art by Drew Friedman
An ICEBERG SLIM appreciation
This originally ran, in different form, on my associate Richard Jaccoma’s then-website, Spunk.com, in June 1997. Like my Jack Ruby and Winedale pieces, it’s appeared all over the map.
A mere 20 years ago, in the 1970s, the “canon” of Negro Lit—Black American novelists in print—seemed preposterously thin, scattered and barely represented at mainstream bookstores. A handful of chosen authors received literary knighthood, but no matter how you sliced it, James Baldwin’s lofty intellect landed squarely in the liberal white establishment. The one-hit wonders, like Ralph Ellison’s 1952 Invisible Man, or Claude Brown's 1964 best seller, Manchild in the Promised Land, were grounded in the Queen's English—as was the great Richard Wright before them, whose lean, mean prose hammered home the Negro experience to generations of college Caucasians.
Iceberg Slim burst forth in 1969 as a savagely gifted storyteller, whose paperback novels sold in unprecedented numbers in the ghettos. Iceberg Slim was the nom-de-pimp of Robert Beck, whose seven books sold six million copies by the time he died in 1992, at 73. (This figure according to his publisher, Holloway House.) Beck briefly graced Tuskegee Institute’s 1930’s college rolls at the same time as did Ralph Ellison. Beck dropped out, having chosen his calling—for which Tuskegee offered no degree. Years later, had it come to a streetfight of words, Iceberg’s “masterworks of pimp profanity” could have cut down Ellison’s milquetoast prose in a Harlem minute.
He wrote flagrantly in the pre-Ebonics lingo of Chicago’s South Side—which even today repels the upwardly mobile Black middle class. Iceberg’s books contain glossaries of underworld Negro slang that went out with minstrel shows and burnt cork blackface. The Norton Anthology of Black American Literature—newly christened by Black Harvard professors proclaiming a breakthrough, state-of-the-art “canon”—doesn't even mention his name in its vast index.
Like the painter Grandma Moses, Iceberg Slim was reborn an artist after age 40. His third, and harshest prison sentence—10 months in steel solitary at the Cook County House of Corrections—finally crushed the pimp right out of him. Vilifying past predatory values, he exorcised his demons into folklore, leaving a seven-book legacy. Pimp: The Story of My Life, contained bookend warnings against the life. But Iceberg’s masterpiece only bolstered pimp liberation amidst the blaxploitation movie craze. In Times Square, for instance, a hundred fur-coated Superflys lorded over a thousand streetwalkers, taking renegade control of 8th Avenue. For them, Pimp declassified the sorcery of whore control, became a textbook for wannabes, and lent ethnic pride to the hideous profession.
Pimp still holds as perhaps the greatest chronicle ever written on male-female relations. In the flush of literary success, white feminist-journalist types sought out interviews like intellectual groupies. Pimp philosophy, Iceberg believed, might be adapted to mainstream relationships.
“My theory is that some quantum of pimp in every man would perhaps enhance his approach to women,” he told the Washington Post. “Because I think it’s a truism that women gravitate to a man who can at least flash transient evidence of heelism. . . Women are prone to masochism, anyway. I think if you are able to manufacture a bit of ‘heelism’ in your nature and give them a sense of insecurity as to whether some voluptuous rival might come along and steal you, then you are a treasured jewel.”
The thrill, Iceberg told the L.A. Free Press, came during youth, where he described “a vacuum that is filled by the joy of learning the intricacies of being a pimp. . . For really, what is the bedrock of all male aspiration, if it isn’t cunt and money? Now here the pimp, what has he got? All kinds of beautiful girls, who bring him cunt and money. Kiss and suck and love him. . . .on the surface, of course, because beneath, they really pray for his ruin.”
An underlying trait common to career pimps, Iceberg found, was a hatred of mother. “I've known several dozen, in fact, that were dumped into trash bins when they were. . . only four or five days old.”
Pimping was a black man's hustle—Iceberg claimed he never saw a white player in his league. Whites were rare, he explained, “Because there’s so many other areas of chicanery, which are much more lucrative, that are open to white fellows.” Iceberg reffered to white women, in the historical sense, of course, as “alabaster supercunts.”
