"...those who enjoy the darker side of the genre are in for some serious thrills with this..."
Laura Wilson, The Guardian
Published in the UK by Polygon (March 19th, '09) and in the US by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (Nov '09).
iceberg slim: the transcendence of hate over repression
by Kerry J. Schooley
In 1969 Holloway House Publishing Company released Pimp, The Story of My Life by Iceberg Slim. With questionable grammar and spelling, Pimp related Robert Beck’s experiences as a very successful purveyor of women in cities from Ohio to Wisconsin, and mostly in Chicago where he had become something of a legend in the subculture.
A rhythmic street vernacular gave credence to Slim’s narration, and his contention that pimping was, in his time, a highly lucrative and skilled trade that received at least a grudging admiration in Black communities in North America. Neither pimping nor prostitution were exclusive to Black Americans of course, but it is significant that among Slim’s peers it was a point of pride that they outperformed their White competitors. Within its own pages, and in its subsequent influence, Pimp represents the triumph of hate over repression.
The mid-twentieth century Black pimp had much in common with the House Nigger, the slave-era worker with few ways to satisfy his ambitions but to move into the plantation manor, imitate White ways and serve the Masters’ personal needs, and those of his family. Economic opportunities remained restricted for Blacks after slavery. Businesses that served their own, economically depressed communities could not realize the same wealth afforded by selling to the larger, richer White market. For American Blacks, the only businesses in which this was possible were the entertainment and the sex industries.
Slim understood the lineage. One of his early lessons in keeping his whores, was that he had to "con them that Lincoln never freed the slaves," (pg. 104.) If Whites held power over him, he had to do the same with his workers.
Even as a teen, with an IQ of 165, Iceberg Slim was ambitious, and saw just one way to get ahead. "My hope to be important and admired could be realized even behind this black stockade. It was simple, just pimp my ass off and get a ton of scratch. Everybody in both worlds kissed your ass black and blue if you had flash and front."
As Lee Hubbard described in Pimpin’ Ain’t Easy, The History of an American Icon: "..in African American mythology, a pimp is much more. The archetype of the black pimp is a male trickster who preys on vulnerable women, a figure with notorious powers of seduction, coercion and mind control. Pimps dazzle women with their style, and skillfully manipulate them into doing what they want. And what a pimp wants more than anything else is money."
The pimp and House Nigger were admired in Black communities for their economic success, but it was well recognized that this success was often a result of exploiting other Blacks. Respect and admiration are not the same as affection, but then there was little love lost in any of the pimp’s other relationships either. The Black pimp hated his White clientele. What else could be felt for a hypocrite that declares sex-for-hire illegal and immoral, then turns to the repressed Black community to supply exactly that? Slim’s mentor tells him, "To show you how sick in the head he (the White man) is, he thinks black broads are dirt beneath his feet. His balls will bust if he don’t sneak through that stockade, to those, to him, half-savage, less than human, black broads," (pg. 195.)
The pimp "has joined a hate club he can’t quit. He can’t do a turn around and be a whore himself in the white boss’s stable unless he was never a pimp in the first place," (pg. 216.) Deep down, the whore hates her pimp as well: "Slim, all whores have one thing in common just like the chumps humping for the white boss. It thrills ‘em when the pimp makes mistakes. They watch and wait for his downfall," (pg. 216.)
In turn, the pimp hates his whores. Slim prays: "I don’t wanta be a stickup man or a dope peddler. I sure as hell won’t be a porter or dishwasher. I just wanta pimp that’s all. It’s not too bad, because whores are rotten. Besides I ain’t going to croak them or drive them crazy. I’m just going to pimp some real white-type living out of them." (pg. 164.)
Yet within the Black community the pimp enjoyed a measure of respect. A small part of this was for his ability, in a matriarchal society, to transcend the power of the woman. Slim blamed his mother for his choice to be a pimp. He recognized that he was punishing her as he punished his whores. He resented the power she had in his life, the choices she made as a result of his father’s absence.
The myth of the Black American pimp is that whores were held with "skull" work, by telling them stories, out-thinking them, rather than solely with the administration of drugs and violence commonly associated with the trade. Violence was frequent, but that was for its own enjoyment, a benefit of the pimp’s power over the whore, as much as for enforcement.
