SEVERAL MONTHS AGO while sitting in the back of a courtroom waiting to be arraigned on a charge that could have sent me to jail for a year, I began reading Justin Gifford’s Pimping Fictions: African American Crime Literature and the Untold Story of Black Pulp Publishing. I was playing it cool, real cool. Gifford’s compelling study kept me from gnawing my nails down to the skin and cursing myself for the drunken stupidity that had gotten me handcuffed and stuffed into the back of a cop car. When the court clerk finally called my name, I tucked the book away, took one last swig of water, and walked wobbly-kneed down the aisle. Before I knew it, a man with a beard and glasses was standing next to me and speaking to the judge on my behalf.
Out in the hallway, my court-appointed lawyer assured me that everything would be all right. Because I had no priors, hadn’t destroyed much property, or taken a life, he could probably get the charges knocked down to a violation. If not, I was facing the certainty of joining the more than seven million Americans who live under state supervision — either on probation, on parole, or behind bars.
A few weeks later my lawyer came through for me. He got the charges knocked down to a violation. No jail time, big fines, or probation. But I would have to spend the next six months, at least, as an outpatient at a rehabilitation clinic. Six months of meetings and weekly piss tests. Six months of rubbing shoulders and swapping stories with the dregs of the community. The dope boys, stickup dudes, pimps, hoes, and junkies. Cuffed, shackled, and shuffled in and out of institutions for most of their lives: these were the heroes and heroines of today’s most popular African-American literary genre: black crime fiction.
But what exactly is black crime fiction? Gifford defines it as “an umbrella term that encompasses the paperback novels written by African American criminals and prisoners in the years after Word War II.” Pimping Fictions examines the pioneering prison author Chester Himes, the black experience novels published by Holloway House Publishing Company in the 1960s and 1970s (such as Iceberg Slim, Pimp; Donald Goines, Whoreson; Odie Hawkins, Ghetto Sketches), and the popular street literature writers who have invented a new African-American literary scene in the past decade.
Explaining the material basis for the development of black crime literature, Gifford says,
Between 1950 and 1970, an estimated seven million whites fled American cities, while at the same time five million African Americans came to occupy those abandoned spaces left behind. This American apartheid, a spatial/racial divide between the white suburbs and the black inner-city, became one of the defining characteristics of racial identity throughout the course of the twentieth century.
Black crime fiction developed as a literary and political response to these material conditions of “white containment,” a term that Gifford employs to denote two racially motivated phenomena: one, post–World War II discriminatory housing policies (like redlining, urban renewal policies, and neighborhood covenants), which supported white flight to the suburbs in major American cities with large black populations; and two, the mass incarceration of black men and women over the last 40 years as a result of the War on Drugs.
With nearly one million black people behind bars, America’s prisons have become cultural centers for the creation, distribution, and consumption of street literature (also known as hip-hop literature, ghetto fiction, or urban literature). Over the last decade this genre, which is the most recent incarnation of the black crime fiction created by Chester Himes, Donald Goines, and Robert Beck, has exploded on the American scene as one of the driving forces of the African-American literary market. Despite its popular success, or perhaps because of it, the genre has drawn the ire of the black literati — most notably the Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and New York Times bestselling author Nick Chiles, author of The Rejected Stone: Al Sharpton and the Path to American Leadership.
In a 2006 New York Times op-ed, “Their Eyes Were Reading Smut,” Chiles aired his disdain for the writers and readers of African-American crime literature. While his contempt for the genre is typical of the black literati, he displayed a flair for fire and brimstone. He lamented that his books would be forced to share space on the African-American literature shelves with titles such as Legit Baller, A Hustler’s Wife, and Chocolate Flava. He branded black crime writers “purveyors of crassness,” cursed their “pornographic” works, and summarily condemned them to the Inferno’s Second Circle, reserved for those overcome by lust. He raged against this “lurid, oversexed, prurient” genre; and his inflamed imagination conjured the image of “nasty books […] pairing off back in the stockrooms like little paperback rabbits and churning out even more graphic offspring.” Interestingly, what seems to ignite Chiles’s wrath is not the mere fact that black crime literature exists but rather that his works are forced to rub elbows with the genre’s oversexed offerings. What Chiles fails to understand, and what those who care about books must appreciate, is that the boundaries between canonical and noncanonical have never been ironclad in African-American literature.
