A couple of weeks ago, I read Justin Gifford’s Street Poison: The Biography of Iceberg Slim. It is not my intention, with this post, to review Gifford’s book. If you would like to see some reviews, check out Kiese Laymon’s, Robin D. G. Kelley’s, and my own upcoming review in African American Review. After reading the biography, I went back to look at Robert Beck’s (aka Iceberg Slim) first book, Pimp:The Story of My Life (1967). The book comes across as an autobiographical account of Beck’s movement from pimp to author; however, some of the information, as is true with may “autobiographical” texts, appears fabricated. Gifford does an excellent job extricating the fact from the fiction in his biography.
What interested me most when starting to reread Pimp had to be the focus on literacy and writing as a means of escaping an oppressive system. Literacy as a tool to extract oneself from the institutions of slavery or Jim Crow has a long lineage in African American letters. One needs to only think of Frederick Douglass’s letters in his Narrative, Solomon Northup’s letter to his friends in Twelve Years a Slave, and Richard Wright’s letter that allowed him to check out books from the library in “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow” to see a few examples. Beck works within this tradition to hopefully educate others on the world around them and to secure his release from prison for the last time in the early 1960s.
Pimp opens with a “Foreword” and a “Preface.” The “Foreword” paints the scene of Beck controlling his stable of women and making sure they make him money. Here, Beck sets the stage for what will follow in his “autobiography.” For my purposes here, the “Preface” provides an intriguing look in to Beck’s goals with writing this book in the first place. Many may, and do, find this book to be nothing more than salacious fodder, but I would argue that Beck does much more than just provide grotesque images to tease and titillate his readers. Instead, he constructs a narrative that shows the systematic racism he, and others, endured. Beck frames Pimp with instructions on how to actually read what he writes.
In the “Preface,” Beck tells the reader, “In this book I will take you the reader with me into the secret inner world of the pimp. I will lay bare my life and thoughts as a pimp” (17). These first couple of lines appear to say that Beck intends to instruct his readers in how to actually become a pimp, mirroring his education in the street. He immediately undercuts this thought by noting that the pictures of his “brutality and cunning” will fill many readers with revulsion, and he continues by writing, “however if one intelligent valuable young man or woman can be saved from the destructive slime then the displeasure I have given will have been outweighed by the individual’s use of his potential in a socially constructive manner” (17). Beck wanted his writing to steer people away from the same path he chose to follow at an early age, and his “Preface” lays out that goal from the very beginning.
While Beck deploys literacy as a tool of warning and instruction, he also highlights its power as a means of escape when he essentially writes his way out of the Chicago House of Correction in 1962. Facing another month on top of his ten month sentence because the prison administration failed to count some of his time, Beck composed a letter to the warden. Within the letter, Beck deploys legal sounding arguments, humor, and veiled threats to convince the warden of the illegality of adding another month to his sentence. The letter does not appear in Pimp; instead, Beck pleads his case to the Warden face-to-face, and while his argument remains similar, the words are different from the actual letter that survives. In the book, Beck’s speech focuses on legal arguments and panders to the warden’s sensibilities; however, he also presents blatant threats to the warden. He writes, “Wild rumors are circulating to the effect that you are not a fair man, that you are a bigot, who hates Negroes. I discounted them immediately that I heard them” (306). Beck follows this idea with a threat that if the warden does not grant him his release “a certain agent of [Beck’s] here in the city is going to set in motion a process that will not only free [him], but will possibly in addition throw a revealing spotlight on certain not too legal, not too pleasant activities carried on daily behind these wall” (306).
Beck’s speech works, and the next day he gets released from prison. The letter that Beck actually wrote provides a well thought out case for his release and relies on research and rhetoric. Most importantly, the conclusion of the letter needs to be quoted here. Beck writes, “In closing, I must say I realize that mine is a tiny voice crying in the wilderness, but it is historical fact that even a tiny voice can often bring cataclysmic change” (qtd in Gifford 137). Little did Beck know that these words would be prophetic. As Gifford argues, Beck maintains a large impact on our culture in literature, music, and cinema.
There is, of course, much more to say here. For more information, take a trip over to Gifford’s website. What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments below.
Gifford, Justin. Street Poison: The Biography of Iceberg Slim. New York: Doubleday, 2015. Print.
Slim, Iceberg. Pimp: The Story of My Life. Los Angeles: Holloway House, 1987. Print.
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