- Street Poison: The Biography of Iceberg Slim by Justin Gifford
Robert Beck (aka Iceberg Slim) concludes his letter to the warden of the Chicago House of Corrections in the early 1960s with a sentence that sums up his whole existence and his impending cultural impact in the latter part of the twentieth century. Beck writes, “In closing, I must say I realize that mine is a tiny voice crying in the wilderness, but it is historical fact that even a tiny voice can often bring a cataclysmic change” (qtd. in 137). After numerous trips to prison for everything from violating the Mann Act to planning a jewelry-store heist, Beck deployed the pen in much the same way that Frederick Douglass and Solomon Northup did to gain their freedom, and Richard Wright did to read books in the white library. Justin Gifford’s Street Poison: The Biography of Iceberg Slim traces Beck’s life from the son of African American migrants from Tennessee to his life as a pimp in the Midwest, and ultimately to his career as the best-selling African American writer of all time.
Gifford provides more than just a biographical narrative of Beck’s life; he incorporates the historical conditions of oppression that led the young Beck to a life of pimping. Gifford highlights the African American communities that arose in Northern cities like Chicago and Rockford, Illinois, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin during Beck’s early years, vividly painting pictures of “the Stroll” and Walnut Street. Most notably, he shows the influence of Beck’s stepfather Henry Upshaw, who worked hard in Rockford to promote activities and education in the African American community there. When Robert’s mother Mary Beck left Henry for a slick talking con-man, Beck became distraught, and marked this event as a key moment in his movement towards becoming “street poisoned.” Mary’s desertion of Henry also poisoned Beck’s tenuous relationship with his mother, about which he speaks in his autobiography and elsewhere. Along with focusing on the creation of African American communities in the cities mentioned above, Gifford shows how the white power structure in each of those cities worked diligently to keep African Americans in specific areas of the city and out of white neighborhoods. In these isolated spaces, the police allowed vices such as policy, pimping, and gambling to flourish, and during the ensuing “white flight,” the inner cities became ghost towns where once thriving industries eventually gave way to expressways that linked the urban centers to the suburbs. Gifford painstakingly shows how each major city that Beck visited from Cleveland to Los Angeles went through this transformation.
Beck’s life as a pimp served as a precursor for his career as an author who sold more than six million books before his death on the second day of the Los Angeles riots in 1992. During his time in various prisons, Beck read everything from psychoanalysis to Oscar Wilde. He also started to “write on the ceiling,” a method where he would lay on his back in his cell and write out elaborate stories in his mind. This practice continued even when he began writing for a living during the late 1960s. His autobiography Pimp: The Story of My Life (1967) became an instant success, and his following novels challenged white assumptions of both race and sexuality. Mama Black Widow (1969), Beck’s third novel, features Otis Tilson, a gay African American [End Page 68] who struggles to find his place in the world not only with respect to white hegemony but also in relation to the period’s heteronormativity.
Despite his success as a novelist, Beck struggled for money during his life, having to pull cons to put food on the table for his wife and children. Gifford elaborately chronicles how Beck’s publisher, Holloway House, essentially flipped the tables on Beck and pimped him out to a reading public. Holloway House held back royalties, causing Beck and his family to struggle for survival, moving from place to place just to make ends meet. In the...