Literacy in Iceberg Slim’s "Pimp: The Story of My Life"

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.


Run the Jewels’s "Early"

Recently, I came across Run The Jewels’s song “Early.” The song provides a commentary on the current state of affairs regarding incidents such as those that occured in Ferguson and Baltimore. Consisting of legendary independent hip-hop artists Killer Mike and El-P, the group confronts the superstructure that led to events like the ones mentioned above. “Early” shows the discrepancies in regards to how society views and treats certain individuals when the only difference between them happens to be the color of their skin.

I would suggest that “Early,” along with the accompanying video, can be used in the classroom to get students to understand voice in literature and to open up discussions regarding race and class in the United States. To begin with, Killer Mike and El-P exchange verses. Students need to understand that Killer Mike is African American and El-P is white, and they need to note that when then duo raps in the song they rap in constructed narrative voices like a poem. In the opening verse, Killer Mike raps about using marijuana as a means of coping with the struggles that confront him in his day to day life: “It be feelin’ like the life that I’m livin’ man out of control/Like every day I’m in a fight for my soul.” While the Killer Mike does not sell drugs in the song, he questions if the marijuana is the reason the police stop him on his own lawn with his wife and son watching. Killer Mike pleads with the officer to not lock him up in front of his family, and he speaks about having respect for the badge. (Killer Mike’s father was a police officer.) The officer does not listen and arrests Killer Mike. At this point, Mike’s wife runs out of the house begging the officer to stop; instead, the policeman pulls a gun on her. Camera phones appear, and Killer Mike’s son runs out to protect his mother. The verse ends with an ellipsis, with something left unsaid: “And I’d be much to weak to ever speak what I seen/ But my life changed with that sound. . . “

El-P’s verse begins with the same two lines as Killer Mike’s:  “It be feelin’ like the life that I’m livin’ man out of control/Like every day I’m in a fight for my soul.” This repetition links the two and shows the way that each rapper occupies the same space, within the same society but they have experience things in different ways based on their skin colors. While Killer Mike’s verse contains more narrative structure, El-P’s appears more abstract, questioning truth and the idea of surveillance (who that surveillance is meant to protect). Speaking about “truth,” El-P raps, “And I find you odd, so convinced of the truth of y’all/That the true truth’s truly gone.” Does the “truth” actually exist? Who tells us the truth? According to El-P there is a “they” that tells us the “truth,” but in all honesty, if you believe that “they” tell you what should be considered the “truth,” you’ve lost the plot. Near the end of the verse, El-P raps about surveillance cameras watching our every move, whether we no it or not; however, “But it didn’t record cop when he shot, no warning.” Who does the surveillance protect? Who does it serve? Those are the questions that arise here. El-P’s verse concludes with a link back to Killer Mike’s: “Heard it go pop, might have been two blocks/Heard a kid plus pops watched cop make girl bleed/Go to home, go to sleep, up again early.” Even though the narrator of El-P’s section exists within the same society, and within close proximity to the events that happen to Killer Mike, he does not become affected by them. 

What does the proximity of the shooting to the narrator of El-P’s verse and the speaker’s apparent non-concern say about our society? What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments below. 

For some more information, check out Killer Mike’s speech before a concert in St. Louis in regards to the murder of Michael Brown. As well, check out Killer Mike’s interview on CNN and his Op-Ed for Billboard.  

Erin Salius’s Article on "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman"

At the first ever Ernest J. Gaines Society panel last May, Erin Salius presented “Rethinking Historical Realism in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.” Recently, the essay, in its entirety, appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of Callaloo. Today, I would just like to briefly discuss Salius’s “Rethinking Historical Realism: Catholicism and Spirit Possession in Ernest J. Gaines’s The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.” Salius’s article reclassifies Gaines’s novel, not just as “realistic” fiction but as an important precursor to more postmodern neo-slave narratives such as Reed’s Flight to Canada or Butler’s Kindred. For Salius, this turn from realistic to postmodern, where history collapses on itself forming a sort of layering, occurs because of the incorporation of Catholicism in Jane’s narrative. Salius proposes that “it is the Catholic orientation of the Creoles that makes them particularly well suited to this kind of narrative disruption, given that Jane—a Protestant convert—perceives Catholicism as inherently irrational. Gaines thus utilizes the theological distinctions between Catholicism and Protestantism (something about which he would have been highly informed, because of his theological training in both religions) to exceed the limits of realist historiography” (665). In the above quote, I would note that Creoles refers to members of the community like Jules Reynard, not to Mary Agnes LeFabre or the residents of Creole Place. 

