Category Archives: Black History

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Freedom Summer

For folks too young to be fully aware of what happened in the Civil Rights Movement, and grew up after the violent pernicious legalized Jim Crow racism of the 50’s and 60’s – this documentary chronicles Mississippi in 1964, through a period called Freedom Summer. One of the interesting aspects some young folks are unaware of, of this is what the segregationists did to their neighborhood white folks who in any way showed support for any of the Civil Rights groups, or even aiding people caught in the crossfire at the 1 hour mark.

The modern Republican Party in the South are the descendants of these very segregationist whites who bombed home, churches – beat and murdered Civil Rights proponents both black and white. And while their public vitriol is hidden now – they really have not changed. These are the folks who have assumed control of a large segment of the Party, and are the reason for the racial dog-whistle politics.


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Archibald Motley – Painter of the Jazz Age

Born in 1891, Archibald Motley would document, through his art – the next 70 years of black experience in Chicago and France.

Portrait of a Sophisticated Lady

Octoroon, 1922

Self Portrait

Archibald Motley, The Painter Who Captured Black America in the Jazz Age and Beyond

The artist Archibald Motley captured both the high times and cultural vibrancy of the Jazz Age, as well as graver themes of racism and injustice.

The sexy sway of a 1920s Paris nightclub, filled with light and dark-skinned people pressed against each other.

The bustling streets of the almost exclusively black “Bronzeville” neighborhood Chicago in the 1930s under a nighttime glow.

A depressing surreal scene of horror following the death of Martin Luther KingJr.and the failings of the 1960s Civil Rights movement.

These are just a handful of the diverse visual expressions of the African American experience that the artist Archibald Motley so adroitly and sumptuously captured throughout his career.

Bronzeville By Night

As versatile in his aesthetic style as he was committed to scrutinizing African American culture, Motley was a uniquely daring and sharp artist who stood out even among the Harlem Renaissance greats.

Yet, Motley’s name does not elicit the same nods of recognition and respect as his peers, like Langston Hughes, Josephine Baker, and Zora Neale Hurston. That could–and certainly should–change after the retrospective Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist opens October 2 at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Traveling through different chapters of his career, though not boxed into a strict chronology, the exhibition showcases how Motley was a thorough and sensitive observer of the black community, documenting its diversity while bringing his own keen perspective to its traditions and subcultures.

Motley “set his work apart” because he “created a modern, vibrant world which, as seen through a pair of jaded, laserlike ‘Negro’ eyes, revealed the jazz-and-blues-accented absurdities that lay behind life’s facades and public face,” writes Richard J. Powell in “Becoming Motley, Becoming Modern” an essay in the book,Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist.

Mending Socks

Powell, who is an art historian and Dean of Humanities at Duke University, curated the Whitney exhibition.

In other words, Motley wasn’t afraid to capture the good and the bad of black life, as his peers made tremendous gains yet the community in general often struggled in poverty and disenfranchisement in a segregated, very racist America.

At least a significant part of Motley’s distinct perspective on African American life came from his unique upbringing for a black man of his era.

Born in New Orleans in 1891, Motley was raised in Chicago’s then largely white immigrant Engelwood neighborhood and married his white childhood friend, Edith Granzo, in 1924.

Trained at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Motley’s earliest critically-acclaimed paintings were portraits of different figures within the African American community.

His 1924 Mending Socks depicted his grandmother, Emily Motley, a former slave, sitting with a quiet pride and refinement.

Motley was not so forward-looking that he ignored the complicated, painful slaveholding past. Mending Socks features part of a portrait of his grandmother’s mistress in the upper left corner, hanging over her.

As important as it was for Motley to capture history, it was equally, if not more, significant to him depict the spectrum of skin tones considered black. A blend of ethnicities himself, he was dedicated to painting “the whole gamut,” as he said, of African American complexions.

1920’s Mulatress with Figuring and Dutch Seascape and 1925’s The Octoroon Girl speak to his commitment of not only visually presenting multi-racial figures, but doing so in a way that showed them as refined, strong figures.

