Sunday, August 23, 2015

Street Poison: The Biography of Iceberg Slim, by Justin Gifford

Doubleday, 2015
265 pp

hardcover, sent to me by the publisher. Thank you!

I'm really liking my new idea of picking up a book about someone I know absolutely nothing about and letting it speak to me.  Two days ago I'd never even heard of Robert Beck/Iceberg Slim and now I'm beyond eager to read his work; two of his books should be arriving at my house this week.  Street Poison is in a word amazing.  

It took author Justin Gifford over ten years to research and put together this book, and right up front he says that at "first glance" writing about a guy who'd been a pimp for twenty-five years might seem to be "an appalling choice for a biography," since we're talking about someone who "abused hundreds of women throughout his lifetime;" he also describes him as "one of the most influential renegades" of the past century.  On the other hand, even though "he is practically unknown to the American mainstream," Beck went on to write a number of novels as well as his autobiography, Pimp: The Story of My Life.  Robin D.G. Kelley, an historian whose work I respect, also notes in the New Yorker that it's not just in the mainstream where Iceberg Slim's work remains relatively unknown -- he states that he's "amazed" that "well-read people" are unfamiliar with Beck's writing as well.

As Gifford notes, Beck is a "mess of contradictions," --
"student at Tuskegee Institute, Chicago pimp with connections to the black mafia, amateur scholar of psychoanalysis, pulp paperback writer, family man, Black Panther Party sympathizer, Hollywood darling of the blaxploitation era, and godfather of hip-hop...all these things and more..."
 and that this  book "attempts to make sense of these seemingly incongruent identities." I will say I think Gifford does a very good job at trying to make his readers understand what factors went into the making of Iceberg Slim in each of these roles, and he uses Beck's writing to get to the heart of why his life took the path it did.  Two important factors Beck cites in his becoming "street poisoned" and turning pimp are sexual abuse at a very early age and his relationship with his mother after she'd split up with Beck's stepfather, who was the closest thing to a real father  providing the only stable family life he'd had up to that time in his life.

Gifford moves chronologically through Beck's life, using Beck's writings as well as other primary sources to present his readers with a picture of this man,  at times testing what Beck writes about himself "against the historical record."  Readers also get a view of the huge number of  challenges faced by African-Americans  in America's cities from the time of the Great Migration up through  1992 and the Rodney King Riots; the author also takes his readers into the growth of African-American activism and politics in general, but more importantly, directly into how events shaped Beck's politics and his writing, which ultimately inspired and greatly influenced a number of rap/hip-hop artists, blaxploitation films in Hollywood, and most importantly, a huge number of readers of his work. 

Let me tell you here and now that if you want nice-nice and sugar-coated life story, you are NOT going to get it here. Nor is it exactly "true crime," as I see that some people are regarding it.  It is downright gritty, mean  and in a lot of places, just plain ugly -- not solely in terms of the abuse of women, but also in white America's racist policies and tactics that kept segregation and the realities of Jim Crow an ongoing reality.  I'm also walking away with a huge desire to read the work of Iceberg Slim, who as I noted earlier, I had no idea even existed before picking up this book. As soon as I got past the preface and into his childhood, I couldn't look away no matter what, and I did an all-day readathon until I'd finished.  Highly highly recommended; this is the sort of book I just love.

 Please do visit Kelley's  New Yorker article about "The Fires That Forged Iceberg Slim", which is just downright great, in my opinion, and gives Iceberg Slim and this book a much more thorough examination than I ever could. 

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