"Back in the joint I had dreamed almost nightly. They were cruel playets," Slim says to introduce visions that emphasized his own power ("I would see myself gigantic and powerful like God Almighty. My clothes would glow. My underwear would be rainbow-hued silk petting my skin") as he slaughtered whores on bloodied steel stakes. "When I awoke my ticker would be earthquaking inside me. The hot volley of the savage thrill lay sticky wet between my trembling thighs," (pg. 78.)
Although pimps only occasionally shared their largess, drugs were used to hold whores only by less capable procurers. Any available highs were for the pimp, and the pimp was greedy. A whore with a habit merely cut into his pleasure. The skillful pimp maintained control through "storytelling", building "air-castles" in the whore’s mind, convincing her she needed her pimp. This was much easier if the woman had been softened up in earlier relationships:
"The pimp’s in the joint had said, ‘There ain’t nothing more important than what makes a new bitch tick and why. You gotta scrape her brain. Find out whether the first joker who layed her was her father or who. Make her tell you her life story," (pg. 114.)
The idea was that, on her own, the whore was worthless. It was the pimp who would make her a "star" on the streets.
On page 115 Slim instructed a young whore for work, but later admitted: "It was just pimp garbage. What the ninety percent know to tell a whore. What she really needed to protect herself in those terrible streets were daily rundowns (descriptions) for as long as she was my woman. How could I rundown the thousand crosses (challenges) she’d face?"
The whore had ample opportunity to escape. The pimp was too busy doping and styling to keep watch or live up to his threats. In fact, most whores did run. A successful pimp like Slim would go through thousands of women in his career. Most lasted a few days to a few weeks. And the pimp was always on the lookout for new talent.
The pimp’s challenge was to make each whore believe she was favoured, the one who, by earning her pimp enough money, would eventually retire to live with him in comfort. But, with a taste for fine clothes, big cars, drugs and high living, the pimp could burn through money as fast as his whores could earn it. He would never "sex" his woman without being paid first. And retirement wasn’t in his vocabulary.
In this regard, drugs and violence were seen to have their use. Slim’s mentor told him how to get rid of a worn-out whore: "I talk like a sweet head-shrinker to her. Instead of air castles, I pump her full of ‘H (heroin.)’
"Her skull starts to jelly. I’ll be worried as hell about her. I’ll start sneaking slugs of morphine or chloral hydrate into her shots. While she’s out, I’ll maybe douse her with chicken blood. She comes to, I’ll tell her I brought her in from the street. I tell her I hope you didn’t croak anybody while you were sleep-walking.
"I got a thousand ways to drive ‘em goofy," (pg. 159.)
The techniques that the pimp used to manipulate his whores could have come straight out of an Industrial Relations handbook. Slim mailed money to himself from out of town, telling his whore he had a prize woman working elsewhere, a practice similar to a business threatening to move operations somewhere with more favourable conditions. On page 85 Slim broke a young whore’s spirit, making her think she had no option but to work for him. Much later in the book he talks about the difficulties of pimping during the war when women could get well-paying jobs in the industrial sector. On page 158 Slim learned the importance of offering the whore long-term promise, dangling affection and marriage in the future like a pension for hard work now. On page 215 Slim’s mentor, Sweet discouraged Slim from pairing working girls with things in common. "They’ll beef to each other and pool their skulls, plots and split to the wind together."
"Once anybody has pimped he is in trouble because this is what the male aspiration is..." Slim told Helen Koblin in a 1972 interview for the LA Free Press. "…whether he is the president of a white corporation, of General Motors for example. It all boils down to the same thing.... Power."
Pimp should be compulsory reading in any post-grad business school. There was a unwritten (until Pimp) "book" of guidelines with rules of behaviour, especially with regard to competitive practice: what was considered fair and acceptable and what was a show of disrespect. New pimps "pulled the coat" of older, more experienced role models for advice, just as corporations maintain boards of directors to provide expert guidance.
"A good pimp is like a slick white boss," Sweet said (pg. 215.)
