I learned a bit of largely unknown history this week thanks to Justin Gifford’s piece on Robert “Iceberg Slim” Beck, a writer who drew on his many years’ experience on the wrong side of the law to pen a series of lurid novels. His autobiography Pimp: The Story of My Life, was published in 1967. Gifford describes how it and Beck’s other novels pioneered a genre of black street fiction that first influenced the blaxploitation films of the 70s and gangsta rap in the 90s. (It also cleared up a idle curiosity of mine from back then: What prompted Ice-T and Ice Cube to both choose their Ice monikers? What’s the deal with this ice thing anyway? (Beck’s influence on Vanilla Ice awaits further academic inquiry.))
Gifford also describes how publisher Holloway House turned the genre into a cottage industry, details Holloway’s shabby treatment of its writers, and makes the case that the books spoke to significant parts of the black experience that the larger culture ignored: “they dealt directly with the pressing issues - white racism, police brutality, incarceration, poverty - that have plagued black urban communities for the past century.”
Commenter angela found the piece objectionable, though:
The condition of blacks was not and is not such as to automatically or necessarily lead to what Iceberg Slim wrote about. White liberals and african americans make a mistake to portray black people in this manner. The acceptable narrative is that life in the US is so bad, blacks have no choice, they can’t learn, they can’t do any work, they can’t refrain from crime. And if someone takes another path, we are told that this is a very exceptional case, little short of a miracle….Most human beings would not have a pimp as their hero. That is the kind of thing that most people want to shunt aside. Not that they don’t have pimps, but they would not define it as their culture. Not Muslims, not Hindus, not the Chinese, not the Peruvians, not the Mexicans, and not the Africans would point to a pimp as a cultural leader. This is a sign of misplaced values.
The idea that other narratives are unacceptable doesn’t account for the ones that have in fact been culturally acceptable. From the successful (if slightly buffoonish) businessman George Jefferson in the 70s, to the upper class professionals in the Cosby Show in the 80s, all the way down to the solidly middle class lead family in Blackish today, there’s a history of successful and productive blacks reaching popular audiences - and that’s just on TV. Sure they also share space with unsavory characters, but I don’t think it’s fair to say the latter have achieved some kind of critical mass.
As to her next point, I first got acquainted with the “normalization of deviancy” critique via harrumphing, grumpy old man op eds that went roughly like, sure we had teen pregnancy back in the day, but we didn’t celebrate it like we do now! I tend to think that overstates the case at both ends and I usually don’t find it very persuasive. Fiction that covers the dark side of human nature often has to confront how to describe bad behavior without seeming to glorify it.
When I read her comment I immediately thought of the controversies that pop up in movies and TV shows about the Mafia. Italian Americans voice similar concerns: it portrays us all as criminals, it overlooks those in our community working hard and playing by the rules, etc. There has to be room for morally compromised characters, though, and they aren’t very compelling if they are presented as pure evil. They need to be three dimensional; audiences will feel like they’re being beaten over the head with the message if they aren’t.
So you present the characters not necessarily as sympathetic, just not as caricatures. Beck seemed to have recognize this as well. Writing of his soon-to-be published and long lost novel Shetani’s Sister, Gifford says Beck wanted “to dismantle the glorious pimp image he had been criticizing in all of his works by showing how that lifestyle led to drug addiction, prison, and death.”
It sounds like Beck doesn’t use a heavy handed style, doesn’t telegraph THIS IS BAD every step of the way. Instead he describes the lifestyle, shows its considerable downsides, and lets readers arrive at their own conclusions. That’s what a good author does. (Beck also seems to have a real talent for turning a memorable phrase: “The melded odors of bargain colognes and steamy armpits rode the sweltering air like a sour aphrodisiac for gawking male bangers.”)
I understand that creators don’t have any control over how their work is received, that Mario Puzo may not have meant for mobsters to start actually imitating the characters he wrote about or thinking of them as role models. But that’s one of the risks of creating art that doesn’t lead people by the nose: The audience might see the decadence and conclude that it looks pretty great. And Lord knows the allure of villainy is not a new problem.