Pride Prejudice and Dave Chappelle
Ever since I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X at an impressionable age, books by ultra-cool black male writers who document their struggles against the racial system of the United States have been a favourite of mine. So when Dave Chappelle mentioned Iceberg Slim’s Pimp during a special on Netflix, I had to get me hands on that book.
At that time, I also happened to be reading Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I had downloaded it for the Kindle for free but hadn’t been able to get going on it for years. I got tired of authors like Jasper Fforde and China Mieville praise the books eloquence and work in clever references to the novel in their work, shit that bypassed me completely. Additionally, wherever you go in London, well read ladies always talk of Mr. Darcy this and Mr. Darcy that, and ‘Oh, I do say, Mr. Darcy’ and Colin Firth in wet white shirt, and I am like, what the…? Then, I left the book while rushing for field hockey practice while changing buses in Dalston (I once stood next to Michael Fassbender at a traffic light in that neighbourhood — he apparently owns a cafe there — but that is not relevant to the present discussion) and had to go back to reading Pride and Prejudice on the Kindle, which to my immense relief I was able to do, because the novel really is lovely once you get started.
Long story short, reading Iceberg Slim’s Pimp and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice simultaneously is a mind-bending trip.
Sex in Pride and Prejudice is highly abstracted even though it is a novel essentially about hooking up. As the famous opening goes, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Further, the high drama of the novel is provided by the elopement of a Bennet sister, and the family is plunged into crisis because there is a chance some sexual activity may have been had out of wedlock. Oh, the scandal! Mr. Darcy, you can’t quite imagine!
Iceberg Slim’s novel, in comparison (as the title of the book suggests) is about pimping. To go from reading prose, when Elizabent (sic) Bennet angrily meaning to tell Darcy to j**k himself off, declares:
“From the very beginning — from the first moment, I may almost say — of my acquaintance with you, your manners, impressing me with the fullest belief of your arrogance, your conceit, and your selfish disdain of the feelings of others, were such as to form the groundwork of disapprobation on which succeeding events have built so immovable a dislike; and I had not know you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry”.
In comparison, Iceberg Slim uses a more direct form of prose, going straight to the heart of the issue when he writes:
“Lord, if you’re up there, you know I’m black and you know my thoughts. Lord, if the Bible is really your divine book then I know it’s a sin to pimp. If you’re up there and listening you know I’m not trying to con you.
‘Lord, I’m not asking you bless my pimping. I ain’t that stupid. Lord, I know you ain’t black. Surely you know, if you’re up there, what it’s like to black down here. These white folk are doing all the fine living and sucking up all the gravy. I gotta have some of that living and some of that gravy.
‘I don’t want to be a stickup man or a dope peddler. I sure as hell won’t be a porter or a dishwasher. I just wanta pimp that’s all. It’s not too bad, because whores are rotten. Besides I ain’t going to croak them or drive the crazy. I’m just going to pimp some real white-type living out of them.”
Both novels, however, share common territory in the depth of insights they present on variety of form that human psychology takes.
Jane Austen sets the bar of observation-based analysis of character, utilising demeanour, conversation, and manners to dramatise character, plot drama, and provide comedic relief. Her writing is subtle as it is clever. Some psychologists trace the emergence of a new kind of human consciousness and self-awareness to her novels. Austen shows how both accurate readings as well as misunderstandings can be made of people when judging them through superficial means, whether public opinion or face-to-face conversation.
Iceberg Slim, on the other hand, builds a frank, if colourful, thesis based on street experience and psychology books in jail libraries of how a disruptive childhoods and abusive relationship with parents can create freaks: women who feel loved when men abuse them and men who try to make an easy flash living off that kink but eventually end up in jail. This dynamic is bracketed by the institutional racism of American society and its criminal justice system, where white men are desperate to sexually subjugate black women and cannot contemplate black men to be anything but simpletons. A black pimp lives off the idea, quite successfully, that a white man can’t imagine being dumber than a black man. Both novels offer solutions in domesticity and that the higher nature of certain individuals can defeat adverse circumstances.
There has been some speculation about why Dave Chappelle chose to recommend Pimp. Articles have been written presenting that analysis that Chappelle saw himself as being pimped out as a “bottom bitch” (pardon my French, Mr. Darcy) by Chappelle Show network executives. That is why, they say, he ran away to South Africa to truly understand racism instead of mocking black culture for white dollars. I should provide some more intelligent analysis of what I think Chappelle’s allegory or metaphor is but truth be told, I have no idea. Pimp is a ridiculously funny book but it is also heart-breakingly sad. I’m just glad Chappelle mentioned it, otherwise I would never have gotten to hear about it.
In Pride and Prejudice, Austen provides a satirical portrait of the “white-type living” that the protagonist of Pimp so desperately desires. White people who sit in mansions in the English countryside, attend balls, pay each other parlour visits, read aloud letters or from German novels, and go for walks without umbrellas. It’s not racy (until a sister elopes inviting scandal on the family) but it’s quiet. It is the greatest privilege to have a quiet life, with money without work.
In a way, it is Mr. Darcy who is the ultimate boss pimp because he doesn’t even need to exploit women or shoot crack to feel cool. He has so much money, that it rains for him. What is common to Iceberg Slim and Mr. Darcy is that they can both express themselves superbly in writing. Mr. Darcy learned to write out of privilege and intelligence; Iceberg Slim in jail libraries and through talent and grit; but is perhaps Chappelle’s great achievement that he has achieved Mr. Darcy white-type living through his writing and performance. More power to him.