Many are still reeling from the recent death of Things Fall Apart (1958) author Chinua Achebe (1930-2013). While the world remembered the man known as the ‘Grandfather of African Literature,’ black authors Robert Beck (1919-1992), known by pseudonym “Iceberg Slim,” and Octavia E. Butler (1947-2006) were immortalized in Atlanta.
Portrait of a Pimp, directed by Ice T.’s longtime manager, Jorge Hinojosa, was screened during the 2013 Atlanta Film Festival. Hinojosa’s self-funded 90-minute documentary chronicles Slim’s evolution from astute yet flamboyant Chicago pimp to best-selling author of seven books.
Spelman College, on the other hand, honored Butler with a half-day conference, “Black to the Future.” Organized by award-winning Cosby Chair Tananarive Due, the event also spotlighted Afrofuturism, which highlights relevant black issues in the context of fantasy, supernatural, science fiction and horror.
Slim and Butler both pioneered genres for the African American literary canon. Slim’s books reveal a gritty underworld filled with crime, sex, drug addiction, poverty, imprisonment and death. His books Pimp: Story of My Life (1969), Trick Baby (1971), Mama Black Widow (1969) and Airtight Willie & Me (1979) collectively adapt street colloquialisms, the ghetto as the backdrop and dynamic character portraits. Slim’s explicitness and realism was the antithesis to blaxploitation films and grotesque media reports.
Butler’s narratives created a cosmic otherworld. Patternmaster (1976), Kindred (1979), WildSeed (1980), Parable of the Sower (1993), Bloodchild and Other Stories (1996) and Fledgling (2005) feature racial and sexual ambiguity with images of slavery, time travel and power dynamics. The award-winning pioneer of black speculative fiction, remembered as “introverted and humble,” could effortlessly draw parallels between reality and her imagination. “Speculative fiction shows there is a larger world than the one that is most immediate,” says Jewelle Gomez, author of The Gilda Stories (1991).
Samuel “Chip” Delany, another pioneering black speculative fiction writer, adds that Butler, an avid reader with a salt-and-pepper mini-Afro who loved research, was consistently straightforward. “When she opened her mouth, it was very clear that she had something to say,” says Delany.
Slim’s intellectual property consistently sold well as paperbacks but was often subjected to greedy book publishers and mixed reviews from critics. Slim’s storytelling and character development would lay the groundwork for streetwise fiction authors Donald Goines, Odie Hawkins and Wahida Clark. Ice-T, Too $hort and Snoop Dogg also cite Slim as an influence on their records. Cash Money Content, founded by Cash Money Records’ “Slim” and “Baby” Williams, owns and publishes all of Slim’s books.
Hinojosa says classic literature often comes out of censorship and resistance. “People are uncomfortable with silence, but that’s when the jewels come out,” says Hinojosa.
Like Slim, Butler was often criticized by other writers (predominately white men). There was the perception that her android-styled writings didn’t have any traces of a black following. Steven Barnes, novelist and television writer, says both book publishers and television executives often make generalizations regarding black audiences and science fiction.
“People like seeing stuff that looks like them. That’s a universal human trait. I had to argue with a white female editor who said ‘Black people aren’t interested in science fiction,’ but there is curiosity. Be willing to take the pain of rejection,” says Barnes.
With both Slim and Butler, the criticism never stopped their prolific output. Their books further imprint a legacy of black cultural production synonymous with passion and a willingness to challenge the conventions of literature. “[Octavia] was the purest writer that was still sane. She invested so much of herself in her work. She just wanted to do the work and did,” says Barnes.
Christopher A. Daniel is the music and culture editor for The Burton Wire. He is also a contributing writer for Urban Lux Magazine and Blues & Soul Magazine. Follow Christopher @Journalistorian on Twitter.