:: Article

Black & proud

By Susan Tomaselli.


Pimp: The Story of My Life, Iceberg Slim, Canongate 2009

“The Irish are the niggers of Europe, lads … An’ Dubliners are the niggers of Ireland … An’ the northside Dubliners are the niggers o’ Dublin – Say it loud. I’m black an’ I’m proud.”

The Commitments, Roddy Doyle

Though Roddy Doyle may now wince with the rest of us, his point that pre-Celtic Tiger (and recession) Ireland was a place where the residents of the Barrytown had more in common culturally and socially with black, working-class culture than the denizens of leafy D4 (read: posh) was a valid, albeit laboured, one. In his introduction to a new edition of Pimp, Irvine Welsh writes:

The schemes I grew up in had, through sale of higher-amenity council housing, mass unemployment and the introduction of drugs was the key element of the developing underground economy, been reduced to the ghetto level of the black American projects. I took this social landscape as given: we were not, under New Labour, going back; there would be no attempt to rebuild the social fabric, an even the moderate social democratic policies of Europe would be rejected in favour of a basic neoconservative ‘enterprise economy’ model of development. There would be resistance, of course, but it would not prevail. But I was less interested in the politics and more intrigued, in a novelistic sense, by the type of society we had created. To me Iceberg Slim’s view of the relationships of the black American ghetto, the hustling, scamming, pimping, drug-dealing, stealing and rampant aspiration towards wealth, suddenly seemed more relevant than ever.

And that’s the beauty of Iceberg Slim: it’s the universal themes that transcend identity politics, why the antics of a black, American pimp have such a broad appeal and why Pimp is an important black book, perhaps even more so than the mannered novels of James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison for, as Welsh writes, “Slim always told it as it was, without compromise.”

Which makes Pimp a tough read. In “grimy catacombs of the Ghetto” Slim sops up “the poison of the street like a sponge”, his “eyes stabbed blind by the street..like a freakish joker who had gotten clap in his eyes from a mangy street whore,” and thus begins his trip downward, fast pimp tracked to a “new slickness and hardness”; “ain’t no surer way to amount to something” than pimping.

I am still black in the white man’s world. My hope to be important and admired can be realized even behind this black stockade. It’s simple, just pimp my ass off and get a ton of scratch. Everybody in both worlds kisses your ass black and blue if you got flash and front.

Though he is the archetype of every street hustler, Iceberg Slim graduated from no Huggy Bear-style school of pimping:

I scooped the ninety-pound runt up into my arms. I bit her hard on the tip of her chin. I carried her to the side of the bed. I hurled her onto it. She bounced and lay there on her back. She was breathing hard. Her legs were a wide pyramid.

I got out of my clothes fast. I snatched the top sheet off. I ripped it into four narrow strips. I tied her hands to the bed posts. I spread eagled her legs. With the longer strips, I tied her legs to the top of the springs at the sides of the bed.

She lay there like a prisoner. I put her through the nerve shredding routines Pepper had taught me. She blacked out four times. She couldn’t pull back from the thrilling, awful torture.

Finally, I took a straight ride home. On the way I tried to smash the track. I reached my destination. The blast of hate was big enough to spawn a million embryo black pimps.

Charges of Iceberg Slim’s misogyny may well stick, but he wrote from the inside, documented people who snorted cocaine and stuck needles in their arms, people who sold their bodies, who wore expensive clothes, who beat women with coathangers. As Irvine Welsh says, “one of his most endearing features was that Iceberg Slim never sought any insincere exoneration for the life he led…Iceberg Slim did for the pimp what Jean Genet did for the homosexual and thief and William Burroughs for the junky: articulate the thoughts and feelings of someone who had been there. The big difference is that they were white.”


Susan Tomaselli is Editor-in-Chief at 3:AM Magazine and lives in Dublin.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, October 29th, 2009.