Sunday, October 18, 2015

Street Poison: the Biography of Iceberg Slim by Justin Gifford

“The best pimps keep a steel lid on their emotions…”

At a time when white folk are finally hearing what black folk have been telling us for decades, this biography of pimp-turned-writer Iceberg Slim by Justin Gifford rewards the reader by underlining the major lessons one complicated, flawed, and talented black man learned in his life: that his choices were constrained by his options. Life on the streets was very hard, but Beck excelled, if only for a time, living a life of glitz and glamour and cruelty.

Robert “Iceberg Slim” Beck was a pimp for twenty-five years. He was jailed over and over in his younger years, mostly for trafficking in young women, and in jail he learned much about how to improve his street game. He practiced in jail the rap he’d give to his stable of hookers when he got out again. His introspection and uncommon ability to apply lessons he learned from reading psychology texts gave him an edge on the streets that rocketed him high, only to land him back in prison until he feared he was too old to pimp any longer.

Beck’s street chic and verbal storytelling was so good that he was encouraged to write the stories down, thus beginning his career as author of novels of the street, influencing a generation of black youth, their music, literature, “blaxploitation” movies, style, and attitudes, which, if you have been paying attention in the past thirty years, is not always pleasant to hear.

But the pleasure of this book is reading the ‘how.’ A description of who Iceberg Slim was and what he accomplished does not give a reader the insights this book carries: how life for black people in cities across America was a litany of limited opportunities for meaningful, lucrative work and advancement, how crime and vice became institutionalized as a means to escape poverty, how the lack of access to bank loans for decent housing or small businesses as well as discrimination in real estate markets meant ghettoization in crime-ridden cities. Then those ghetto homes were chosen again and again to be razed when cities needed renovation, roads, upgrading.

Especially thrilling for book critics to read was the beginning of Slim’s writing career: how a small ad in the newspaper looking for “black writers” led to the collaboration of Slim and his then-wife Betty Mae Shaw on acting out, then writing down, vignettes of the street. The novel’s language carries the graphic tenor and tone found among folks in “the game,” and was among the first to use the vernacular to speak directly to the black experience.

Iceberg Slim’s most influential work was Pimp: the Story of My Life, published by Holloway House in 1967.
”He approached writing with the same principle he had used for pimping; both were essentially acts of strategic storytelling. Beck reasoned that the narrative had to be entertaining and fascinating, but it also had to be logical and tightly organized. ‘And, you had to answer, just as you do the whore, all the questions before they are asked. And, you can’t be heavy-handed with it. You have to do it in a casual way. But I didn’t know this was what they call painless exposition that the writing craft speaks about. For every principle I used in Pimp, there is a literary name.’…Beck’s first person confessional followed in a long African American autobiographical tradition, from the slave narratives of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs to the recent memoirs of Malcolm X and Claude Brown, in addressing the racial inequalities of American society. Beck narrates in gritty detail his life as a pimp both to warn young blacks about the dangers of a criminal life and to hold American society accountable for producing the pimp in the first place.”

The recently announced 2015 National Book Award for Nonfiction went to Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates’ twenty-first century search for his Dream of living peacefully in a quiet, leafy suburb is not so distant from the twentieth century experience of Iceberg Slim:
"Ain’t it a bitch? Ninety-eight percent of the black people back there in Hell will be born and die and never know the joys of this earthly Heaven. There ain’t but two passports the white folks honor. A white skin and a bale of scratch. I sure got to pimp good and cop my scratch passport. Well at least I get a Cinderella crack at Heaven."
Iceberg Slim went on to act out, then write, several other novels of the street, among his most famous Mama Black Widow and Trick Baby, as well as a collection of essays, vignettes and thoughts called The Naked Soul of Iceberg Slim, modelled on W.E.B. Dubois’s The Souls of Black Folk. Beck’s books sold millions of copies, though allegedly Holloway House scammed his contract, enriching themselves while shortchanging the author.

Slim liked his life on the streets with black folk, and lived there to the end, receiving gifts from admirers and letters from fans. As he got older, he liked to watch conservative television talk shows "so that he could see what the enemy was thinking." He blamed Reagan and the New Right for subjecting black life to ever more vigilant police and state control. Beck died April 30, 1992 of a heart attack, brought on by complications from liver disease and diabetes.

The author of this biography of Iceberg Slim is Justin Gifford, an Assistant Professor of English at Nevada State University. In the statement on NSU English Department’s page introducing staff, Gifford writes, "I argue that the crime fiction of Chester Himes, Iceberg Slim, Donald Goines, Nathan Heard, Clarence Cooper, and Roland Jefferson provides a privileged window into the social, spatial, and racial cleavages that emerge at the pivotal moment of America's postwar 'urban crisis.'"

Below I attach a longish excerpt from the biography which gives some historical context to Robert Beck’s environment. I do not reproduce the included footnotes, though indicate with an asterisk where additional materials are cited.
"[Beck’s] next destination was Cleveland. Much like Milwaukee, Chicago, and Detroit, Cleveland had developed its own distinctive black community adjacent to downtown. During the first Great Migration, the Cleveland Real Estate Board started the widespread practice of using restrictive housing covenants to keep African Americans out of white neighborhoods.* Because of these restrictions, African Americans were crowded into a Black Belt that was located in the city’s Central District. It was bordered on the west by the Cuyahoga River and bordered on the east by Fifty-Fifth Street; Euclid Avenue enclosed it to the north, while Woodland Avenue was the main dividing line to the south. In this small rectangular expanse of the city, African Americans often slept in overcrowded kitchenette apartments,, storefronts, garages, and even train boxcars that were divided up to accommodate multiple families.* As in other Midwest industrial cities, blacks had initially come to Cleveland for the plentiful jobs. In the early twentieth century, it was the fifth largest industrial city in America, producing metals, automobile parts, varnishes, and garments. Black men were for the most part excluded from unionized labor and skilled trades; they were employed as barbers, servants, porters, elevator operators, and laborers on construction projects. They did the rough work in railroad yards, foundries, blast furnaces, and iron works factories. Much of this work was temporary and insecure; black men were often the last to be hired and the first to be fired. Black women were typically employed in household service, laundry work, and occasionally in box-making factories, where noxious fumes and dangerous machines made for unsafe and unpleasant work.*

As a result of these geographical and economic conditions, Cleveland’s Central District developed a thriving vice scene. Brothels, saloons, gambling houses, and speakeasies operated all over the black section. Among city leaders and police, there was an unspoken agreement to allow these vice industries to operate with impunity, as these criminal enterprises reaffirmed racist assumptions about the connection between blacks and immoral behaviors. It was also a way for civil authorities to monitor closely prostitution, gambling, and drinking without allowing them to spill over into “respectable” white neighborhoods.*”
Gifford’s thesis about the early-to mid-twentieth century has echoes today in the twenty-first century, if we would only hear it.

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