One example of a book that blurs the line is The Autobiography of Malcolm X, a work whose high status within the canon is unquestioned. Yet it was one of the first and most important works of African-American literature to employ the tropes and ethos of the street. As scholar Jonathan Munby explains, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, published in 1964, “is of seminal importance to black writing,” in particular due to its staging of the ex-hoodlum-thief-pimp. And while the story “is meant to be understood as one of deliverance,” it is Malcolm’s “fallen state” as hoodlum-thief-pimp that lends authenticity to his journey.
Malcolm’s narrative also lent sanction to the contemporaneous black crime fiction of Robert Beck and Donald Goines, which depicted a gritty, unapologetic, urban black experience.
Gifford posits Chester Himes, who began writing in the 1930s while serving time in the Ohio State Penitentiary, as the first of many black novelists to employ crime fiction to critique dominant cultural and racial ideologies. Himes utilized the genre to challenge representations of black neighborhoods by white writers. He was particularly offended by depictions of black Los Angeles neighborhoods in Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely (1940), which he felt illustrated the implicit prejudices of white-authored crime literature. In this passage from Farewell, My Lovely, the white detective Marlowe looks on as his henchman Malloy, enraged by the influx of African Americans into Los Angeles’s Central Avenue neighborhoods, brutalizes a black victim:
Something sailed across the sidewalk and landed in the gutter between two parked cars. It landed on its hands and knees and made a high keening noise like a cornered rat. It got up slowly, retrieved a hat and stepped back onto the sidewalk. It was a thin, narrow-shouldered brown youth in a lilac colored suit and a carnation. It had slick black hair. It kept its mouth open and whined for a moment. People stared at it vaguely. Then it settled its hat jauntily, sidled over to the wall and walked silently splay-footed off along the block.
With its repeated reduction of the black victim to “it,” this scene is representative of the silencing, dehumanization, and lack of agency of black urban bodies in traditional hard-boiled literature.
With his proverbial gun cocked and aimed at Chandler’s head, Himes penned his innovative and groundbreaking novel Run Man Run (1960), the story of a psychopathic white cop who targets black victims. In a twist, the focus of the novel is not the white detective but the black criminal on the run. In this turnabout Himes was the first to explore a theme that would come to define black crime literature: the criminal’s response to methods of Gifford’s white containment. This was Himes’s major innovation to popular crime fiction, which up until that point had focused almost exclusively on the heroism of the white detective. Run Man Run also functioned as a transitional novel that bridged the detective literature of Chandler and Hammett to more recent black crime writers such as Donald Goines and Robert Beck. Unfortunately for Himes, the genre did not become popular among African-American readers until the mid-1960s — more than a decade after he immigrated to France.
In 1959, two white Hollywood publicists, Bentley Morriss and Ralph Weinstock, launched the first publishing venture to target and reach a niche audience of African-American readers: Holloway House Publishing Company. Morriss and Weinstock recognized that the very forces that had created spaces of white containment had also created a political and artistic response to those spaces. Recalling the cynicism that he faced from publishing industry colleagues, who dismissed African Americans as potential literary consumers, Morriss said,
Distributors would say to me off the record, “Come on, man. Blacks don’t read. They don’t have the money to buy books.” Which, of course, was just stupid. We convinced them that they could make some money, and that was the common denominator. It was a slow and deliberate process.
The 1964 release of the autobiographical novel Pimp: The Story of My Life transformed the fledgling company into a dominant force in niche black publishing. Written by an ex-pimp named Robert Beck, under the name Iceberg Slim, Pimp dramatizes how the misogyny and ruthlessness of the pimp persona serve as a defense mechanism, albeit self-destructive and futile, against the oppressive material conditions of the ghetto.