Sales techniques related largely to basic negotiating skills: "Ask them for a hundred and take ten. You can go down on a price. You can’t go up," (pg. 115.) The rest is advertising hyperbole, or public relations spin, suggesting to White tricks that the black whore offered something that couldn’t be found at home.
The iconic status the Black American pimp had in his own community was due at least partly to his ability to earn easy money by turning the White oppressor’s own needs on himself. Here’s Sweet, Slim’s mentor, again: "Greenie, the white man has been pig-greedy for Nigger broads ever since his first whiff of black pussy," (pg. 195.)
Sweet continues: "He wallows and stains himself. The poor freak’s joy is in his suffering. The chump believes he’s done something dirty to himself. He slips back into his white world. He goes on conning himself he’s God and Niggers are wild filthy animals he has to keep in the stockades.
"The sad thing is he don’t even know he’s sick in the skull," (pg. 196.)
It’s not just sex the White trick is after, but something more: the transcendent sex that is enjoyed by powerful men. Presidents have sex with movie starlets, or with young office interns who might reject or be considered off-limits to most older males. Interracial sex with someone the trick believes is his inferior suggests that extra thrill of power combined with orgasm.
Slim had already seen this "skull" game in action. "He was ugly enough to ‘break daylight with his fist," Slim described an early acquaintance, "but for some curious reason he was irresistible to many of the thrill-seeking white women who sneaked into the black side of town panting as they chased after that hoary myth, ‘Nigger men do it so good it thrills you to your toe nails,’" (pg. 34.)
Later, spying on the action in a "Fast sheet" joint, Slim saw a White couple with a Black friend. "The white joker was tenderly hefting ‘Party Time’s’ weapon in his hand like maybe it was Ming Dynasty Pottery. He said excitedly to the broad, ‘Oh! Honey, can you believe the size, the beauty of it.’ " (pg. 34.)
But Slim knows it is not any special quality he’s delivering: "Flip out of the wheels as much as possible. Flip ‘em fast and crack more scratch for over time," he advises his first young whore (pg. 115.) Quantity is the pimp’s game.
Slim’s early crime was running a con, playing on Whites’ desires to hobnob with their betters: "Man, don’t be offended, but Aunt Kate, that runs the house don’t have nothing but high-class white men coming to her place. No Niggers or poor white trash. You know, doctors, lawyers, big-shot politicians. You look like a clean-cut white man, but you ain’t in that league are you?" (pg. 38.)
For a fee, they offered their services to get the White man into "Aunt Kate’s" high-class bordello, then abandoned him.
Sex wasn’t the only form of transcendence Whites sought in the ghetto. Drugs may have since replaced whoring in economic importance. In Slim’s time the two were proximate, but the pimp was not necessarily a drug dealer. Proximity to potential violence was an additional thrill. White law enforcement seldom strayed into Black ghettos. The Black cops assigned to ride herd might establish themselves as competitors in pimping and other businesses. In illegal enterprise it is up to the entrepreneur him or herself to provide security. In Chapter 13, Slim described earning his nom de guerre for his cool after a bullet from a nearby argument went through his hat.
Drugs and violence were just two more forms of transcendence sought by Whites. Powerful Whites have access to drugs, from pain pills to smoking without inhaling, without consequence. Powerful people are assigned the responsibility to kill on society’s behalf, making war and punishing criminals. And killing is thought to change a person, becoming easier with practice.
The powerful, by definition, have access to transcendence, the means to overcome daily frustrations placed in our paths by circumstance or by others. Failure to transcend is a failure of power. The competition for status is pervasive in White North American culture, creating a hierarchy where the least powerful White could exercise dominance over Blacks in a search for transcendence. The Black American pimp used power over his whores to transcend the impoverishment of his own environment. However noble the desire to rise above human limitations, Slim shows that relationships based on power hierarchies produce hate as a consequence and a requirement.
Sweet says to Slim on page 194: "Sweetheart, you’re black like me. I love you. You got the hate to pimp."