As the Whitney exhibition notes of Motley’s artistic interest in these portraits: “On the one hand, he believed that seeing themselves in art would help African Americans feel pride in their own racial identities; on the other, he hoped that seeing beautiful contemporary black subjects would dispel stereotypes and undermine racism.”...More…

Street Scene

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Posted by on September 30, 2015 in Black History, Giant Negros


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Art Student Hangs Segregation Signs as a Project

If you are older than about 55 and lived in the South – you most likely remember the “Separate but Equal” signs hung at everything from Retail stores, to Public Parks assigning separate facilities to black and white. It was called Segregation – and it ruled the lives of people in many locations in the South.

An Art student,, working on a project called “Art in Public Places” hung signs like this around the University of Buffalo campus. Needless to say, they caused a bit of an uproar.

Art Student Hangs ‘Black Only’ And ‘White Only’ Signs Around University Campus

On Wednesday, Sept. 16, students of the University of Buffalo were shocked to find “White Only” and “Black Only” signs hung near campus bathrooms. Students were sickened and traumatized by the apparent act of racism; by 1 p.m., the police had received 11 phone calls regarding the signage.

It was later revealed, however, that the signs reminiscent of the Jim Crow era were put on display by graduate fine arts student Ashley Powell, who is black, as part of an art project.

Before Powell admitted to hanging the signs at a Black Student Union (BSU) meeting on Wednesday night, students and faculty were left wondering about the source of the racist designations. “We didn’t know it was an art project, it could’ve been an act of terrorism,” a student explained to The Spectrum, the independent campus newspaper.

When Powell revealed that she was behind the act, a project for her “Installation: Urban Spaces” class, which requires students to install art in a public space, many students stormed out of the BSU assembly, some in tears. “It brought up feelings of a past that our generation has never seen, which I think is why it was so shocking for us to see,” Micah Oliver, president of the BSU, told ABC.

As an artist, I respect you as an artist,” said student Jefry Taveras in the BSU meeting. “But you should know racism isn’t art, it’s a reality and traumatizing.”

In a statement to The Spectrum, Powell explained the reasoning behind her installation, which addresses issues of non-white suffering and white privilege. “I apologize for the extreme trauma, fear, and actual hurt and pain these signs brought about,” she wrote. “I apologize if you were hurt, but I do not apologize for what I did.”

She went on to expand upon the motivations behind the project, which was intended to spark outrage and discomfort in viewers.

“My art practice is not an act of self-policing meant to hide my rage. Instead, it uses pain, narrative, and trauma as a medium of expression and as grounds for arguing a need for change in the first place. I understand that I forced people to feel pain that they otherwise would not have had to deal with in this magnitude. But I ask, should non-white people not express or confront their trauma? Should we be content with not having to confront that pain? We know it exists, and it often causes many of us immediate discomfort. Should we not be in a state of crushing discomfort?

These signs made you feel discomfort. They are tangible objects that forced you to revisit your past, to confront your present, and to recognize here and now the underlying social structures that are directly responsible for your pain and suffering. This project makes forceful what has been easy for you to ignore.”

University of Buffalo released the following statement regarding the incident: “After an initial investigation by University Police, it has been determined that the signs posted in Clemens Hall were part of a student art project. The University is continuing to review this matter through appropriate university policies and procedures.”

Powell is far from the first artist to toe the fine line between critiquing racism and embodying it. Brett Bailey’s “Exhibit B,” a performance recreating the “human zoos” of the 19th century, Ti-Rock Moore’s sculpture of Michael Brown’s dead body, and Kenneth Goldsmith’s poetic reading of Michael Brown’s autopsy have all caused dire outrage. However, it should be mentioned that the three artists listed above are white.

I don’t believe it matters whether the three artists mentioned above are white – or that Ashley Powell is black. Her installation indeed is a reality check on an era well within the lifespan of many black and white folks in America. It may be psychologically traumatizing to some – as are the works of renowned street artist Banksy. But it was a reality for the majority of the 20th century – a reality which hasn’t quite faded away to the dustbins of history…

And there seems to be no shortage of folks in some places who would willingly return to it.


Posted by on September 20, 2015 in Black History, The New Jim Crow, The Post-Racial Life


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The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration

Daniel Patrick Moynihan was a brilliant scholar whose works substantially influenced thinking about the role of government in the last half of the 20th Century. His works have been quoted, and sometime intentionally misquoted to crate carceral state, as well as to turn welfare recipients into pariahs.

