Much of his life was the definition of “bad” – but there was good in Robert Beck, better known as Iceberg Slim, not least in the world opened by his writing and in his unvarnished censure of racism in America. Justin Gifford’s biography, Street Poison, brings accuracy and a measure of balance to the Beck’s Progress. Beck, who died in 1992 at the age of seventy-four, was a cruel pimp for a quarter century, running his “stables” from Cleveland to Seattle, leaving his mark on pimp cool. Then a ten-month stint in Leavenworth’s isolation unit folded him inward. To survive, he lived purely in his head and found there a street voice he fashioned into a cultural force. Beck also was on the receiving end of enough primary source experience to speak with authority about racism’s ubiquity and consequences. This he did for three decades. Try to measure the pain he caused others against the value of the work he turned to, and you’ll find yourself faced with a moral equation insoluble by mortals.
Beck, who entered life as Robert Moppins, Jr., in Chicago, was a son of the Great Migration, the journey taken north by many southern African Americans at the start of the First World War. One of the particular strengths of Gifford’s work is his setting of the action’s surrounding circumstances: crisply informative without being dry. Here you will come to understand the motivating factors of northern migration, the evolution of the neighborhoods known as “Black Belt,” the forces that brought certain industries to the ghetto.
Stability was not a hallmark of Beck’s early years. Once in Chicago, Beck’s father fell to gambling and, in his son’s words, “couldn’t stay away from the high-yellow whores.” Beck’s mother got remarried to a good man, whom Beck loved and whom his mother ditched for a worthless, violent hustler. This act of abandonment would scar Beck, but by this point Gifford has made the case that the young Beck was a basket of damaged goods. His earliest memory is of sexual assault by a female babysitter: Gifford writes that Beck “attributed his anxious and violent relationships with the women he pimped to this incident.” If the episode was not the final word, there is little wonder it introduced complexities into Beck’s worldview.
Rockford, Illinois: 1930. “The end of Beck’s childhood and the beginning of his life of crime” — at thirteen years of age — “coincided with his first encounter with pimps,” writes Gifford. As Beck described it: “My mother had a beauty shop and she catered to a colony of black hookers and pimps. And these fellows would be decked out in all their finery with all their diamonds.” The teenager saw in them a future for himself of power and possession. “I wanted to become a pimp, so I could have all these beautiful clothes and the diamonds and the women. You know, groups of women. And that’s how I got street poisoned.”
There was then a certain feudal order to pimping. You needed a mentor, someone who would reveal the secrets of the “pimp book,” an African-American oral tradition and a sort of Robert’s Rules of Order into the complexities of pimping. These unwritten rules “were created by the first pimps who came to the northern cities after the end of slavery. They adapted the physical and mental cruelty of the slave system in order to control a stable of women.” The pimp might resort to beatings with a wire coat hanger, but smoke-and-mirrors was just as inhumane and more insidious. “I also discovered that whores need and use the flashy front, notoriety and phony glamour of the pimp to get a sense of personal importance and worth. . . . What he does is keep them conned, confused, bamboozled and fascinated so they will continue to hump his pockets fat with greenbacks.” His mentor told him pimping’s key was to be mysterious and aloof: “Pimping ain’t no sex game. It’s a skull game . . . to be a good pimp, you gotta be icy.”
On the way to becoming top pimp — and nothing tops the size and coldness of an iceberg — Beck used every trick and insight in the book. He knew that many prostitutes, like pimps, were victims of childhood abuse or sexual molestation. He would prey on any guilt and self-loathing, berate and punish the woman. He would unload one of his poisonous monologues: “essentially a string of stylized insults and come-ons, the rundown is designed to manipulate would-be prostitute by using a combination of verbal abuse and sexual innuendo to knock her off balance.” A pimp without a sharp, fast tongue was no pimp at all. They would contest each other in spoken-word competitions — playing the dozens, sidewalk songs — of considerable braggadocio, cunning, and vulgarity. Some of the most audacious wordplay and punning was found in the pimp toast, “a long, profane poem that . . . emphasized exaggerated sexual humor.” The toast, Gifford suggests, is part of the circuitry of gangsta rap and hip-hop. “A lot of people think that top pimps are dummies. That’s not true. They’re just perverted. I’ve never known a top pimp who didn’t have a high IQ.” Beck would practice for hours and eventually become a grandmaster. Rudy Ray Moore, N.W.A., and Ice-T were all listening, as are street fiction writers today.
So far in the story, Beck is a shimmering downer. Gifford strives for that balance; not diminishing Beck’s ugly behavior but seeking to find in it some hard truths: the effects of trauma and the institution of racism; the bitter and embracing allegory of those to whom evil is done. He endeavors to separate the everyday, wildly outrageous from the possibly apocryphal, but not discountable, insanely outrageous.
Then comes one of those moments when the earth tilts on its axis and nothing is the same. All it took was a stretch in solitary, to the brink of madness. Anyone who has faced losing their grip will relate; such a sea change isn’t fanciful but nigh-on inevitable. Never again would prison be an option for Beck — and that meant neither was pimping. And it wasn’t just Beck who was changing. Gifford draws the new world, where urban renewal erased black neighborhoods, Brown took on the Board of Education and Rosa Parks took the nearest seat, mass culture brought glamour to the masses. The old-school pimp’s days were numbered, and Beck — over forty when he got out of prison, which is when a pimp gets his senior citizen card — picked up a pen.
While Watts burned, Beck leaned on his well-groomed use of words and wrote Pimp, a pulp autobiography, a paperback-original raw and gutsy street book. It sold in barbershops, liquor stores, newsstands, mom-and-pops; it was read in prisons, military bases, schools. For Beck, writing Pimp must have been like an engagement with living theater; for many others, it was a literary naturalism that resurrected black crime fiction. The Black Panthers expressed polite disdain. Beck expressed admiration for the Black Panthers. He next wrote Trick Baby, “a story that nicely balances sensational street hustles and nuanced racial critique.” (Add Mama Black Widow, with its left-of-the-cutting-edge gay storyline, and his first three books sold 2 million copies in five years; his publisher, Holloway House, screwed him out of royalties. He was not above the outlaw when money was tight — he ran a scam involving televisions full of bricks rather than tubes and wiring — and he delivered lectures on the psychosexual dynamic that prompts white racists to seek out black prostitutes. Then again, he understood the invisibility of the black in the white world.
Beck influenced and inspired writers from Donald Goines and Odie Hawkins to Vickie M. Stricker and Wahida Clark. He was subversive and anti-establishment and anti-anti-establishment: he wrote on the potential for black revolution, the class divide in America, Western standards of beauty, the racism of the prison system, the treason of the black middle class. He shaped homosexual characters and themes: Gifford claims that “Detective Rucker . . . represents Beck’s most concentrated attempt to write a white character — a policeman, no less — with a sense of complex interiority and morality . . . a three-dimensional white police officer, the object of hatred among many black Americans, including himself.” Beck died in 1992, living alone, as he liked it, some of his kids coming to visit, thinking who-knows-what about life in the era he wrote about. But in an era when racial inequity continues to define the shape of American society, much of what his books captured still, tragically, retains an arresting power.