the historic significance of Cleaver’s writings and fight for social justice displayed in the exhibition, and talked about learning from the university’s collection management expert on how to sift through boxes upon boxes of personal mementos, writings and more to produce the exhibition.

Students explore the library exhibition.Eldridge Cleaver, Soul on Ice & the Black Panthers” will be on display during regular library hours through March 31. The exhibition features a first edition of Soul on Ice; facsimiles of selections of Cleaver's original handwritten and typewritten manuscripts for Soul on Ice and other writings; facsimiles of letters written by and to Cleaver as well as his literary agent; photographs of Cleaver and his family; affidavits filed with the Oakland Police Department; and artifacts relating to the Black Panther Party. 

On Thursday, March 8, a keynote address will be presented by Kathleen Cleaver, a longtime human rights activist who shared years of exile in Algeria and France with her former husband, Eldridge, before returning with her family to the U.S. She has worked as an attorney, clerked for a judge in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia, and has been a faculty member at Emory University Law School since 1992. The event will be held at 4:30 pm in the University Library’s Mary Tefft White Cultural Center.