This is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ newest work. What he does here is to initially reexamine the Moynihan Report, a small part of which has been the conservative bible for the past 20 years or so. Daniel Patrick Moynihan argued forcefully that the black family had been undermined by over 450 years of oppression and slavery. One of the warnings he issued to those who were considering how to rebuild black lives after Civil Rights was to not construct a system wherein, like a heroin addict, there is a cycle of dependency….

About 20 years later, conservatives took that warning and manufactured from sparse,  thin thread, the security blanket that the welfare system was destroying the black family, and thus the Democrats were at fault. Further such beliefs drove policy for nearly 30 years, and created the near permanent underclass systematically excluded from American Society by incarceration and a series of Catch 22 rules. assuring that even those who cling tenaciously tpo “the rules” only have a small chance of success.

Ta-Nehisi has apparently been reading my posts these past 15 years (yeah…sure :)) because his work starts with a lucid reexamination of what Moynihan actually said in his paper (and not just the abbreviated Cliff Notes version conservative bigots spew). I have noted for a long time that the welfare destroying the black family meme as a result of the Great Society of President Johnson is false. One look at the history of poverty rates belies that one.Improvement in cutting into the remaining poverty essentially flat-lined under Raygun, despite an over 50% reduction in black poverty from 1965 to 1980. The system since Raygun became an intractable prison both in the literary and physical sense.Elements of this system also serve to depress the black non-poor – making achievement of middle class status tenuous.

You will have to go to The Atlantic to read the whole thing, which includes 10 Chapters.

“lower-class behavior in our cities is shaking them apart.”

By his own lights, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, ambassador, senator, sociologist, and itinerant American intellectual, was the product of a broken home and a pathological family. He was born in 1927 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, but raised mostly in New York City. When Moynihan was 10 years old, his father, John, left the family, plunging it into poverty. Moynihan’s mother, Margaret, remarried, had another child, divorced, moved to Indiana to stay with relatives, then returned to New York, where she worked as a nurse. Moynihan’s childhood—a tangle of poverty, remarriage, relocation, and single motherhood—contrasted starkly with the idyllic American family life he would later extol. “My relations are obviously those of divided allegiance,” Moynihan wrote in a diary he kept during the 1950s. “Apparently I loved the old man very much yet had to take sides … choosing mom in spite of loving pop.” In the same journal, Moynihan, subjecting himself to the sort of analysis to which he would soon subject others, wrote, “Both my mother and father—They let me down badly … I find through the years this enormous emotional attachment to Father substitutes—of whom the least rejection was cause for untold agonies—the only answer is that I have repressed my feelings towards dad.”

As a teenager, Moynihan divided his time between his studies and working at the docks in Manhattan to help out his family. In 1943, he tested into the City College of New York, walking into the examination room with a longshoreman’s loading hook in his back pocket so that he would not “be mistaken for any sissy kid.” After a year at CCNY, he enlisted in the Navy, which paid for him to go to Tufts University for a bachelor’s degree. He stayed for a master’s degree and then started a doctorate program, which took him to the London School of Economics, where he did research. In 1959, Moynihan began writing for Irving Kristol’s magazine The Reporter, covering everything from organized crime to auto safety. The election of John F. Kennedy as president, in 1960, gave Moynihan a chance to put his broad curiosity to practical use; he was hired as an aide in the Department of Labor. Moynihan was, by then, an anticommunist liberal with a strong belief in the power of government to both study and solve social problems. He was also something of a scenester. His fear of being taken for a “sissy kid” had diminished. In London, he’d cultivated a love of wine, fine cheeses, tailored suits, and the mannerisms of an English aristocrat. He stood six feet five inches tall. A cultured civil servant not to the manor born, Moynihan—witty, colorful, loquacious—charmed the Washington elite, moving easily among congressional aides, politicians, and journalists. As the historian James Patterson writes in Freedom Is Not Enough, his book about Moynihan, he was possessed by “the optimism of youth.” He believed in the marriage of government and social science to formulate policy. “All manner of later experiences in politics were to test this youthful faith.”

