The Legacy of “Donald Goines” and “ICEBERG SLIM”
Born Robert Lee Maupin into abject poverty, Beck spent most of his childhood in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Rockford, Illinois. His mother worked as a maid and operated a beauty shop. Beck was abandoned by his father when he was a young child, and his mother was exploited by a series of men who drifted in and out of her life. Still, it seems she was able to provide Beck with some semblance of luxury; he once said that his mother helped pave the way for his life as a pimp by pampering him.
In his writings, he later traced the motive behind and tradition of black pimping to the days when American slaves noticed their white owners’ physical attraction to and exploitation of black women. Slim concentrated most of his efforts in the Chicago area, but he worked women throughout the Midwest. He served a total of seven years in jail for various offenses–including time at the Leavenworth federal penitentiary in Kansas, the Cook County House of Corrections, and Waupun State Prison in Wisconsin.
During his second to last incarceration Beck was able to escape. He pimped for 13 more years before he was recaptured in 1960 and placed in solitary confinement at Cook County House of Corrections. It was then that he finally decided to “square up.” In Pimp he wrote, “I got out of it because I was old. I did not want to be teased, tormented and brutalized by young whores.”
On his release from prison Beck retired from street life and moved to Los Angeles, California, where he attempted to reconcile with his mother. He spent a heartrending six months at her oxygen-tent-covered bedside, where she lay slowly dying of complications from ovarian cancer. Her death profoundly affected him; it proved to be what he needed to quit heroin, which he did over the course of three weeks.
In 1962 he got a job selling insecticide for $70 a week. He had been a natural salesman all of his life. While making a sales pitch to a college professor, he mentioned that he had been a pimp. The professor suggested that he write an autobiography. Beck wrote the book, Pimp: The Story of My Life, in three months.
Bentley Morris of Holloway House publishers in Los Angeles worked with him on publishing all of his novels. Pimp was published in 1969, and was a controversial success. Despite Beck’s efforts to dissuade young men from going into “the life,” the book reportedly had the opposite effect on some.
Robert Beck died of liver failure on April 30, 1992, one day after the 1992 Los Angeles Riots erupted.
Reviews of Pimp were mixed and it was quickly categorized as being typical of the black ‘revolutionary’ literature then being created, but Beck’s vision was considerably bleaker than most other black writers of the time. His work tended to be based on his personal experiences in the criminal underworld, and revealed a world of seemingly bottomless brutality and viciousness. His was the first insider look into the world of black pimps, to be followed by a half-dozen pimp memoirs by other writers. Of his literary contribution, A Washington Post critic claimed, “Iceberg Slim may have done for the pimp what Jean Genet did for the homosexual and thief: articulate the thoughts and feelings of someone who’s been there.”
The book sold very well, mainly among black audiences. By 1973, it was reprinted 19 times and sold nearly 2 million copies. The book was eventually translated into German, French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Swedish, and Greek. The book was largely ignored by white America, and even the venerable Library of Congress does not own a copy.
He wrote seven more novels. Beck has sold over six million books prior to his death in 1992, making him one of the best-selling African-American writers (after Alex Haley). All his books were published exclusively as paperbacks. Iceberg Slim also released an album of poetry called Reflections in the early 1970s.
Born in Detroit, Michigan, to a middle class black family, Donald Goines was addicted to heroin at various points in his life. Goines accomplished an amazing feat by churning out 16 books in just five years. He began his writing career while serving time at Michigan’s Jackson Penitentiary, where he was influenced by the work of Iceberg Slim. In his vivid depictions of ghetto and prison life, Goines employed both standard English and black English to great effect.
Some of Goines’s novels have become films, such as Never Die Alone, which starred DMX,and “Crime Partners”,which starred Ice-T, Snoop Dogg ,and Ja Rule. A minor independent movie made of his life was released in 2003. Goines’s better known works include Black Gangster, the semi-autobiographical Whoreson, Dopefiend, Street Players, Eldorado Red, Daddy Cool (which was made into a graphic novel) and White Man’s Justice, Black Man’s Grief. Inner City Hoodlum, which Goines had finished before his death, was published posthumously in 1975. The story, set in Los Angeles, was about “smack”, money and murder.
Goines and his wife were shot to death in Detroit on the night of October 21, 1974. According to some sources, Goines was gunned down over a failed drug deal. But it is popularly believed that he was murdered by neighborhood criminals who objected to characters and storylines that they thought were based on themselves and thus clues to their identities and crimes. The identity of the killer or killers remains unknown.