Street Poison: The Biography of Iceberg Slim
The first and definitive biography of one of America's bestselling, notorious, and influential writers of the twentieth century: Iceberg Slim, né Robert Beck, author of the multimillion-copy memoir Pimp and such equally popular novels as Trick Baby and Mama Black Widow. From a career as a, yes, ruthless pimp in the '40s and '50s, Iceberg Slim refashioned himself as the first and still the greatest of "street lit" masters, whose vivid books have made him an icon to such rappers as Ice-T, Jay-Z, and Snoop Dogg and a presiding spirit of "blaxploitation" culture. You can't understand contemporary black (and even American) culture without reckoning with Iceberg Slim and his many acolytes and imitators.
Literature professor Justin Gifford has been researching the life and work of Robert Beck for a decade, culminating in Street Poison, a colorful and compassionate biography of one of the most complicated figures in twentieth-century literature. Drawing on a wealth of archival material—including FBI files, prison records, and interviews with Beck, his wife, and his daughters—Gifford explores the sexual trauma and racial violence Beck endured that led to his reinvention as Iceberg Slim, one of America's most infamous pimps of the 1940s and '50s. From pimping to penning his profoundly influential confessional autobiography, Pimp, to his involvement in radical politics, Gifford's biography illuminates the life and works of one of American literature's most unique renegades.
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strike at the Wehr Steel mill, the police were called in by management to protect black strikebreakers. Instead, they helped white workers attack blacks. According to official reports, “Police had been summoned to protect those who cared to enter but in turn joined in with the strikers in overturning an automobile filled with Negro workers.”4 Despite these numerous dangers, African Americans still came to Milwaukee for the generous wages that were impossible to earn in the South. Milwaukee’s
Starbucks in Silver Lake near her home. We talked for many hours, and she told me about Beck’s passion for writing, the radical political views that he shared with the Black Panthers, and his ongoing struggles over royalty payments with his white publisher, which lasted until his death. This was just the first of many meetings I would have with Mrs. Beck, and over the years she provided me with Beck’s unpublished writings, his royalty statements, book contracts, and fan letters. More important,
corners where working-class black men congregated. The most well-known toasts included “The Signifying Monkey,” “Stackolee,” and “Shine.” In each toast, the speaker creatively bragged about a folk hero’s cleverness or “badness.” Like the dozens and the pimp book, these toasts grew out of African American oral expressions, and they became the direct forerunners of the comedy of Rudy Ray Moore and the gangsta rap of N.W.A, Ice-T, and Snoop Dogg.77 Witnessing the pimp toast for the first time made
enterprises during the formative years of America’s modern urbanization. Even when he was an infant, Beck’s life was influenced by Chicago’s prostitution and other vice rackets. When Robert and Mary arrived in Chicago, they found jobs in one of the hotel kitchens downtown. They couldn’t save any money, however, as Robert’s father was taken in by the neighborhood’s glimmering underworld scene. Having been part of Nashville’s upwardly mobile and respectable black working-class society, he had