Moynihan stayed on at the Labor Department during Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration, but became increasingly disillusioned with Johnson’s War on Poverty. He believed that the initiative should be run through an established societal institution: the patriarchal family. Fathers should be supported by public policy, in the form of jobs funded by the government. Moynihan believed that unemployment, specifically male unemployment, was the biggest impediment to the social mobility of the poor. He was, it might be said, a conservative radical who disdained service programs such as Head Start and traditional welfare programs such as Aid to Families With Dependent Children, and instead imagined a broad national program that subsidized families through jobs programs for men and a guaranteed minimum income for every family.

Influenced by the civil-rights movement, Moynihan focused on the black family. He believed that an undue optimism about the pending passage of civil-rights legislation was obscuring a pressing problem: a deficit of employed black men of strong character. He believed that this deficit went a long way toward explaining the African American community’s relative poverty. Moynihan began searching for a way to press the point within the Johnson administration. “I felt I had to write a paper about the Negro family,” Moynihan later recalled, “to explain to the fellows how there was a problem more difficult than they knew.” In March of 1965, Moynihan printed up 100 copies of a report he and a small staff had labored over for only a few months.

The report was called “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.” Unsigned, it was meant to be an internal government document, with only one copy distributed at first and the other 99 kept locked in a vault. Running against the tide of optimism around civil rights, “The Negro Family” argued that the federal government was underestimating the damage done to black families by “three centuries of sometimes unimaginable mistreatment” as well as a “racist virus in the American blood stream,” which would continue to plague blacks in the future:

That the Negro American has survived at all is extraordinary—a lesser people might simply have died out, as indeed others have … But it may not be supposed that the Negro American community has not paid a fearful price for the incredible mistreatment to which it has been subjected over the past three centuries.

That price was clear to Moynihan. “The Negro family, battered and harassed by discrimination, injustice, and uprooting, is in the deepest trouble,” he wrote. “While many young Negroes are moving ahead to unprecedented levels of achievement, many more are falling further and further behind.” Out-of-wedlock births were on the rise, and with them, welfare dependency, while the unemployment rate among black men remained high. Moynihan believed that at the core of all these problems lay a black family structure mutated by white oppression:

In essence, the Negro community has been forced into a matriarchal structure which, because it is so out of line with the rest of the American society, seriously retards the progress of the group as a whole, and imposes a crushing burden on the Negro male and, in consequence, on a great many Negro women as well.

Moynihan believed this matriarchal structure robbed black men of their birthright—“The very essence of the male animal, from the bantam rooster to the four-star general, is to strut,” he wrote—and deformed the black family and, consequently, the black community. In what would become the most famous passage in the report, Moynihan equated the black community with a diseased patient:

In a word, most Negro youth are in danger of being caught up in the tangle of pathology that affects their world, and probably a majority are so entrapped. Many of those who escape do so for one generation only: as things now are, their children may have to run the gauntlet all over again. That is not the least vicious aspect of the world that white America has made for the Negro.

Despite its alarming predictions, “The Negro Family” was a curious government report in that it advocated no specific policies to address the crisis it described. This was intentional. Moynihan had lots of ideas about what government could do—provide a guaranteed minimum income, establish a government jobs program, bring more black men into the military, enable better access to birth control, integrate the suburbs—but none of these ideas made it into the report. “A series of recommendations was at first included, then left out,” Moynihan later recalled. “It would have got in the way of the attention-arousing argument that a crisis was coming and that family stability was the best measure of success or failure in dealing with it.”

President Johnson offered the first public preview of the Moynihan Report in a speech written by Moynihan and the former Kennedy aide Richard Goodwin at Howard University in June of 1965, in which he highlighted “the breakdown of the Negro family structure.” Johnson left no doubt about how this breakdown had come about. “For this, most of all, white America must accept responsibility,” Johnson said. Family breakdown “flows from centuries of oppression and persecution of the Negro man. It flows from the long years of degradation and discrimination, which have attacked his dignity and assaulted his ability to produce for his family.”…

The Rest Here –   The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration

Herein is an actual copy of the Moynihan Report

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Posted by on September 15, 2015 in American Genocide, Black History


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New Documentary on Rosenwald Schools

The history of black education in America is difficult to separate from the legacy of the Rosenwald Schools. Julius Rosenwald, who rose to be President of Sears and Roebucks, charity built nearly 5,000 schools in the segregated South for black children. Black parents paid a “double tax” to get the schools built and operated in the 14 states of the South, as on top of their normal state and local taxes, they had to raise and donate about 14% of the cost of the school – which I will detail in the second article below.

