Nearly 50 years ago, the much younger me noticed that quite a few black woman on the subway were reading a book called “Pimp” — the autobiography of Iceberg Slim. At the same time, at my job I overheard an older black coworker tell her friend on the phone how good the book was. I remember a curiosity about it, and I recall wondering why, if it was so popular, it was never assigned in my Catholic High School social studies class? They assigned plenty of black authors, from Richard Wright, to James Baldwin, to Alex Haley’s Malcolm X autobiography. But not Slim.
Now, having finally read it decades later, not as a teenager but as an old man, I understand why. Slims tale is about his unvarnished black experience. It’s about unfairness, hardship, and how oppression crushes life under its dead weight. It’s about a man using his wits, his talents, his courage and his knowledge of people to earn his living and gain some dignity.
They didn’t assign it because it’s not about race, and it’s not about justice. Not explicitly anyway. I’m sure the Modern Language Association types will insist race is really the main driver of his story, since to them all drama, all human stories consists of fighting upstream against the torrent of Western white power. White people as an evil, overlord class just don’t feature very prominently in Slim’s life story. The few white people show up as sadistic prison guards or as Johns that are different just because they have more cash in their pockets.
If you want study human nature, Slims life story is far more revealing than reading Baldwin or Malcolm X. They’re “cosmic thinkers” — men who suppose they’ve found the key to the cycles of history, and the ultimate origin of all the pain in their lives. Search in vain for any inner assessment of the choices they themselves made in life: to them the only possible personal flaw is disloyalty to their people. Personal accountability is considered immaterial when measured against the Ptolemic wheels of oppression that drive history.
When you read Iceberg Slim’s life story, you realize that the twisting strands of Good and Evil bind us tightly. Slim grew up poor, and he was victimized as a child. He grew up to be a bad man. He made his living by abusing people who were weaker than he was. Lest you think this was just emotional abuse or cold manipulation, Slim was a man that beat his women with wire coat hangers, and got them addicted to drugs so he could keep them captive to his needs. It wasn’t about Slim staying alive in a world that mistreated him — his need to abuse others flowed from his envy of men that had more than he did. He saw men that had nicer cars, better clothes and more whores. This motivated him to add more whores to his own stable, and learning from other pimps how to wring more money out of his stable. He was blessed with natural charm, emotional insight and quick intelligence, talents he used to trick, cheat and abuse others.
In the end, when Slim was old like me, he settled down, got married and fathered four children. It isn’t clear from his autobiography whether he developed a conscience and wanted to be a better person, or whether he felt he was too old to survive as a pimp. He became a reasonably successful salesman, and eventually a widely read writer. So all along he had the skills to survive and gain a comfortable life. It was envy and pride that made him choose to be a pimp. He wouldn’t stoop to being a mere working stiff, and so he used his girls to gain a name for himself.
They assigned us Baldwin and Malcolm X in High School, even though Slim was far more widely read among the people that we were supposedly learning about. Slim would have been an easier assignment for us — certainly teenage boys would need far less prompting to read about a pimp’s life.
Slim’s life story would have taught us far more useful lessons. The Church did us a disservice by teaching us about social systems of oppression and injustice. Teaching concepts like that absolved us from all personal responsibility for our actions, it deflected us from examining our own personal sins. The Church was vainly striving to be on the right side of history. In a way the Church was like Slim, unwilling to live humbly in the shadows. The Church wanted to be a player in the grand drama of the sixties, and so it gleefully signed on to, and promoted, the social theories of others.
The key benefit to reading Iceberg Slim’s life story is that it teaches us that we are not so much ensnared by oppression, but rather bound and suffocated by our own sin. When I read Baldwin or Malcolm X I think of the grand sweep of history, of large and important historical forces. When I read Slim, I learn about my own beating heart.