Pimp: The Story of My Life by Iceberg Slim

“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

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

 

“When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.”

Invisible Man is the story of a young, college-educated black man struggling to survive and succeed in a racially divided society that refuses to see him as a human being. Told in the form of a first-person narrative, Invisible Man traces the nameless narrator’s physical and psychological journey from blind ignorance to enlightened awareness — or, according to the author, “from Purpose to Passion to Perception” — through a series of flashbacks in the forms of dreams and memories. Set in the U.S. during the pre-Civil Rights era when segregation laws barred black Americans from enjoying the same basic human rights as their white counterparts, the novel opens in the South (Greenwood, South Carolina), although the majority of the action takes place in the North (Harlem, New York).

In the Prologue, the narrator — speaking to us from his underground hideout in the basement (coal cellar) of a whites-only apartment building — reminisces about his life as an invisible man. Now in his 40s, he recalls a time when he was a naïve young man, eager to become a renowned educator and orator. The narrator begins his story by recalling his high school graduation speech, which attracted the attention of the white school superintendent who invites him to give the same speech at a local hotel to the town’s leading white citizens. But when he arrives at the hotel, the narrator is forced to participate in a brutal blindfolded boxing match (the “battle royal”) with nine of his classmates, an event, which, he discovers, is part of the evening’s entertainment for the “smoker” (a kind of stag party). The entertainment also includes a sensuous dance by a naked blonde woman, and the boys are forced to watch. The boxing match is followed by a humiliating event: The boys must scramble for what appear to be gold coins on an electrified rug (but, which turn out to be only worthless brass tokens). Then the narrator — now bruised and bleeding — is finally allowed to give his speech in front of the drunken white men who largely ignore him until he accidentally uses the phrase “social equality” instead of “social responsibility” to describe the role of blacks in America. At the end of his speech — despite his degrading and humiliating ordeal — the narrator proudly accepts his prize: a calfskin briefcase containing a scholarship to the state college for Negroes.

That night, the narrator’s dead grandfather — a former slave — appears in a dream, ordering him to open the briefcase and look inside. Instead of the scholarship, the briefcase contains a note that reads, “Keep This Nigger Boy Running.” The dream sets the stage. For the next 20 years of his life, the narrator stumbles blindly through life, never stopping to question why he is always kept running by people — both black and white — who profess to guide and direct him, but who ultimately exploit him and betray his trust.

Focusing on the events of one fateful day, the narrator then recalls his college days. Assigned to chauffeur Mr. Norton, a prominent white visiting trustee, around the campus, the narrator follows Mr. Norton’s orders and takes him to visit two sites in the nearby black neighborhood — the cabin of Jim Trueblood, a local sharecropper, and the Golden Day, a disreputable bar/half-way house for shell-shocked World War I veterans. The narrator, however, is expelled from his beloved college for taking Mr. Norton to these places and sent to New York, armed with seven letters from his dean (Dr. Bledsoe). The letters, he believed, are letters of recommendation, but are in reality letters confirming his expulsion.

Arriving in New York City, the narrator is amazed by what he perceives to be unlimited freedom for blacks. He is especially intrigued by a black West Indian man (later identified as Ras the Exhorter) whom he first encounters addressing a group of men and women on the streets of Harlem, urging them to work together to unite their black community. But the narrator’s excitement soon turns to disillusionment as he discovers that the North presents the same barriers to black achievement as the South.

Realizing that he cannot return to college, the narrator accepts a job at a paint factory famous for its optic white paint, unaware that he is one of several blacks hired to replace white workers out on strike. Nearly killed in a factory explosion, the narrator subsequently undergoes a grueling ordeal at the paint factory hospital, where he finds himself the object of a strange experiment by the hospital’s white doctors.

Following his release from the hospital, the narrator finds refuge in the home of Mary Rambo, a kind and generous black woman, who feeds him and nurses him back to health. Although grateful to Mary, whom he acknowledges as his only friend, the narrator — anxious to earn a living and do something with his life — eventually leaves Mary to join the Brotherhood, a political organization that professes to be dedicated to achieving equality for all people. Under the guidance of the Brotherhood and its leader, Brother Jack, the narrator becomes an accomplished speaker and leader of the Harlem District. He also has an abortive liaison with Sybil, a sexually frustrated white woman who sees him as the embodiment of the stereotypical black man endowed with extraordinary sexual prowess.

But after the tragic death of his friend Tod Clifton, a charismatic young black “Brother” who is shot by a white policeman, the narrator becomes disillusioned with the disparity between what the organization preaches and what its leaders practice. As a result, he decides to leave the Brotherhood, headquartered in an affluent section of Manhattan, and returns to Harlem where he is confronted by Ras the Exhorter (now Ras the Destroyer) who accuses him of betraying the black community. To escape the wrath of Ras and his men, the narrator disguises himself by donning a hat and dark glasses. In disguise, he is repeatedly mistaken for someone named Rinehart, a con man who uses his invisibility to his own advantage.

The narrator discovers that the Harlem community has erupted in violence. Eager to demonstrate that he is no longer part of the Brotherhood, the narrator allows himself to be drawn into the violence and chaos of the Harlem riot and participates in the burning of a Harlem tenement. Later, as he flees the scene of the burning building and tries to find his way back to Mary’s, two white men with baseball bats pursue him. To escape his assailants, he leaps into a manhole, which lands him in his underground hideout.

For the next several days the sick and delusional narrator suffers horrific nightmares in which he is captured and castrated by a group of men led by Brother Jack. Finally able to let go of his painful past — symbolized by the various items in his briefcase — the narrator discovers that writing down his experiences enables him to release his hatred and rediscover his love of life.