TO PIMP AN ICEBERG
Gifford, Justin. Street Poison: The Biography of Iceberg Slim. New York: Doubleday, 2015.
In the first quarter of the 21st century, American literature and literary criticism have no immunity against the "viruses" that afflict the American body politic. Indeed, it might be argued that as elements of culture, literature and criticism can be made to serve the interests of an imagined literary Center for Disease Control, the criticism being a Petri dish for growing intellectual viruses for covert experiments in the managing of American popular thinking. A reading of Justin Gifford's biography of Robert Lee Moppins Jr. (aka Robert Beck/aka Iceberg Slim) suggests the book has less-than-accidental kinship with the film "Straight Outta Compton," a Hollywood virus. Under the guise of being legitimate expressions of popular culture, the film and the book achieve sinister, divisive ends.
Street Poison is a breezy life history which positions itself to canonize Iceberg Slim, rather than to present a judicious literary biography of Robert Lee Moppins Jr. or Robert Beck. It is a narrative of a commodified self-fashioned persona. As the poet Dave Brinks said recently, we are now dealing with "magic materialism." His quip points to the Spinglish usage of "magic realism" as a category for critical analysis, the gesture Justin Gifford makes in his effort to pimp an iceberg. Gifford's alabaster motives, and those of other scholars who are complicit in servicing neogliberal agendas, warrant censure rather than censorship. Despite the antics, the cacophony of the literary marketplace and cultural studies that affect all of us, a few of us have the ancestor-anointed right to standards of judgment and the pursuit of honesty. To acknowledge that pimping occurs in international politics, academic discourses, the sex industry, and the conduct of everyday life is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for minimizing opposition to what is morally reprehensible.
Gifford's book is predicated on an insulting, outrageous claim, for he wishes to argue that for nearly half a century "Robert Beck's works have quietly, from the underground, transformed African American literature and culture. There would have been no street literature, no blaxploitation, no hip-hop they way we know them today without Pimp: The Story of My Life. We might appreciate Beck's contributions to American life more fully if we consider the everyday people who he moved" (223). The automatic question Gifford refuses to answer is "Moved to do what, to think what?"
Without gagging on the oily reference of "we" in Gifford's claim, astute readers might indict him for incendiary rhetoric and profiling hyperbole in his cultural performance. The history of African American literature and culture and their multi-leveled transformations must be told by way of principled explanations of accommodation, resistance, assimilation, and damnation of hegemony in the American public/literary sphere. Gifford's claim is devoid of nuance. It borders on thuggish arrogance.
Three key terms in the motivating claim Gifford proffers for venerating if not canonizing Beck are underground, transform, and would have been no. "Underground"[please listen to track #4 on Curtis Mayfield's album Roots (1971)] ----underground is no exclusive African American location in the American cultural imagination. It is the locus of Wall Street insider trading and Ponzi schemes, labor exploitation, health-threatening practices in the food industry, the drug traffic abetted by secret government agencies, the viciousness which taints the music and entertainment corporations, and the protocols of fascism. "Transform" --any change for which Beck's writings can serve as a cause is not divorced from inter-ethnic struggles for human rights and equitable action and the companion ethnic discord in ideological trends. "Would have been no" ---it is three inches beyond omniscience to proclaim that street or urban literature, hip-hop phenomena, and blaxploitation could not have developed without Beck's writings. Gifford's claim is disingenuous.
Despite his failure to apply due diligence in constructing a literary biography of Robert Lee Moppins Jr (August 4, 1918-April 30, 1992), Gifford brings inevitable attention to links between American writing and commercialized American sexualities. He does depict arresting development and implacable abuse of women, and he does model the pathology which is undermining the credibility of so-called mainstream cultural exploration. Had he demonstrated greater awareness of the speculative, theoretical work in Street Lit.: Representing the Urban Landscape (2014) and Susanne Dietzel's commentary on black literature and Holloway House in The Cambridge Companion to the African American Novel (2004), Street Poison would be a stronger and more persuasive book.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
August 31, 2015