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.
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.
Slim, Iceberg. Pimp: The Story of My Life. Los Angeles: Holloway House, 1987. Print.
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. . . “
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.
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).
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.
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.
“‘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)