- Street Fam
The controversial genre of urban literature has recently welcomed another interesting contribution: Street Fam, written by first-time novelist Jason J. Williams. [End Page 306] In part, the provocative nature of this literary kind owes to the absence of an agreed-to sense of art or aesthetics, thus making description, interpretation, and evaluation problematic. One way to understand the “newness” of Williams’s “real grit” fiction is to view it thematically in the “old” from which urban literature springs. It is a tradition that arguably begins with movies the exasperated journalist Tony Brown dubiously labeled as “blaxsploitation.”
Beginning in the late 1960s, films such as Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), Shaft (1971), Super Fly (1972), and so many more became sources of black pride, heroism, and polemical encouragement for an audience starved for affirmation. Even though later historians would characterize this filmic genre as sensational, conventional, formulaic, and uninspired, the viewers for whom these films were originally intended found representations of the heroic in everyday life. Extraordinary exploits made the impossible seem possible, thus providing not only entertainment but a sense of meaning to their lives. Indeed, astonishing feats of masculine courage, incredibly sensuous black women, and unbelievable success against overwhelming odds offered relief from the tedium of their lives in the same way soap operas and romance novels provided escape from a humdrum existence. Setting these films in urban environments firmly established the inner city as the performative site for the dramatic enactment of so-called ghetto life. As a consequence of their popularity, these movies, it is said, saved Hollywood from financial ruin.
About this same time, a body of fiction based on urban life emerged as a complement to “blaxsploitation” films. Led by the creative genius of Robert “Iceberg Slim” Beck and Donald Goines, the real grit of pimps, hoes, drugs, and more became the corollary in fiction of the cinematic representation of urban black life. Iceberg Slim followed the initial underground success of his Pimp: The Story of My Life (1967) with six more titles, including Trick Baby (1967) and Mama Black Widow (1969). Each drew upon his life as a pimp, which, despite being scorned by mainstream publishers and media, developed a strong cult following among members of what one critic called the “Black is Beautiful” climate of the era. Inspired by Iceberg Slim’s foray into the sexual world, Goines explored the nether world of drug addiction, using his own life for subject matter. Holloway House, the publisher of Iceberg Slim’s work, brought out Goines’s Dopefiend: The Story of a Black Junkie in 1971. Goines was never successful in overcoming his own addiction to heroin but incredibly managed to write a total of sixteen books before his murder in 1974.
Both writers contributed to the creation of urban life as an ur-text of sorts that morphed into the hip hop expressive culture that came of age in the 1990s. Politically, the art from this cultural moment continued to express an anti-establishmentarian theme. The nature of black heroism continued to insist on a figure who was extremely masculine. Depending on his relationship to the community, he could be either a “bad” badman or a “moral” badman. Estranged from the community, “bad” badmen, like Railroad Bill and boxer Jack Johnson, represented a single-mindedness that could only be considered self-centered, individualistic, and self-aggrandizing. On the other hand, such “moral” badmen as John Henry and Joe Louis represented the community and its sense of values. Because both were outlaws, who flouted the legal system and even the moral order, the community admired their courage and determination to resist the efforts exerted on them to conform to the social order. They became, in other words, the men community people dreamed of being but who could never reconcile the dream with reality. The result was hero worship.
Hip hop culture, especially via rap music, embraced this spirit of rebelliousness and inspired a latter-day version of Iceberg Slim’s and Donald Goines’s urban fiction. Proceeding under a number of names...