Ever discover an author who made you feel like as if you’ve been living under a rock? And I don’t mean just discovering good writing, but, to quote Hammett, “like somebody had taken the lid off life and let [you] see the works”?
I found Iceberg Slim by accident. After writing a series of blog posts on World War I, I went into the I-section of the BPL stacks to reacquaint myself with Ibáñez, whom I had read when I was younger, fascinated by the cover art for the author’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. In pulling Ibáñez from the shelf, out popped a slim volume entitled Trick Baby.
Curious, I read the first few pages and was like, “Who is this guy? [Insert expletive here].” I then pulled Mama Black Widow, Long White Con and Death Wish from the shelf, read the first pages of each novel and decided I had to read the man. All the books, with the exception of Doom Fox, which was a reissue with a Pam Grier-like profile on the cover and an introduction by Ice-T, were sad, tattered copies from the seventies.
Iceberg had done the bulk of his writing by 1978, with Airtight Willie & Me, his last work, published in 1985. Doom Fox was a posthumous publication. Iceberg died at 73 in 1992 from complications of diabetes. I borrowed Trick Baby and his autobiography Pimp from the library and read them together before I moved on down the line to his other works in chronological order.
I was a kid in the seventies ( and I know that I’m generalizing here) but it was either the punk scene, metal or rap music that ‘spoke’ to my peers when we were teens in the eighties. It was all a pose, but adolescents in search of expression and an identity latch onto what they can. Another sweeping statement: blaxploitation was already a cliché and, having been weaned on Norman Lear productions for television such as Good Times, Sanford & Son and The Jeffersons that brought black families and their concerns into the living room, we didn’t know Black outside of epics such as Roots, but what we did see we thought was prefabricated as cereal inside a box; and with Reagan retro-morality running 24/7, a serious examination of race was dismissed as oh so liberal and très progressive. To my friends, hip-hop and rap were their music, just as Delta or Chi blues was authentic Black music. We, at least, didn’t buy the subscription that Elvis had invented rock. We knew Black folks had been ripped off since Day One.
We didn’t use the word African-American then. It was Black, just black, and no hyphens needed. African-American poetry and drama, if and when it was taught to us College Caucasians, was Baldwin, Ellison, Jones and Wright. Poetry was Angelou, Brooks, Giovanni, McKay, and Wheatley. Hansberry was shoehorned in with Wilson. When I was in college, Alice Walker and Toni Morrison were not in the curriculum. Rodney King hadn’t happened yet. So finding and appreciating Iceberg Slim is a function of accident and curiosity.
Flash-forward to the present: in my mind, one of the most cynical and capitalistically exploitative acts in entertainment was that a bunch of white middle-aged record executives sold the idea to white kids that they could act Thug and dress Gangsta. Norman Lear is still alive, but the stunning TV-series Empire might just convince people that Black people are caught up in what Ice-T and Iceberg’s called The Game. Empire vindicates what U2 had said in Bullet the Blue Sky, “Outside, is America.”
Iceberg Slim jumps off the page because he writes with authenticity. He has a voice, but it isn’t the Voice of the MFA workshops. His honesty is brutal and lacerating. If you are PC about language, gender relationships, and are MLK-idealistic about race relations, or need trigger words, then don’t read Iceberg. Samuel L. Jackson in rant-mode could take a few pointers from Iceberg Slim — not that his stories are anti-white, hateful and venomous. No. I think that misses the point. They are unpleasant and they are raw. He does say harsh, misogynistic things about women, not because he dislikes women, but rather he is all business. Imagine a black Michael Corleone saying, “It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business.” That’s Iceberg Slim. He doesn’t give a F.
There is brutality and there is the tragic. Slim tells the reader that in order to survive in business, to survive in the world, to survive in America, a person can’t bare his or her feelings. Weakness is stone cold fatal. To be clear: he isn’t about redefining masculinity and drumming in the woods with Robert Bly. He is crystal about one thing: people will take advantage of vulnerability, including women, family and friends. He doesn’t buy into men are providers and women are nurturing. We are social and tribal animals. Life is a ledger book and it is either profit or losses; it is a matter of life and death. Go soft, get comfortable, and you might as well put the toe tag on yourself.
Surprisingly, Iceberg Slim was not born into abject poverty. His dad had abandoned the family. His mother worked hard, owned a beauty salon, and provided him with a middle-class existence and education in Depression-era America. That is quite remarkable, regardless of race. He attended college (with Ralph Ellison) but dropped out. Ice started pimping in 1936, seduced by the money and artificial sense of power.
At the height of his own empire, he had 400 women in his ‘stable,’ and at his lowest, he was a desperate, strung-out heroin junkie; and from apex to nadir, he perfected a ruthless persona as cold as a coroner’s drawer. When you read any of his novels, you feel the weight of the mask, the conniving; the energy it takes to stay one-step ahead and others (mostly women) underfoot. Ice wasn’t worried so much about The Man as he was about maintaining his niche in the urban food chain. His stories are a metaphor about American capitalism: there is no such thing as a Free Market: it is all domination and somebody is always under the wheel. Money is green and it doesn’t care whether the pocket is White or Black. The Game isn’t about the justice thing, nor is it a social thing, and gender has nothing to do with it: Survival in America is Darwinian. Deal with it, or die. Welfare and social programs are not a helping hand, but dangerous narcotics. Unfortunately, Ice makes it clear that pimping has always been a Black thing.
Iceberg landed in jail, did ten months in solitary confinement. He left the Cook County Jail a changed man. He stepped away from pimping and hustling because by then he was an old man in the game. He was 42 in 1961. He started writing about his life, about cons, about mulattoes, and “his whores.” Holloway House, an independent Black publishing group in Los Angeles, would publish all of his books, starting in 1967. Cash Money Content now reprints all his titles with distinctive covers. Iceberg Slim became an underground icon to rappers like Ice-T, Tupac, and Notorious B.I.G. Ice-T would take his stage name from Iceberg. Later, he would back a documentary on Iceberg Slim. The documentary is available on DVD at Amazon.
Slim writes in a dialect that has probably dated itself, along with the clothes, but the dialectic is frighteningly clear: the hard work that it takes for the entrepreneurial success of Horatio Algers — whether they are from the street or tony MBAs with inherited wealth from suburbia — is predicated on predation. The pimp may use intimidation and the corporate wingtips may use lawyers and loopholes, but the result is the same. Slim doesn’t stop there. Equality in America, especially for Black Americans, equality between men and women are all smokescreens for the vicious necessities for survival in a nihilistic society that eats its own. I suspect that, as Ice-T wrote in his introductory essay to Doom Fox, Iceberg Slim gave a voice where there was no voice. Slim didn’t bemoan the state of Black existence in America; he accepted it as self-evident. Deal with the Reality, play the Game, or it will kill you. There is no sideline, or place to catch your breath.
Now, the lure behind Iceberg’s stories is the Hollywood glamorization of the pimp lifestyle, just like the mafia has been romanticized, but I think that is to read the man wrong, for he’s very forthright: all that is a fast track to the morgue, and why make it easy for others who want to put you there in the first place? In his autobiography, his advice is to educate yourself, steer clear of smack and enrich your life with reading; it might be square and Old School, but you’re not the fool and you’re keeping it real.