Historically framing her argument, Salius highlights the tensions within the community in regards to Catholicism and Protestantism. Going back to the mid-1800s, the Les Cenelles poets brings to light the complicity of Catholicism in regards to the placage system in Louisiana. While the Church worked to provide “refuge and spiritual support for” gens de couleur libres, it also looked away from “the moral depravity of the system” of placage which left the gens de coleur libres in a liminal existence. While the progeny of the unions between wealthy colonists and light-skinned women of color existed in a sort of middle “caste” in Louisiana society, they also benefitted greatly from the system, allowing them to become wealthy and insular. Creole Place, Mary Agnes’s home, serves as a perfect example of this. The quarderning off of the community from both the black and white worlds led, as Jane says, to many of the “Catholics and mulattos” not partaking in social activism in order to maintain their positions in society. 

To highlight the Catholic influence, Salius focuses on the relationship between Mary Agnes and Tee Bob Samson, commenting that the section disrupts Jane’s narrative because the narration does not typically come from her in this part of the novel. As she says, “Regarding the portion of the text devoted to Mary Agnes, and the description of her relationship with Tee Bob, though, the narrative disruptions are so concentrated and so pronounced that the speaker’s identity remains indeterminate throughout” (670). These “disruptions” occur because Jane hears the information regarding Tee Bob and Mary Agnes second hand, from people in the Quarters and from people in the Samson house. Ultimately, the narrative disruptions cause an overlapping of history that sees Tee Bob becoming “possessed,” and it sees Tee Bob and Mary Agnes becoming the embodiment of their ancestors when Tee Bob tries to force himself on her. 

What becomes important here is that Jane allows Jules, a Catholic, to speak about what happens and to have the final word on the events. Jules bases his knowledge of the events on the past and on who ultimately tells the story. It is worth quoting Salius at length here. Within this quote, she cites Madhu Dubey as well: 

The knowledge that Jules proffers is, then, subjective and corporeal in the sense that it comes not from anything written or spoken about the past, but rather from his affective experience of it. This way of accessing history thus conforms to the “deliberately anti-historiographic method” that Dubey correlates with “the postmodern turn” in neo-slave narratives, because it prioritizes a “structure of feeling” over “secular rationality” as the means by which to “learn the truth.” Relying on his imagination rather than objective facts to convey what has occurred, Jules’s testimony “violates the realist protocols of history by . . . narrating a type of event—belonging to the order of the sacred or miraculous—that is typically excluded from the purview of historical evidence” (Dubey 785).

No one saw what happened between Mary Agnes and Tee Bob in Jane’s house, so the facts of the event are only left up to speculation, as Jane notes. Jules’s thoughts regarding what occured stem from the “rules” that he, and Tee Bob, inherited from the past. He did not have to be in the room to suspect what Tee Bob thought. For me, I would argue that Jules’s “speculations” fall short because Tee Bob doesn’t start to see Mary Agnes as nothing more than an object until Jimmy Caya tells him to take her anywhere

There is much more to Salius’s article than I can explicate here. I just wanted to point out a couple of items that I found particularly interesting. What are your thoughts on the novel being more than a “realist” novel? Let me know in the comments below. 

Salius, Erin Michael. “Rethinking Historical Realism: Catholicism and Spirit Possession in Ernest J. Gaines’s The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.” Callaloo 38.3 (Summer 2015): 664-678. Print. 

Visual Accompaniments to Dunbar’s Work

William Dean Howells’s review of Dunbar’s Majors and Minors appeared in Harper’s Weekly in 1896. At the beginning of the review, Howells mentions the photo of Dunbar that can be seen on one of the first pages of the book. In reference to the photo, Howells says, “In the present case I felt a heightened pathos in the appeal from the fact that the face which confronted me when when I opened the volume was the face of a young negro, with the race traits strangely accented” (630). Howells grounds the review in a photograph of Dunbar, thus causing him to read the collection through a prefabricated lens. Visual representations play a large role when thinking about the reception of Dunbar’s work as a whole.

