Saturday, August 8, 2015

Justin Gifford

Justin Gifford is an Associate Professor of English Literature at the University of Nevada, Reno. His teaching and research focus on American and African American literature. His book, the first literary and cultural history of black street fiction, Pimping Fictions: African American Crime Literature and the Untold Story of Black Pulp Publishing, was a finalist for both the Edgar Allan Poe award for literary criticism and Phi Beta Kappa’s Christian Gauss Award for scholarship.

Gifford's new book is Street Poison: The Biography of Iceberg Slim.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. His reply:
I like to think of books as unsolved mysteries. The right book is like the first solid clue in an investigation that can lead to a profound revelation of secret knowledge. For me, Robert “Iceberg Slim” Beck’s bestselling autobiography Pimp was the first clue that would take me on a ten-year journey concluding with the creation of my Street Poison: The Biography of Iceberg Slim. Over the course of a decade, I scoured secondhand stores across the country to collect hundreds of vintage paperbacks that he inspired. I uncovered Beck’s prison records, FBI files, and psychiatric examinations that had been locked away a basement for over 70 years. I tracked down his relatives, editors, and contemporaries for interviews, and through them, I obtained his unpublished manuscripts and writings. Reading through this vast archive of materials allowed me to reconstruct the story of one of the most notorious pimps and popular American authors of the twentieth century, as well as the vibrant history of black America’s urban migration. Beck was a cultural figure who told the darker truths about American racism, the prison system, and the sex industry; his works and his life shine light on these crises from the margins.

I recently began a new expedition to uncover the hidden life of another outlandish figure of African American culture, Frank Yerby. Though most people have never heard of Yerby, he is the bestselling black American author in history with 33 books and over 60 millions copies of his novels sold. A contradictory and colorful personality, Yerby started out as writer of political fiction alongside Richard Wright in the 1940s, but then baffled black critics when he abandoned his protest work and started writing Southern historical romances in the style of Gone With the Wind. He enraged them further when he moved to Spain to escape American racism and started passing as a white man to promote the sales of his novels.

Most critics over the last 60 years have considered Yerby a sellout and a race traitor for his novels and his racial masquerade. However, this is not the whole story. After reading about Yerby, I visited the Howard Gotlieb Research Center at Boston University where 80 boxes contain his unpublished papers. There, among the book contracts and the letters to his editor were his stories of black struggles for freedom. “Arsenal of Democracy” is the story of a black family that gets swept up in the violent events of the 1943 Detroit riots. “A Thing to Remember” features a tragic love story between a black hobo and his new girlfriend; their romance is cut short when a group of white drifters rape and kill her. In his partially autobiographical novel “Tents of Shem,” a black family is terrorized by their neighbors when they move into an all-white community. The antithesis of his popular novels, Yerby’s political fiction featured stories of black soldiers, veterans, industrial workers, painters, and singers who fight against the institutional forces of white racism. Written in the naturalist style of Richard Wright or Chester Himes, these stories fulfill the activist agenda that black critics demanded of Yerby, and it complicates his standing in the American canon. Yerby’s eccentric life and his significance to African American history will be fully more revealed in my forthcoming book on him, Prince of Pulpsters: The Biography of Frank Yerby.
Learn more about Street Poison at the publisher's website.

My Book, The Movie: Street Poison.

--Marshal Zeringue