At one point in the novel, when Slim spots a white woman slumming in a downtown club, he quickly moves in for the con, sweet-talking his way into her car.
She lived a long way from the black concentration camp. She drove for almost an hour. I could smell the pungent odors of early April plant life. This white world was like leaving Hell and riding through Heaven. The neat rows of plush houses shone in the moonlight. The streets were quiet as maybe the Cathedral in Rheims.
I thought, “Ain’t it a bitch? Ninety-eight percent of the black people back there in Hell will be born and die and never know the joys of this earthly Heaven. There ain’t but two passports the white folks honor. A white skin, or a bale of scratch. I sure got to pimp good and cop my scratch passport. Well, at least I get a Cinderella crack at Heaven. This is good. It’s hipping me to what I’m missing.
Despite Slim’s initial excitement, his journey to Heaven culminates with a cruel irony. After tying the woman to the bed under the pretext of kinky sex, he undresses her only to discover that she isn’t a woman at all but rather a transvestite. Disgusted and anxious to return to his familiar environs, Slim pockets the man’s cash, then flees the pristine, white suburb:
I looked back. His beautiful face was ugly in anger and hate.
He screamed, “You dirty Nigger liar, thief! Untie me you Coon Bastard! Oh, how I wish I had your black ass tied here on your belly!”
This scene illustrates that, for the black masses, even brief escapes from ghetto confinement are illusory and tinged with the bitter reminder of where they actually belong. The racist insults spewed by the transvestite illustrate that even despised and marginalized whites have contempt for blacks.
Although Pimp was not reviewed in any major publications, Holloway House smartly sought alternative methods of promotion, such as booking Beck on television talk shows and as a speaker on college campuses, and selling the book at newspaper stands, liquor stores, and other nontraditional venues. Their techniques proved remarkably effective in garnering an audience for the novel, and later for a growing list of black-authored books.
The day after Beck appeared on radio and television talk show host Joe Pyne’s show, the popularity of Pimp exploded, cementing both Beck’s and Holloway House’s reputation. As Morriss remembers it, “Half a dozen bookstores in Hollywood and Los Angeles had people waiting in line around the block to buy the book. And when they called and told me that, I didn’t believe them, so I drove down to Hollywood Boulevard to see it. And it was a sight.”
Holloway House may have invented the niche market for black crime fiction. However, over the last decade significant changes to the way books get published and consumed has democratized the marketplace, letting new voices into the publishing industry. These changes include the emergence of self-publishing, the rise of the independent book imprint, and, most importantly for black crime literature, the fact that many of the most successful street literature authors and publishers are women — Sister Souljah, The Coldest Winter Ever (1999); Vickie Stringer, Dirty Red (2006); Teri Woods, True to the Game (1999). Once the object of sexual exploitation in the narratives of Iceberg Slim and Donald Goines, the black urban female is now the protagonist of contemporary street literature. It is now the women who con, exploit, and outfox their male rivals. This new female-driven black narrative is an important development not only for the way it reverses the genre’s traditional gender dynamics, but also for the way that these transformed dynamics have created a large female readership and a new literary market.
The success of this new literary market has coincided with the rise of mass incarceration, a phenomenon that has devastated black communities in recent decades. In 1975, when the black crime novel was approaching the height of its popularity, 300,000 people were incarcerated in American prisons. Over the last 30 years this number has skyrocketed to over two million. African-American men and women account for a disproportionate 40 percent of this population. In light of these staggering numbers, perhaps it’s time for the black literati to recognize that the growth and popularity of black crime fiction is deeply linked to the increased presence of prison culture in contemporary African-American life. And it is time to recognize that the genre functions not just as popular entertainment, but as a political and artistic response to the treacherous conditions of America’s newest racial caste system: also known as the criminal justice system.