"The Tragedy of Three Forks" and Dialect

Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “The Tragedy of Three Forks” appears in his 1898 short story collection The Strength of Gideon. The story’s narrative involves a woman burning down the house of a rival and blaming the arson on African Americans. The white press runs with the assumption that African Americans committed the crime, captures a group, and lynches them. Thomas L. Morgan speaks about this story, and others, in relation to “White Determinism” and the genre of Naturalism that took off around the turn of the twentieth century. For this post, though, I want to not the aspects of dialect that appear in the story.

When most people read Dunbar, they read his dialect poetry. The reason for this, as mentioned in earlier posts, comes from the fact that anthologies typically contain them. Along with this, the dialect poems lead some to view Dunbar as an accomadationist who reminisces about the bygone days of the Old South. This assumption cannot be further from the truth when reading Dunbar’s work as whole. Scholars such as Gene Andrew Jarrett, Nadia Nurhussein, and others have worked to dismiss this characterization of Dunbar and his work. In this post, I would like to add to those voices by showing, briefly, how dialect works in “The Tragedy of Three Forks.” 
Taking place in Central Kentucky, the story begins on a dark, stormy night. The narrator describes the scene, mentioning an unidentified girl can be seen in the night: “It was hardly a night on which a girl should be out. And yet one was out, scudding before the storm, with clenched teeth and wild eyes, wrapped head and shoulders in a great blanket shawl, and looking, as she sped along like a restless, dark ghost” (269). Notice that the narrator does not mention whether or not the girl scurrying through the storm is white or African American. She only appears covered in a blanket and resembling a “dark ghost.” When the girl speaks for the first time, certain assumptions may be brought to the forefront of readers’ minds. She says, 
“‘Tain’t the first time, ’tain’t the first time she’s tried to take me down in comp’ny, but—” and the sob gave way to the dry, sharp note in her voice, “I’ll fix her, if it kills me. She thinks I ain’t her ekals, does she ? ‘Cause her pap’s got money, an’ has good crops on his lan’, an’ my pap ain’t never had no luck, but I’ll show ‘er, I’ll show ‘er that good luck can’t alius last. Pleg-take ‘er, she’s jealous, ’cause I’m better lookin’ than she is, an’ pearter in every way, so she tries to make me little in the eyes of people. Well, you’ll find out what it is to be pore—to have nothin’, Seliny Williams, if you live.” (270)
The girl’s speech provides readers with an idea about her identity. She says that the rival “thinks I ain’t her ekals” which signifies a distinction of class, and quite possibly race. However, we still do not get any idea about whether or not the girl is African American or white until later in the story.
The indeterminability regarding the girl’s race from the beginning of the story works to disrupt the narrative in the same way that the newspaper “scarehead” does later in the text. Readers, based on local color and regionalism of the period, may perceive that the girl is African American. However, Dunbar shatters this conception because she is white and burns the house of her rival out of anger. She goes along with the town people’s conjecture that African Americans set the fire and allows the lynchings to continue. 
There is a lot more in regards to this story that could be discussed, but I think that challenging Dunbar’s use of dialect, and the way he deploys it in this story, serves an important purpose. We need to realize that Dunbar worked within a tradition that wrote in dialect. The “Hoosier Poet” James Whitcomb Riley became an inspiration to Dunbar, and that influence can be seen in the early dialect poems from Dunbar where he works to replicate Whitcomb’s dialect. As well, Dunbar can be seen, at eighteen, writing in a German dialect. His poem “Lager Beer” appears in the inaugural issue of the Dayton Tattler that Dunbar started in 1890. 
What does all of this mean? Quite simply, it means that we do not need to pigeonhole Dunbar and his dialect poetry or writings. His writing does not just reflect the lives of Southern African Americans. His work shows various regions, races, and classes in the United States at the turn of the century. The essentialist views of Dunbar started by Howells has partly led to this emphasis on Dunbar’s dialect. This view needs to be refocused, and by looking at the entirety of Dunbar’s work, we can do that. What are your thoughts on Dunbar’s dialect? What other authors from that period do we need to think about in regards to dialect and the role dialect plays? Let me know in the comments below. 
Dunbar, Paul Laurence. “The Tragedy of Three Forks.” The Strength of Gideon. New York: Dodd, Mead, & Company, 1898. 267-283. Print.