How do authors such as Robert Beck (Iceberg Slim) and Donald Goines go from catering to white audiences with “black sleaze” to becoming embraced by artists such as Ice T, Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock and others as “culturally authentic” and part of the “black literary underground”? Kinohi Nishikawa’s Street Players: Black Pulp Fiction and the Making of a Literary Underground (2018) does just this by tracing the history of white publishers Bentley Morris and Ralph Weinstock’s Holloway House from its emergence in the late 1960s to its closing in 2008. Throughout Street Players, Nishikawa explores the ways that publishers market books and how audiences receive them. To do this, he deploys Robert Darnton’s communications circuit to ultimately “explain the relationship between Holloway House’s producers, Morris and Weinstock, and its legions of fans, black readers” (9).
Street Players contains three distinct sections. The first traces the trajectory of Holloway House from Morris and Weinstock’s beginning in the 1950s publishing magazines that emulated Playboy, their move toward white sleaze in the early 1960s, to Black sleaze in the late 1960s. The second part focuses on the move from Black sleaze to to Black pulp fiction in the early 1970s. The third section explores how the Black literary “underground developed from 1974 and into the 1980s” (12). Along the way, Nishikawa examines the work of multiple authors that Holloway House published.
Moving chronologically, Nishikawa starts by looking at the “conjecture of misogyny and libertinism” within Playboy and Morris and Weinstock’s publications Adam and Sir Knight in the 1950s (18). Geared towards white, male readers, each of these magazines promoted the idea “that domesticity was a trap” which would lead the feminization of men (19). Nishikawa uses the term “sleaze” to describe Adam, Sir Knight, and early Holloway House publications because the term encapsulates “a whole ethos of crude masculinism” (19). By linking the deterioration of American masculinity to the domestic, and specifically the mother, Nishikawa shows how Holloway House marketed itself to readers and succeeded during the 1950s and into the 1960s.
Holloway House saturated the market with sleaze, having authors such as Paul J. Gillette work under pseudonyms to produce more books. These books, such as Gillette’s “translation” of The Many Loves of Casanova, were nothing more than “outright fabrications” and played into Holloway House’s ethos of presenting their white, male readers with texts that played into the readers’ fears of losing their masculinity. The process of using hack writers and having them pen books under countless pseudonyms continued throughout Holloway House’s existence, and Nishikawa shows how Holloway House exploited these authors to pad their own bottom line.
Moving from Holloway House’s focus on sleaze for white readers, Nishikawa looks at the emergence of Iceberg Slim (Robert Beck) and his books such as Pimp: The Story of My Life (1967), Trick Baby (1967), and Mama Black Widow (1969). Nishikawa argues that Holloway House’s positioning of Slim served as a “racial masquerade” because it served as a performance for readers “taken up by urban black men in order to make a way out of no way,” and as a form of fascination “for white men to see themselves as black” (50). While some critics view Slim’s early works as Black pulp fiction, mass market paperbacks by a Black author for Black readers, that pushed back against systemic oppression, Nishikawa points out that these works arose out of the sleaze market, leading them to become Black sleaze, “white-oriented pulp whose prose style, plot structure, and cover design made a lurid spectacle of blackness, and specifically racialized sexuality” (76).
Other authors such as Louis Lomax and Robert deCoy arose during this period. deCoy’s The N***** Bible (1967) and his biography of Jack Johnson, The Big Black Fire (1969) played into white readers’ ongoing fears of being overtaken by the domestic. Along with Slim’s early work, each of these books, together with titles from another sleaze publisher, Lancer, worked to comfort white readers “at a time when racial militancy was on the rise” by providing them with “soft-core interracial porn — a liberal version of the old plantation romance” (81). In Bible, creation begins with an interracial coupling between a Black man and a white woman, and the focus on white womanhood throughout the book highlights that it is “more white erotic fantasy than black spiritual guide” (61). Likewise, The Big Black Fire focuses a large amount of the text on “Johnson’s musings on white womanhood” (84).
At the start of the 1970s, as Nishikawa argues in part two, Holloway House made a business decision to start marketing its books and magazines to Black readers, thus moving from Black sleaze, works geared towards white readers, to Black Pulp fiction, “male-oriented crime, espionage, and action-adventure novels written by black authors for black readers” (109). This transition saw Beck trying to distance himself from his constructed pseudonym Iceberg Slim through works such as The Naked Soul of Iceberg Slim (1971) and media interviews. He did this by linking himself to political revolutionaries, as he makes apparent in his dedications to The Naked Soul where he lists off activists such as Angela Davis, Huey P. Newton, and more. Holloway House had a vested interest in Slim’s rebranding from sleaze author to Black pulp author.
Even as he tried to transform his image, Slim became, to many white outlets, a representative and “the voice of urban black culture” (119). The media’s lauding of Slim, of course, provided Holloway House with cultural cache, at least for white audiences taken by the blaxploitation craze of the early 1970s, even leading to a clumsy film adaptation of Trick Baby. As Nishikawa points out, Slim treaded two paths: “Depending on context, genre, audience, and medium, he appeared either as a subcultural guide or a social agitator” (121).
Slim’s prominence on the national stage led Holloway House to sign authors such as Donald Goines and to start Players, a Black-men’s magazine partly in the vein of Playboy. Wanda Coleman served as the magazine’s first editor, becoming “the driving force behind its early success” (152). While on the surface Players appeared to walk the same line that Slim did between revolutionary and guide, it served as an outlet for Holloway House and its marketing of its own stable of authors, thus promoting a view of the world that played into the narratives of writers such as Slim and Goines.
In part three, Nishikawa traces the trajectory that Holloway House took towards the Black literary underground. Within this section, Nishikawa expands upon Holloway House’s exploitative business practices, especially regarding Coleman and Goines. Along with this, he explores the ways that readers of Players, specifically Black female readers, led to Holloway House’s attempts at targeting them through their Heartline Romances series. The series ultimately failed. However, Heartline Romances, in conjunction with the countless pulp novels that Holloway House produced and even Slim’s 1976 spoken-word record Reflections, all led to a Black literary underground where artists embraced Holloway House and reworked the communications circuit.
Nishikawa concludes with the ways that Black readers “effectively reappropriated black pulp fiction for their own uses, which is to say, for black cultural production” (255). This reappropriation becomes evident specifically through hip hop where artists such as Ice-T and Ice Cube take their monikers directly from Slim and where rappers such as Killer Mike link Slim and Goines to W.E.B. Du Bois: “This is Souls of Black Folks mixed with Donald Goines s***/Better said, Robert Beck, esoteric I could get.”
Ultimately, Nishikawa’s study of Holloway House “has broader implications for how we think and write about race and appropriation in American culture” (13). The depths that Nishikawa covers in Street Players highlights the ways that Holloway House manipulated cultural products to boost profits and how their Black audience reappropriated these cultural productions. Moving forward, this same type of insight could be used when looking at other cultural productions such as comics, films, and music.