|Ghetto Pulp Fiction – The Wild Frontier
Lector drd. Liliana MĂRUNTELU
Universitatea ,,Ovidius” Constanţa
The American ethnic literature of the 60s, 70s and 80s contains a clear allusion to the old myths either the ones about the supreme promise, or those about the fear that they might become victims of the modern society. Because of this, many young black men felt that they could do better financially in the underground economy than in the mainstream economy. This had a great impact on the black youth culture which came to be infused with prison culture and street culture. Donald Goines and Iceberg Slim are the two authors whose lives in prison and in the ghettoes have been immortalized in novels like “Whoreson” or “Pimp-the Story of My Life”. They come from the gritty underbelly of society where one has to be tough in order to survive. Their heroes are major representatives of this world, looking hard to find a certain identity. Their stories are appealing as a part of the “wild frontier".
The Crisis in African-American Culture
In January 1967 Time magazine declared: “The Man of the Year 1966 is a generation: the man – and woman- of 25 and under”. 1 The youth of the 60s are “well-educated , affluent, rebellious, responsible, pragmatic, idealistic, brave, alienated, and hopeful”.2. People of colour were not well educated and affluent but their desire to be so – and also to eliminate racial and ethnic discrimination in American society – caused them to strike out at that society in ways that were both similar to and strikingly different from the efforts of earlier generations.
For the ethnic communities in the United States, the 1960’s proved tumultuous and led to major reconfigurations of identity and culture.
As an American model that implies the simultaneous existence of various cultures, cultural pluralism is liberal pluralism.3. It reflects unity in diversity, being based on a strong belief in fundamental civil rights, in the democratic principles of equality by birth and equal opportunity. Beginning with the turbulent 60s, the American universalist creed expressed in the melting pot metaphor has constantly been challenged. The “new ethnicity” of the 1970’s and the “new pluralism” of the 1980s represent two stages of the same process of “ethnification” of America which started in the mid sixties in response to issues of race and power. It politicized the ideas of ethnic difference expressing a new self-awareness, a growing sense of self and increasing resistance to hegemonic culture.
The ethnic literature of this period contains a clear allusion to the old myths, either the ones about the supreme promise, or those about the fear that they (the minorities) might become victims
of the modern society. The individual is seen as an exiled in his own world. These novels are meditations on the complicated situation of the modern man, lonely and lost in a world of urban anonymity, of totalitarian threat and indifference, coming from beyond the “iron curtain”.
Social Protests and Youth Black Culture
Class warfare. In the 1960s, urban riots were motivated primarily by Black/white social inequalities. Most of the riots, like those since, were sparked by incidents of police brutality. Much of the rioting in those days occurred in a climate in which civil rights/Black power generationers were in search of social justice. The worst of the 1960s rioting followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and signaled a movement away from nonviolent civil disobedience.
The Explosion of Gangs and Drugs. Many pushed out from the mainstream economy take refuge in the street gangs. For many both in and outside of street gangs and cliques, selling drugs has been one of the most viable “job” options in the face of limited meaningful employment. Many young Black men felt that they could do better financially in the underground economy than in the mainstream economy. High imprisonment rates due to increased policing focused on drug crimes landed thousands of Black men behind bars.
One of the best indicators of the degree to which prison culture has been infused into Black youth culture can be seen in the transformation of Black street gangs from the 1960s, into the 1970s and the 1980s. Arrest and imprisonment of gang members led to organized structures within prisons. Prison gangs inevitably became connected to their street counterparts. In fact, many gang members report that they first joined gangs while they were in prison. As the line between street gangs and prison gangs blur, so do the distinction between prison culture, street culture, and Black youth culture.4
The blurring can be observed in the evolution of hip-hop music. As hip-hop culture became more commercialized in the 1980s, primarily through the success enjoyed by rap music, aspects of prison culture became more apparent in rap music and Black Youth culture, from the use of language and styles of dress to extensive commentary on crime and prison life. With so many Blacks entering and exiting prison this influence is inescapable and maps its disruptive impact on the Black family, gender relations, economic and political prospects, health and well-being, as well as hip hop and other media representations of Black youth.5
America’s Outcasts and the Hip Hop Generation
Hip-hop music, college courses, prison literacy programs, the Internet and upcoming film projects have fueled a burgeoning interest in writings by Donald Goines and Iceberg Slim (born Robert Beck). Their works, tales of the urban underground and the world of larger-than-life hustlers who lived--and often died--by their wits, continue to attract a huge readership.