Expecting the life would eventually kill him, Slim squared up at the age of 42, selling bug spray for a number of years before putting pen to paper. He went on to write Mama Black Widow, Trick Baby, The Naked Soul of Iceberg Slim, Airtight Willie & Me, Long White Con and Death Wish, all charting the same social geography in varying degrees of fiction. Though Pimp was an unapologetic, non-moralistic look at the life, Slim understood the corrosive nature of his former occupation on the surrounding community. It was not a recommendation. He admired the Black Panthers, seeing a common cause in Black empowerment, but Black leaders were troubled by the pimp’s role in the exploitation of their Black sisters. There are indications that Slim’s misogyny continued to trouble him. His final book, the posthumously published Doom Fox, was not released by Holloway House. It’s authenticity as a Robert Beck novel has been the cause of lawsuits among his daughters and wives.
Sales of Pimp, his first book, eventually reached over six million copies, with translations into German, Spanish and French. But in North America, sales were largely within black communities. It helped to open a viable new market: Black authors published for Black readers. This triggered the flash of Blaxploitation movies in the 1970s, though here the producers were mostly White. These movies did put black actors on the screen in heroic roles, such as Shaft, modeled partially on pimp values: the powerful, sharp urban hipster with mythological powers over women.
On television the Black pimp street-dandy became a staple of crime shows aimed at White audiences who usually missed the ironic mockery inherent in the character. By the 1970’s, the over-equipped "hog" or "pimpmobile", the exaggerated gait or "pimp roll" and the flamboyant clothing had become parodies of success in America. They said "look at me, I’m so ostentatious I’m practically White."
More subtle was the influence of pimp values on that other commodity valued by the White majority: entertainment, specifically, blues-based music. Blues was born out of rural hardship, but jazz was nurtured in the bordellos of New Orleans and other southern cities. Proximity brought the two occupations together. In Chapter 7, Slim begins the story of a whore living across the hall from him with a jazzman determined to separate her from the life. Others were not so generous. In his autobiography Miles Davis admitted to having pimped women when recordings failed to provide adequate income. Pimp-like cool is the heart of his music. Billie Holliday was a teenaged prostitute before taking up singing. It is hard to imagine her style or the lyrics of the music she wrote without such experience. Charles Mingus, in his autobiographical Beneath The Underdog talks about his brush with pimping, though associates doubt that he took up the trade.
And when Black R&B crossed over to White audiences as rock and roll, it brought, in part, values and ideas from the pimp subculture. Once again there’s the expansion of Black enterprise into a larger audience, and White youth seeking a frankness of sexual expression not otherwise available in post-war suburban culture. One could almost make a parlor game of naming rock songs with allusions to prostitution (House of the Rising Sun, Good Golly Miss Molly…) but it is the arrival of gangster-rap, with its lyrics about guns and "ho’s" that brings pimp values most emphatically into national and international pop culture. It is about gang culture too, of course, but the clothes, the cars, the greed, the misogyny, the drugs and the proximity to violence are all remnants of pimp culture. Sex, drugs and slaughter migrated into sex, drugs and rock and roll, with violence ever present nearby.
"I sat in the corner bugeyed for two hours," Slim says about a particularly instructive pimp party. "My ears flapped to the super-slick dialogue. I was excited by the fast-paced, smooth byplay between these wizards of pimpdom," (pg. 167.)
Rapper-actors Ice Cube and Ice-T both point to Iceberg Slim as inspiration for their stage handles. In his introduction to 1998’s Doom Fox, Ice-T describes Slim as "one of the greatest black writers in American History."
"Rappers like myself, Jay-Z, Nas, Notorious B.I.G., Tupac, Mobb Deep, etc. carry on the legacy of Iceberg Slim," by moving from crime to art.
For North American Whites, if known at all, Pimp is largely relegated to a footnote as a sub-genre of hard-boiled crime writing. Superficially, Slim’s world seems so foreign to middle-class American ideals that it reads like fiction. Parents puzzle over Janet Jackson’s and Jason Timberlake’s tear-away antics or wonder why their pre-teen fans dress in costumes associated more with the boudoir or trick-track than the middle-school prom.
Iceberg Slim knew it’s about power and hate.
Copyright© 2004 John Swan
JOHN SWAN’S the Rouge Murders was published to acclaim in 1996 and his stories have been widely anthologized. He lives in Hamilton, Ontario, where he hosts a web site, www.murderoutthere.com.