Julius Rosenwald, center, started the Rosenwald Fund to help build schools in the segregated South. “Rosenwald” is a new documentary by filmmaker Aviva Kempner.

Rosenwald’s generosity captured in new film

In age that exalts politicians and entertainers who can’t stop telling us how wonderful they are, it is refreshing to honor a man who accomplished a lot without wanting his name on all of it.

Julius Rosenwald, who never finished high school but rose to become president and co-owner of Sears, Roebuck and Co., didn’t want his name on the store that he led to worldwide success.

Rosenwald, who died in 1932, didn’t want his name on Chicago’s magnificent Museum of Science and Industry, although he funded and promoted it so much that many Chicagoans called it “the Rosenwald museum” anyway.

He didn’t want his name on his other edifices, including more than 5,000 schools that he helped fund for black schoolchildren across the segregated South.

Yet, alumni of those schools still call them “the Rosenwald schools.” I know. Some of those alumni are in my family.

I discovered that tidbit of family information in the way journalists often stumble across information about themselves while pursuing stories about somebody else.

I was being interviewed by Washington, D.C., filmmaker Aviva Kempner for her new documentary, “Rosenwald,” when she asked if any of my southern relatives, most of them in Alabama, attended Rosenwald schools. I didn’t know, I said, but it was possible. I have a lot of cousins.

I later asked my cousin Willie Howard, a whiz in the telecommunications industries, and he broke out in a big grin. “We all did,” he said.

Alumni more famous than my cousins include poet-author Maya Angelou, director George C. Wolfe, U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia and Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson, all of whom are interviewed in the film.

Indeed, Kempner’s “Rosenwald,” now in select theaters, may well leave you convinced that former United States poet laureate Rita Dove, another Rosenwald school alum, was right when she called the Rosenwald Fund “the single most important funding agency for African-American culture in the 20th century.”

Besides underwriting the mostly rural grade schools, the Rosenwald Fund awarded fellowships to such rising stars as classical vocalist Marian Anderson, poet Langston Hughes, painter Jacob Lawrence, photographer Gordon Parks and writers James Baldwin, Arna Bontemps, Zora Neale Hurston and Ralph Ellison.

The most intriguing question, among the many that the film explores, is why Rosenwald, whose father immigrated from Germany in 1851 with $20 in his pocket, was so modest yet so generous.

As the late civil rights leader Julian Bond, whose father and uncle were Rosenwald fellows, puts it in the film, “He did not have to care about black people, but he did.”

The answer, Rosenwald’s biographers say, can be found in his faithfulness to the Jewish ideals of “tzedakah” (charity) and “tikkun olam” (repairing the world).

According to Stephanie Deutsch, author of the 2011 book “You Need a Schoolhouse: Booker T. Washington, Julius Rosenwald and the Building of Schools for the Segregated South,” Rosenwald said in one of his speeches that “We like to look down on the Russians because of the way they treat the Jews, and yet we turn around, and the way we treat our African-Americans is not much better.”

Rosenwald was also influenced by Booker T. Washington, conservative founder of the Tuskegee Institute, who suggested the funding of schools as the best investment for the future of black America.…More…


Rosenwald Schools

By: Dr. Alyce Miller, associate professor of history at John Tyler Community College and Dr. Brian J. Daugherity, assistant professor of history at Virginia Commonwealth University

The Rosenwald school building program, in many ways the brainchild of Virginia-born and Hampton-educated Booker T. Washington, occurred during the period of segregation and Jim Crow across the American South. Segregated school systems were supposed to be, according to the U.S. Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), “separate and equal,” but in reality educational systems for African Americans in Virginia and the South were anything but. This made the funds provided by educational grant programs such as the Rosenwald Fund so significant.