Donald Goines produced sixteen novels in a five-year period before he was gunned down at his typewriter in Highland Park, Michigan in 1974. He was in his mid-thirties at the time of his death. Robert Beck, who wrote as Iceberg Slim, published seven books, both fiction and nonfiction, before his death in 1992 at the age of 73. Their devotees include Ice-T and Ice Cube (whose adopted rap handles are a play on Iceberg Slim's moniker), mystery writer Gary Phillips, New Orleans Saints' quarterback Aaron Brooks and righteous rapper Talib Kweli.6
Books by Goines and Beck, along with more literary novels by Chester Himes and Ishmael Reed, have become required reading for many members of the hip-hop generation. These authors have struck a chord with young urban males between the ages of 16 and 25. It is a large audience but one that rarely reads for pleasure. For many, these books cover familiar ground. Gangster rap lyrics often replicate the themes and tone found here. Even Rainbow Flava, a San Francisco-based gay hip-hop group, direct those who question their participation in the music form to Iceberg Slim's Mama Black Widow, the story of a gay transvestite.7
Such works have been called black pulp fiction, ghetto literature, underground literature, post-prison writings and a number of not-so-polite names. Iceberg Slim's and Goines's books now share shelf space in black bookstores and national chains with works by Chester Himes, Richard Wright, Malcolm X and others who presented their own versions of urban life. Why are these stories still popular after more than three decades? What can be learned from them? Sterling Plumpp, a professor of English and African American studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago says, "Books by both [Iceberg Slim] and Goines emerge from a lifestyle many young urban blacks know only too well. They come from the gritty underbelly of society where one has to be tough in order to survive. It is a place in which one has to be a genius, of sorts, in order to thrive. The Stagger Lees and Malcolm Littles were once denizens of the worlds portrayed in their novels."8
Plumpp readily admits academia's focus would prefer interest in more highbrow and middlebrow authors. "The ideal would be to get the world and characters Iceberg Slim and Donald Goines wrote about presented from the virtuoso literary perspective of an Ishmael Reed, Leon Forrest or Toni Morrison. Not all blacks know their history and can appreciate what Morrison's Beloved or Alice Walker's The Color Purple or Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man does with it," he says. From Richard Wright's heyday in the '40s to the early '70s was a kind of a golden age in publishing for Black male writing, not surprising considering how much ink Black masculinity generated in those years. Old School includes the works of Iceberg Slim, Donald Goines, and near-forgotten heads like Henry Van Dyke, John A. Williams, Clarence Cooper Jr., and Robert Deane Pharr. The ouevre of Iceberg Slim (b. Robert Beck), legendary author of Pimp:The Story of My Life, Trick Baby, and the recently republished Mama Black Widow and just-published Doom Fox, occupies a peculiar niche between the serious naturalism of the heavyweights (Wright, Himes, Baldwin, Ellison, and Morrison) and the garish ghettocentric fabulism of Beck's nearest rival, Donald Goines. Beck didn't start writing until he was in his forties and his subjects were often drawn from his life on Chicago's streets. At 19 he was a charismatic pimp, whose ''ice-cool front'' and ''Machiavellian manipulations'' earned him good money and the fearful respect of those in the hustler world. After a few stints in jail, where he began writing, he quit what he called ''The Life'' and began to tell his story.
"Many readers of this genre are barely literate, but have Ph.D's from the school of hard knocks and seek a better understanding of the world in which they live. And these writers provide them with characters and episodes they know and can identify with from their daily living. It is not always beautiful and neatly packaged, but it pulsates with the rhythms of a beating heart pumping blood through veins."9
Professor Carl S. Taylor of Michigan State University's Institute for Children, Youth and Families has studied youth culture for almost three decades. He says the stories of Iceberg Slim and Donald Goines are appealing as a part of the "wild frontier." "White and black middle-class youth are drawn to the stories because they present a side of life that others have tried to hide from them. Street culture has always appealed to these kids," says Taylor. "They have been taught to look at the preacher and the teacher for examples of the community, but not the total environment--never the pimp. This is what people still are ashamed of. That's what makes it exciting to young people."