Black pimps of yore (denied entry into the corporate death culture they enjoy today) chose to use their superior intellect to enslave women, avoiding the sucker’s work-a-day world. But controlling 10 women at a time could really fray a fellow’s nerves. One must summon endless schemes and deceptions to stay one step ahead of his treacherous charges: “A pimp is happy when his whores giggle,” Iceberg wrote. “He knows they are still asleep.”
One wrong turn, and Candy Man Dan could “blow whoreless.”
Iceberg told the Washington Post he retired from the life at age 42 “because I was old. I did not want to be teased, tormented and brutalized by young whores.” Girls raised on TV, brainwashed by its tease of material wealth, could no longer fall for the cheap glamour once utilized by Iceberg’s generation of pimps. (In those days, a pimp could tack upon his hotel walls yard rolls of satin from the fabric store, and dazzle the bitches.)
At the age of 55, with four young children, he said, “Now my ambition is to be as good a father as I was a pimp.” Anxious to feed those four hungry beaks, as well as cushion their future, the middle-aged dad wrote, gave lectures and stayed square. It was tough adjusting from Big Daddy to just plain daddy. At first, his infant daughters were like “little whores,” he said. He had a morbid fear of being kissed by them, and would only pick up his kids with their backs toward him. Through grit and determination, and the aid of his new wife, Iceberg eventually fit in—comfortably niched in Los Angeles halfway between Ward and Eldridge Cleaver.
Iceberg Slim’s second novel, Trick Baby, abounds with the preposterous racial torments that Blacks and whites alike once rained upon the poor mulatto or octoroon. Any such person, it was once assumed in the ghetto, must surely be the offspring of a black prostitute and a white trick; thus the title Trick Baby (talk about your snap judgments!).
Trick Baby is the story of his prison mate, the great Chicago con man Johnny O’Brien, of Irish-African blood—known as “White Folks” to his friends, “Trick Baby” to his enemies. Looking like the twin of Errol Flynn, Folks could have entered white society, but spent his early career on Chicago’s South Side, preferring to flimflam his own people.
Iceberg’s prose did indeed grow loftier in sophistication as his success increased. One of the journalistic sketches collected in The Naked Soul of Iceberg Slim, shows him humbled before the Black Panthers:
“Nigger, you kicked black women in the ass for bread. How many you got now?” comes a young Panther. Rather than chop him down with his “still-remembered masterworks of pimp profanity,” Iceberg admits to himself that the Panthers are “superior to that older generation of cowards, of which I am part.” He leaves with “genuine tears rolling down my joyous old nigger cheeks.”
After Iceberg Slim became the American ghetto’s best-selling author, he released a masterful performance album of poetry called Reflections in the early ’70s. The timbre and meter of his voice is so hypnotic, it takes no stretch of the imagination to see how he sweet-talked hundreds of wavering females into the world’s oldest profession. Such a demonstration, in fact, is reenacted for your listening pleasure on the opening vignette, “The Fall.”
We can only speculate that Iceberg’s literary education in prison included the discovery of poet Robert W. Service, whose meter he emulates. Service wrote doggerel epics at the turn of the century, like “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” As Service wrote of what he knew—the Klondike and the Gold Rush—so did Iceberg write what he knew, using the form made popular by Service.
Holloway House, the independent Black publishing group in Los Angeles, which has published Iceberg exclusively in paperback, since 1969, features Iceberg’s seven novels as its flagship titles. Holloway spokesman Mitchell Neal brazenly told me that books by Black authors were unavailable during the ’60s—not only dismissing black establishment writers of the era, but poets (Leroi Jones), playwrights (Ed Bullins, Melvin Van Peebles), show-biz bios (Sammy Davis’ Yes I Can!, Pigmeat Markham’s Here Come Da Judge!) and numerous political manifestos. But he was not far off the mark, as bookstores had not yet initiated the “African-American” section. (Which smacks of segregation, and begs the question, why not have a White People section? Or add a Colored Only water fountain to the African-American aisle?)
