PIMPIN' THE DICTIONARY
ICEBERG SLIM: A CRIMINALLY GOOD WRITER
Iceberg Slim has been called "America's most-read black author" and "the greatest storyteller of the ghetto." He conjures up characters so real, you can whiff their intestines. His seven paperbacks have sold more than four million copies worldwide.
So how come you've never heard of him? Because he writes mainly about pimps and hoods, not exactly the stuff of PEN/Faulkner Awards. The Washington Post wrote that "He may have done for the pimp what Jean Genet did for the homosexual and thief: articulate the thoughts and feelings of someone who's been there."
Iceberg Slim was born Robert Beck in Chicago during World War I. As a teenager, he chose the street world over the straight world. He became a pimp and was busted right after his first hooker turned her second trick. His unflinching, emotionless demeanor earned him the 'Iceberg' tag: COLD. A parole officer once measured his IQ at 175. Beck perfected the pimpin' game in and out of the joint until he reached his forties. While serving an especially dismal stretch (see ". . . on Being in Prison," below), Robert Beck concluded he was too old to compete with the young cons.
He decided to keep his street name and pimp the dictionary instead. As a writer, he can be as eloquent as James Baldwin (but rougher):
I want to say at the outset that I have become ill, insane as an inmate of a torture chamber behind America's fake facade of justice and democracy. But I am not as ill as I was, and I am getting better all the time. (The Naked Soul of Iceberg Slim, 1971);
and as lyrical as LeRoi Jones (but with more heart):
It was ten-thirty. The sky was a fresh, bright bitch. This first April night had gone sucker and gifted her with a shimmering bracelet of diamond stars. The fat moon lurked like an evil yellow eye staring down at the pimps, hustlers, and whores hawk-eyeing for a "mark," a "cop."
I felt the raw tenderness of first April winds lashing at the hem of my white alligator. I felt the birth stirrings of that poisonous pimp's rapture. I felt powerful and beautiful. (Pimp: The Story of My Life, 1969.)
Iceberg Slim abandoned a life of crime, but he didn't disown the criminal milieu. He lives in South-Central L.A. on Crenshaw Boulevard, an unofficial dividing line between Crip and Blood gangs. In keeping with the pimp ethos, the 'Berg's as skilled a talker as he is a writer. He offered some street wisdom in a chat with ANSWER Me!:
ICEBERG SLIM . . . on Growing Up Poor:
"Listen, man, I've led a hard life. I came from where if you weren't tough, you would expire just from the pressure.... In my own case, I went against my mother's expectations of me. She wanted me to be a lawyer. But when I was growing up-this is not a cop-out-but there were not that many opportunities for a young black person, you know? Even with an education. But anyway, the environment poisoned me, street-poisoned me at an early age. We lived in an area where all of the affluent people, obviously affluent people, were pimps. Black pimps. And they had these big-even in the midst of the Depression-they had these big, beautiful cars and these fabulously sexy broads, sometimes five and six with them. And some [pimps] had diamond insets in their teeth, and when they smiled the sun would catch them fuckin' diamond insets and all that gold-it was fashionable, you see? And the clothes-oh! And they were so perfectly barbered and just smooth. And this was quite an experience for me. And I'd see 'em every day-my mother had a beauty shop-and the men would come in and get their nails manicured, and I could see 'em at firsthand. And they seemed to be so glamorous and so worldly and so polished and sophisticated, you know? So this is what molded my thinking, and I wanted to be a pimp, for Christ's sake! I used to just dream about being a pimp and having all those sexy women givin' me money. Oh, my God!"
ICEBERG SLIM . . . on Being in Prison:
"I haven't had any brush with the police in the last three decades.... Let me tell you about the last bit I did. I had escaped from a prison one afternoon .... Nobody knew how I did it. It's in my book, Pimp. Now, the reason I escaped was 'cause it was a bad prison, OK? When I was apprehended thirteen years later-now we're coming to the dehumanizing part of it-they put me into a cell that was no more than, couldn't have been more than eight feet deep and no more than four feet wide, man, and kept me in there for a year. Like a steel box, man, a steel casket for a year, man. Get it? Now, sometimes the food, especially the breakfast food, would have worms in it. But guess who ate it? Because I knew at the time that worms were protein, but it took some doing.... Now, we know there's some mean coppers, right, in the street? Well, they got some mean cocksuckers in those joints, man. Oh, man! I mean, terrible, terrible people, man...."