Rosenwald schools were public schools that were built using matching grant funds. The Rosenwald Fund required matching funds from any combination of public and private sources. According to Julius Rosenwald Fund records (JRF), the JRF helped construct 367 schools, three teacher’s homes, and eleven school (industrial) shops in Virginia. Of the total cost of Rosenwald-associated buildings, grounds, and equipment in Virginia from 1917 through 1932, African Americans contributed 22%, white contributions totaled 1%, the Rosenwald Fund contributed 15%, and state and local government contributions equaled 62%. In the fifteen states in the South where the school building program operated, African Americans collectively contributed 17% of the funds, the Rosenwald Fund contributed 15% of the funds, private white contributions totaled 4% of the funds, and public funds made up the remaining 64% of the funds. Without the organization of local African American communities willing to pay what historian James D. Anderson referred to as the “double tax,” these schools would not have been built.

In late Fall 2015, VCU Special Collections will launch an online exhibit, Black Education in Goochland County: From Rosenwald Schools through Brown v. Board of Education, comprised of research and oral history interviews related to African American educational activism in Virginia and, specifically, Goochland County. The interviews and research were conducted by Dr. Alyce Miller, Dr. Brian Daugherity, and Cris Silvent, associate professor of art at John Tyler Community College.

The local activism surrounding Rosenwald schools continues today in movements throughout the Commonwealth to preserve the histories, and structures, of these schools. John Tyler Community College (and the Virginia Community College system) has been working on an initiative to increase student engagement and success using student and faculty involvement in Rosenwald school activities. The excitement and commitment surrounding this activism provides us with an opportunity to engage the younger generation in this history and in education in general. We have also partnered with Preservation Virginia (among others) to create a larger network of Rosenwald school information across the Commonwealth.

In today’s featured image, you can see the number of Rosenwald schools built in counties throughout Virginia. You can find more information on the number of schools built in each county in Virginia (and throughout the South) by accessing the Rosenwald Schools Database at Fisk University. This is available online here. Schools were not often named after Julius Rosenwald, at his own request.

This short documentary (not the one Paige discusses above) is about the restoration of the Russell School in North Carolina

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Posted by on September 10, 2015 in Black History


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What a Slavery Museum Teaches…

History forgotten is history repeated. The Atlantic doesn’t quite get it right about the Whitney Museum being the first and “only”.

Why America Needs a Slavery Museum

The Whitney Plantation near Wallace, Louisiana, is the first and only U.S. museum and memorial to slavery. While other museums may include slavery in their exhibits, the Whitney Plantation is the first of its kind to focus primarily on the institution. John Cummings, a 78-year-old white southerner, has spent 16 years and more than $8 million of his own fortune to build the project, which opened in December of last year.

Cummings, a successful trial attorney, developed the museum with the help of his full-time director of research, Ibrahima Seck. The duo hope to educate people on the realities of slavery in its time and its impact in the United States today. “The history of this country is rooted in slavery,” says Seck. “If you don’t understand the source of the problem, how can you solve it?”

Slave Memorial at George Washington’s Mount Vernon marking the unmarked graves of slaves buried next to the Family Burial plot.


Posted by on August 26, 2015 in Black History


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Iceberg Slim – Pulp Fiction

Iceberg Slim was the nom-de-guerre of a Los Angeles Pimp, whose story became famous when he turned to writing. At least one movie, and countless bad-ass characters in the movies are based on his character and style.

Not sure why the renewed interest – but Slim is part of 40’s-60’s black history, and was a model for others (apparently still) – as well as a character from which numerous movie depictions were based. Before the Drug Dealer of the 70’s – the black pimp was more likely to be at the top of criminal enterprise in poor black communities. These guys would flash their money and “power” based on a “Players Ball” purportedly created in the 1974 Movie, “The Mack” – although such “annual conferences” existed long before that in Chicago. Apparently some of these guys are still around as you will see in the video at the bottom of this post.

I remember watching from the street one of these back in the late 1970’s, at a certain club located in downtown Washington DC. Lots of flash, jewelry, and outrageous outfits.


The Pulp Fiction Pimp Who Inspired Chris Rock, Jay Z, and Snoop Dogg

Robert Beck was the godfather of Blaxploitation, one of the most influential African-American voices of the 20th century—and also among its most violently misogynistic.

For many of his 73 years on the planet, Robert Beck—aka “Iceberg Slim,” the subject of a new biography, Street Poison, by African-American literature professor Justin Gifford—was a lousy human being.

Beck—who by his own account violently brutalized women during his quarter-century-long career as a pimp, and later mythologized his felonious lifestyle in a best-selling memoir and a series of popular pulp novels—raised misogyny to an art form.

