“Always remember whether you be sucker or hustler in the world out there, you’ve got that vital edge if you can iron- clad your feelings. I picture the human mind as a movie screen. If you’re a dopey sucker, you’ll just sit and watch all kinds of mindwrecking, damn fool movies on that screen.
After all, we are the absolute bosses of that whole theatre and show in our minds. We even write the script. So always write positive, dynamic scripts and show only the best movies for you on that screen whether you are pimp or priest.”
Iceberg Slim, or Robert Beck as he would become, was born Robert Lee Maupin, in Chicago on 4 August 1918. Much of his childhood was spent in Milwaukee’s poor North Side and the industrial town of Rockford, Illinois – consistently ranked as one of America’s most blighted cities – before he returned to Chicago as a teenager. His father left, and his mother supported the family by working as a domestic and running a beauty shop. He later – somewhat uncharitably – credited her with having prepared him for the pimp lifestyle by pampering him during his childhood. As a teenager in the mid 30s, Robert briefly attended the Tuskegee Institute, at the same time as Ralph Ellison, the author of Invisible Man, though the two moved in different circles, each oblivious to the presence of the other.
In his book Pimp: The Story of My Life, Iceberg Slim recounts his personal autobiography as an intellectually-gifted teenager growing up in the world before desegregation. Through various events in his life, he ultimately becomes a pimp in between jail stints.
As soon as Slim is born, he has problems. As an infant, his father becomes enraged and slams his body against a wall, walking out on the family. From then on, his mother tries to raise him on her own, but since there is only one parent and she is responsible for supporting them both, Slim is often left alone as a child. He is left alone with a babysitter named Maude who sexually abuses him when he is only 3 years old.
Slim and his mother move to Indianapolis afterwards and a man visiting his relatives, Henry Upshaw, immediately falls in love with Slim’s mother. Henry is the only father figure Iceberg has in his lifetime and is the best person in his life. Henry reciprocates the affection and loves Iceberg and his mother immensely. Slim’s mother, however, falls in love with a scoundrel named Steve. Giving Henry a weak excuse that they will return again soon, Slim’s mother packs up Iceberg and meets up with Steve. Iceberg is destroyed by leaving Henry and cries as hard as he can. He misses Henry for the rest of his life. Henry dies a year after Slim and his mother leave him.
Slim meets a hustler named Party Time. Together, Party Time and Slim work a small-time con with Slim dressing up as a woman and pretending to be a black hooker to entice white men to meet “her” down an alley. They pay Party Time to meet the mysterious hooker, but by the time they walk down the alley, Slim takes off through the alleyways. Eventually, Party Time is busted and goes to jail for a year, though he never reveals Slim’s name to the police.
By this time, Slim is 15 years old and graduates high school with a near-perfect 98.1 grade point average. He is recruited to go to Tuskegee University, but drops out after getting into a scandal with the local college girls. He has a relationship with a girl and asks her to turn a trick for him. They are eventually busted and this setup sends Slim to jail for the first time at age 17. He is released and meets a woman at his mother’s beauty salon named Pepper. Pepper teaches Slim many of his “freaky” sexual tricks he will use on women in future years. Through a con of her own, Pepper sends Slim to jail for the second time.
Slim is released from his second stint in jail just months from his twentieth birthday. He listens and learns from former pimps in jail and wants to start pimping on his own. He scores his first hooker Runt shortly after leaving jail. Runt eventually sends him to another stint in jail through a betrayal of her own.
Slim grows in popularity and has a growing number of hookers working for him over the years. After Runt and Ophelia send Slim to jail, he is reduced to nothing and has to again start from scratch. He tries to regain his glory, but is quickly sent to jail again, shortly after his release, for robbing a drug dealer. He escapes from jail while serving this sentence.
Slim gets busted for being in a hotel room with an unmarried woman in Montana and they discover the escape charge on him. They send him back to prison. There, he finally decides to give up pimping and drugs for good. He studies the law and gets an early release. He hurries back to see Mama who lives only 6 more months before dying.
Pimp, described as an “autobiographical novel”, was published in 1969 by Holloway House. The New York Times decided the subject matter was too rich and refused to print an advert for it, but the book was soon being shelved alongside the works of other black authors of the 60s and 70s, such as Eldridge Cleaver‘s Soul on Ice, Bobby Seale‘s Seize the Time and Malcolm X‘s autobiography. As the more militant black movements established a foothold in African-American communities, Slim met Huey P Newton and other members of the Black Panther party, whom he regarded as kindred spirits. Either through political naivety or hustler’s self-justification, he considered his success as a pimp as having struck a blow against white oppression. The Black Panthers, however, had little regard for him, considering his former profession to be little more than the exploitation of his own people for personal gain.
Yet Slim’s books were successful, and immediately attracted widespread attention among black youth. Even Hollywood got interested: following the success of The Godfather, gangster chic was in vogue. Trick Baby made it on to the screen in 1973, directed by Larry Yust. Universal Pictures snapped up the film rights to Pimp, only for the project to be thought too contentious and put on indefinite hold. For many years rumours have abounded that a film of the book is about to be produced, with the rival Slim-inspired “Ices”, T and Cube, vying for the lead role.
One of Slim’s most endearing features was that he never made any excuses for the life he had led. His writing is characterised by a scrupulous honesty about both the social reality and the hyperreal theatricality of street life – the template for the hip-hoppers and rappers who followed him. Slim admitted that one reason he stopped pimping and became a writer was his fear of being exploited by younger prostitutes. In his works, the hookers are seldom simply victims of the pimps but more often fellow ghetto strugglers with the same grifter sensibility.
The works of Robert Beck, aka Iceberg Slim, have made a powerful impact on our global cultural landscape and should be essential reading. We have to get beyond his life as a pimp, and accept him as one of the most influential writers of our age.
Warning: Contains explicit language