ICEBERG SLIM . . . on Wealth:
"Affluent people are not as a rule held in jail, but for other people who are not so affluent, I mean, they serve it....I don't think there's more than one white person from a wealthy background on death row anywhere in the country. They're all poor white people and blacks....I don't think it's possible to send a truly wealthy person in this country to the execution chamber. I doubt it. Well, let's put it this way: It is highly improbable. [Laughs] Better cut ourselves some slack on that."
ICEBERG SLIM . . . on Ronald Reagan:
"Our dear friend Reagan. He's the one who turned this flood tide of not caring, and he's responsible in my opinion for the reactivation of overt racism to the extent and degree that it now flourishes....Reagan, from what I can understand, he was just a yes-man for powerful corporate interests....The country really went backward, man! And you know for a fact, man, any rational person knows that there's no way that the so-called gang culture could have become what it is today, man, if just the minimal opportunity that existed prior to Reagan's administration had been enforced."
ICEBERG SLIM . . . on Moral Morons:
"I think in this country they look down, the people who criticize and don't seem to want to understand crime and why, I think they just feel that they're superior and the people who commit crimes are so inferior that they're not worth doing anything for except incarcerating and killing in the death chambers across the nation....If they do feel that these people are human, they don't feel they're the same kind of human being that they are. In other words, just a different brand, if you will. And then, oddly enough, some of them are Christians, so-called Christians. Now, this is the unkindest cut of all-a Christian racist, man, believe me, that is one dirty son-of-a-bitch."
ICEBERG SLIM . . . on Prison overcrowding:
"I think that there is a very callous attitude, especially toward black do-wrongers. I think that there is a lot of warehousing being done and no effort anymore at rehabilitation. I mean, that's for sure....I made a statement that wasn't received so wonderfully well. I made a lecture tour when I was well enough to go on the college circuit. I think it was in a white college, I've forgotten where, somewhere in Illinois, and I cracked that since there was a total lack of compassion and a need to try to understand the so-called criminal, I said that I thought that it should be mandatory that all young men should be conscripted, just like they do for the Army, and be forced to serve a year in the penitentiary. And that got it. Oh, boy! . . . More criminals are being created where they're needed, and they'll fill up as many [prisons] as they can build. All of the negative processes that are creating the high-level criminality that exists now are still in operation, because they will not touch or attempt to do anything about it."
ICEBERG SLIM. . . on Racism:
"This is from experience and from having lived a long time: Categorically in America, it's much worse for a black person, I mean, especially a male. The black male population has been decimated, practically and spiritually. That's why there's so many fatherless families, among other reasons, but that's why. And I hate to say this, and don't take this as being self-hatred necessarily, it's just a statement of fact: It's almost like when you're born black, you're born with such a disadvantage. Which is not to say that certain intrepid black individuals don't rise beyond all their handicaps . . . but the truth is, I feel so triumphant that at seventy-two that I've survived, 'cause I've got news for you, rhetorically: If a nigger, if a male nigger is able to survive in this society to be almost seventy-two, friend, he has accomplished one hell of a miracle. Believe me. Believe me....
"No place in a so-called hallowed area like Beverly Hills, for instance, is safe at night for a black male. If you want to commit suicide, like I was joking, telling a young man, he was cracking you know, about, 'Oh, life is, man...' I said, 'Look-you wanna commit suicide?' He said, 'Yeah. ' I said, 'Go to Beverly Hills tonight and sit around one o'clock. Just go there and walk. Just walk three blocks and then run. When you see the police, and when they pull toward you or ask you to come to the car or whatever, run. That's all you gotta do. It's easy.'"
Regrettably, Iceberg Slim died shortly after this interview was conducted. For more information about Iceberg Slim, write to Holloway House, the self-described "World's Largest Publisher of Black Experience Paperback Books, " 8060 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90046.
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