The smooth-talking, cold-hearted Beck, whose nom de plume celebrated his detached and chilly streetwise demeanor, was the vain and selfish only son of an irresponsible mother; a careless father of three mixed-race daughters and the estranged stepfather of a Caucasian son; and a manipulative and philandering husband who only redeemed himself in a second marriage late in life as his years of prison, drugs, and hard living took their inevitable toll.

Albeit ghetto-famous, with countless fans, he died penniless in Los Angeles of diabetes and gangrene; his fancy above-ground berth at Forest Lawn was paid for by Mike Tyson, one of Beck’s many celebrity devotees, who also include Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, Quincy Jones, Snoop Dogg, Jay-Z, Ice Cube, and Ice-T (the last of whom co-produced a 2012 documentary tribute, Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp).

And yet, by Gifford’s estimation and that of others, Beck—born Robert Lee Moppins Jr. (later Frenchified to Maupins) in the slums of 1918 white-racist Chicago—was also one of the more influential voices in 20th century black culture and literature, to be ranked alongside James Baldwin, Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison.

Indeed, Iceberg Slim’s 1967 novelistic and poetic autobiography, Pimp: The Story of My Life, and his later works are widely credited with inspiring the Blaxploitation film genre and the beginnings of hip-hop and rap. His nine published books—translated into a dozen languages while one, Trick Baby, was adapted into a feature film—had sold an estimated 6 million copies by the time of his death, which might have made him the J.K. Rowling of black pulp fiction, if only his royalties were commensurate with his sales.

Beck’s pain and rage at having been callously exploited by his white-owned publisher, Holloway House—much as he had exploited and abused his revolving stable of prostitutes—is a recurring theme in Gifford’s meticulously-researched narrative.

The fact that Beck’s biographer is also white and middle-aged—an academic of somewhat younger vintage, Gifford teaches at the University of Nevada—is testament to the enduring crossover appeal of Iceberg Slim’s story.

It begins in Chicago’s Black Belt, during a period of lethal viciousness by white thugs against African Americans who dared venture out of the ghetto. Terrible race riots and mass murders comprised a history of violence that doubtless shaped Iceberg Slim’s adult identity as a revolutionary and Black Panther partisan.

Three incidents in his childhood seem to have left a searing imprint and shaped his future.

His biological father, a cook who’d grown up in “Nashville’s upwardly mobile and respectable black working-class society,” according to Gifford, had plunged headlong into the Black Belt demimonde of whoring and gambling, and saw his son as an inconvenience.

His mother, Mary, left her husband, taking her infant son with her, after refusing his demand that the baby be abandoned on a church doorstep—“so,” Iceberg Slim recounted, “he hurled me against the wall in disgust.”

The second formative experience—the memory of which forever haunted Beck and twisted his feelings about women—involved being 3 years old and sexually molested by a babysitter while his single mother toiled all day at a laundry. According to his autobiography, the babysitter forced him to perform oral sex.

“I remember more vividly the moist, odorous darkness and the bristle-like hairs tickling my face,” he wrote, “and most vividly I can remember my panic, when in the wild moment of her climax, she would savagely jerk my head tighter into the hairy maw.”

According to Gifford: “The event deeply scarred Beck—as his hateful language suggests—and he later attributed his anxious and violent relationships with the women he pimped to this incident.”

The third seminal episode—after his mother’s 1922 marriage to a devoutly churchgoing community leader and successful businessman, Henry Upshaw, whom Beck loved as his only real father—was her reckless decision to leave Upshaw after nine happy, stable years for a charming but violent street hustler.  Relocating from Chicago to Milwaukee with his mother and her boyfriend, Beck fell into bad company in the red-light district and became “street poisoned,” as he put it in his memoir. (Beck ultimately took the surname of his mother’s third husband, Ural Beck, a hardworking railroad employee in Milwaukee, whom she married in the early 1940s.)

“At the height of his career,” Gifford writes, “he would intentionally draw upon his traumatic memories—especially of the babysitter, as well as his mother’s betrayal during his teenage years—to fuel his cruel treatment of his prostitutes,” using a wire hanger as his preferred instrument of discipline….The rest here

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Posted by on August 22, 2015 in Black History


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