I taught Robert “Iceberg’s Slim” Beck’s compact gold and purple book, “Pimp: The Story of My Life,” in my first college class 14 years ago. The course was called Narratives of the Underground. As an anxious 26-year-old teacher straight out of grad school, I hoped that my first-year students would dig beneath popular conceptions of pimp culture to see how the structural poisons of misogyny, anti-blackness and white supremacy are produced, practiced, theorized — and hopefully rejected. I wanted to provide my 18-year-olds with a context from which to contend with the ways the nation encourages its citizens and the world to make heroic American men out of architects of misogynoir.
At its best, Justin Gifford’s new biography of Iceberg Slim, “Street Poison,” does exactly this.
Gifford’s first book, “Pimping Fiction: African American Crime Literature and the Untold Story of Black Pulp Publishing,” was a critically acclaimed comprehensive exploration of cultural history surrounding the work of Chester Himes, Donald Goines and Robert “Iceberg Slim” Beck. In “Street Poison,” Gifford patiently crafts a narrative that shows how Beck, a Chicago pimp, became the godfather of hip-hop, an integral cog in Hollywood’s Blaxploitation era and one of the most-read black authors of the 20th century. In addition to providing phenomenally researched material into the life and writings of Beck, including FBI files, unpublished fiction and letters written from Beck to his publisher, Gifford provides us with robust historical, pointed political context for new and seasoned readers of Beck’s novels “Pimp,” “Trick Baby” and “Mama Black Widow.”
While Beck longed for his most popular book, “Pimp,” to be read as a critique of white supremacy and the underground economy it fostered in American cities after the Great Migration, neither that novel nor Beck’s less successful work deal with the ways black women suffered and survived the terror of employment discrimination, restrictive covenants, police abuse and the sexual and psychological abuse of men like Beck. Gifford attempts to texture the black women in Beck’s life, including his mother, employees and partners, while indicting a Northern American system of oppression that encouraged Beck and his workers to make a living underground.
Later in his life, Beck versed himself in the nonfictive work of James Baldwin and Richard Wright, but his early teachers were novice and successful pimps. After landing in jail a number of times, Beck seeks the mentorship of Baby Bell, an enforcer and notorious pimp in Chicago. Bell verses Beck on why pimping makes the most sense for a young black man longing for economic freedom in the 1940s. Gifford writes, “In Bell’s mind, black pimps were heroic figures who defied both white racial oppression, and black female betrayal of the race.”
Black women, according to Bell, “still freaked for free with the white man.” Black pimps were necessary, according to Beck’s teacher, because they enlightened black female sex workers “to the gold mines between their legs.”
Just as America mythologizes brutal white supremacists like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, Gifford admits early in the book that he mythologized Beck and the part of hip-hop culture he believes Beck had a hand in creating. Though Gifford aspires to explore Beck’s life and times “without moralizing,” the book is most effective when Gifford nimbly dismantles the structures and practitioners of sexual violence and oppression.
“At best,” Gifford writes, “Bells’ origin story of the black pimp is self-serving delusion; at worst, it is an outright lie used to justify the exploitation of black women … Bell modeled his organization on the industrial factories of Chicago and he treated women like an exploitable labor force.”
For readers familiar with all of Beck’s work, “Street Poison’s” most engaging section comes in the last third where Gifford explores Beck’s career as a kind of “prostitute” for the publishing industry. Though Beck sold more than 6 million books before his death, his publisher, Holloway House, took an unfair percentage of his book sales, leaving him close broke when he died the day after the L.A. riots began.
Gifford effectively argues that Beck’s work is culturally transformative and that “there would be no street literature, no Blaxploitation, no Hip-Hop the way we know them today without ‘Pimp.’” Yet “Street Poison,” with all its engaging intellectual and investigative heft, fails to reckon with some heavy questions: Did this undeniable influence on literature, film and hip-hop encourage radical, revolutionary black love? And/or did Beck’s work aid in poisoning the group of Americans Beck claims he most wanted to save?
In a culture much more obsessed with the exploits of abusive American men (regardless of race) than the complex lives of black and brown female victims and survivors, “Street Poison” implicates the reader and urges us to understand the origin narrative of street and structural poison just as much as the roots of Robert Beck, one of the nation’s most interesting, maniacally abusive and tragically abused poison(ed) dealers.
Street Poison: The Biography of Iceberg Slim
Doubleday: 288 pp., $26.95
Laymon is professor of English at Vassar College and the author, most recently, of “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America.”