In the 1970s, Holloway represented an alternative Black literature in paperback—Iceberg Slim as its flagship author, followed by the oeuvres of Donald Goines (16 titles), Odie Hawkins (16 titles), Joe Nazel (10 titles), Rae Shawn Stewart (five titles), and a spectrum of black westerns, mysteries, crime sagas, biographies. A half-dozen different pimp memoirs, for instance, followed on the heels of Iceberg—who remains America's true pimp-laureate.
art by Drew Friedman
© 1997, 2010 Josh Alan Friedman
From Pimp: The Story of My Life
A good pimp doesn’t get paid for screwing. He gets his pay-off for always having the right thing to say to a whore right on lightning tap. I knew my four whores were flapping their ears to get my reaction to this beautiful bitch. A pimp with an overly fine bitch in his stable has to keep his game tight. Whores constantly probe for weakness in a pimp.
I fitted a scary mask on my face and said, in a low, deadly voice, “Bitch, are you insane? No bitch in this family calls any shots or muscles me to do anything. Now take your stinking yellow ass upstairs to a bath and some shut-eye. Get in the street at noon like I told you.”
The bitch just stood there. Her eyes slitted in anger. I could sense she was game to play the string out right there in the street before my whores. If I had been ten-years dumber I would have leaped out of the ‘Hog’ and broken her jaw, and put my foot in her ass. The joint was too fresh in my mind.
I knew the bitch was trying to booby-trap me when she spat out her invitation. “Come on, kick my ass. What the hell do I need a man I only see when he comes to get his money? I am sick of it all. I don’t dig stables and never will. I know I’m the new bitch who has to prove herself. Well Goddamnit, I am sick of this shit. I'm cutting out.”
She stopped for air and lit a cigarette. I was going to blast her ass off when she finished. I just sat there staring at her.
Then she went on, “I have turned more tricks in the three months I have been with you than in the whole two years with Paul. My pussy stays sore and swollen. Do I get my ass kicked before I split? If so, kick it now because I’m going back to Providence on the next thing smoking.”
She was young, fast with trick appeal galore. She was a pimp’s dream and she knew it. She had tested me with her beef. She was laying back for a sucker response.
I disappointed her with my cold overlay. I could see her wilt as I said in an icy voice. “Listen square-ass bitch, I have never had a whore I couldn’t do without. I celebrate, Bitch, when a whore leaves me. It gives some worthy bitch a chance to take her place and be a star. You scurvy Bitch, if I shit in your face, you gotta love it and open your mouth wide.”
The rollers cruised by in a squad car. I flashed a sucker smile on my face. I cooled it until they passed. Kim was rooted there wincing under the blizzard.
I went on ruthlessly, “Bitch, you are nothing but a funky zero. Before me you had one chili chump with no rep. Nobody except his mother ever heard of the bastard. Yes, Bitch, I’ll be back this morning to put your phony ass on the train.”
I rocketed away from the curb. In the rear-view mirror, I saw Kim walk slowly into the hotel. Her shoulders were slumped. Until I dropped the last whore off you could have heard a mosquito crapping on the moon. I had tested out for them, “solid ice.”
I went back for Kim. She was packed and silent. On the way to the station, I riffled the pages in that pimp’s book in my head. I searched for an angle to hold her without kissing her ass.
I couldn’t find a line in it for an out like that. As it turned out the bitch was testing and bluffing right down the line.
We had pulled into the station parking lot when the bitch fell to pieces. Her eyes were misty when she yelped, “Daddy, are you really going to let me split? Daddy, I love you.”
I started the prat action to cinch her when I said, “Bitch, I don’t want a whore with rabbit in her. I want a bitch who wants me for life. You have got to go. After that bullshit earlier this morning, you are not that bitch.”
That prat butchered her. She collapsed into my lap crying and begging to stay. I had a theory about splitting whores. They seldom split without a bankroll.
So, I cracked on her, “Give me that scratch you held out and maybe I'll give you another chance.”
Sure enough she reached into her bosom. She drew out close to five bills and handed it to me. No pimp with a brain in his head cuts loose a young beautiful whore with lots of mileage left in her. I let her come back.