The “Bestiary” of the Ghetto Pulp Fiction
Not surprisingly, Slim devotees refer to his books as classics. Before his death, Slim's books had sold more than six million copies. Pimp, probably his best-known work, continues to rack up sales in the U.S. and Europe. (It has been translated into French, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, Swedish, and Greek.) Goines takes the reader into the violent world of ghetto prostitution. Whoreson Jones, the novel's hero, is the son of a beautiful black prostitute and an unknown white john. By the age of sixteen, he is a fully- fledged pimp, cold-blooded, ruthless. Written in gritty street talk, Whoreson's story affords a startling glimpse into the hell of the inner city, yet bristles with bitter humor and defiant pride. Iceberg Slim's description of the gritty street life pre- and post-World War II creates an almost unimaginable world. A world that's a far cry from the MTV-style, pseudo-pimp posturing portrayed in today's mainstream media. It was a world of hard drugs and hard living where Darwin's survival of the fittest reigned. Slim tells it like it is; there's absolutely no political correctness.10 Then again, his environment was not one that could support any false pretenses like suburban PC life does these days.
Some may say, 'but isn't he promoting this type of behavior?' Quite on the contrary: it's every man for himself in Slim's world; he has his highs and lows, both literally and figuratively. The mere fact that he survived to tell the tale, (unlike many others in "the game" who went early to their graves), and went from abusing and exploiting women to wedded life and fatherhood is testament enough NOT to follow his lead. Those who aspire to be where he is now know that the road he chose is not one dotted with success stories: the fleeting glamour and glory of the pimp lifestyle leads not to greater things, but often to nothing. Slim, although an exception, makes this abundantly clear without stooping to the level of an apologist. He is a major creative influence on so many musicians and writers working outside the bland mainstream, both in his native America and in the U.K. stream.
Pimp – The Story of My Life is Slim’s story, told without bitterness and with no pretense at moralizing describing the smells, the sounds, the fears, and the petty triumphs in a world of the pimp.
He was young, ambitious and blessed with a high I.Q. He lived in the Game for twenty-five years of his life, knocking out whores, building up stables losing himself on scag, proving himself to be the biggest mack in Chicago. It was a life of ups and downs, and, to succeed, you had to be utterly ruthless.
Pimp (1967) is the ultimate look at the whore trade. Iceberg, with his command of the rich language of the black ghetto (there's a glossary at the end of the book) tears into the rich philosophy of the pimp. A Pimp is not allowed to show emotion to his whores, and Iceberg was the extreme
expression - thus earning him a nickname that prefigures rap avatars two decades hence. According to the Ice, "a pimp is happy when his whores giggle.
He knows they are still asleep... All whores have one thing in common just like the chumps humping for the white boss. It thrills 'em when the pimps makes mistakes. They watch and wait for his downfall. A pimp is the loneliest bastard on Earth. He's gotta know his whores. He can't let them know him. He's gotta be God all the way."11
Pimp is a unique book into a dark world that not many people get to see and much less relate to. Robert Beck takes the reader on a journey to witness his captivating transgression from an abused and emotionally scared child into a misogynist money hungry beast. Poverty, prison, a missing role model and the general feeling of hopelessness commonplace in the ghetto made Beck a product of his environment. Iceberg Slim sold six million books, mostly in black communities.
What is criminally insane is that his work is not well known in mainstream white America. At the very least his work matches up with the likes of Jim Thompson, David Goodis, and other great 'hardboiled' crime writers.
Iceberg Slim is also the Godfather of Blackploitation. He also looms over the hip-hop world - not only with his ultra- cool image, but with the sheer power of his language, which reads like butter melting on a hot toast. Like another Black icon, James Brown, Iceberg was a genius who defined his own era with unique artistry.12
There is a theory that all African American novels, no matter how trashy, are philosophical enterprises, novels of ideas, as all black lives, no matter how unexamined, are mired in contemplation of a single big idea, African American Otherness. As science fiction novels are all about apprehending the alien condition, African American novels and memoirs, whether ''serious'' or grocery store, are about the in-between-ness of American blackness--W. E. B. Du Bois's famed double consciousness, which derives less from the space between African and American than it does from the way African humanity continues to be deemed oxymoronic.
Bakari Kitwana, The Hip Hop Generation, New York, 2002.
Brian Neve, Film and Politics in America: A social Tradition, London, Routledge, 1992
Generations of Youth , Youth Cultures and History in Twentieth –Century America, New York University Press, New York,1998.
Holly Skylar, Chaos and Community: Seeking Solutions Not Scapegoats, Boston, South End Press, 1995.
Holly Skylar, Chaos and Community: Seeking Solutions Not Scapegoats, Boston, South End Press, 1995.
Iceberg Slim, Pimp: The Story of My Life ,Payback Press, Edinburgh, 1996, p.13.