Black Like Vanilla has been doing the “A Book A Month Challenge” for about a year and a half on our Instagram page. Originally set up as a challenge to encourage our black brothers & sisters to read at least one book a month, it was not set up to be a book club because, seriously, who wants to manage a book club on Instagram? Now that the website is up, I had all intentions of actually starting a book club this month where, if you wanted to, we could discuss the book of choice in the comments. However, it is going to have to wait until next month because the book I chose this month is RARE rare. This month’s BLV’s A Book A Month Challenge choice is “The Life: The Lore and Folk Poetry of the Black Hustler” by Dennis Wepman, Ronald B. Newman, and Murray B. Binderman.
I’ve had this book tucked away for YEARS and as I was researching it for this post, I had no clue it is a collectors item…a sliver of black culture immortalized in this collection that is no longer in publication. “The Life” refers to the black urban subculture known as the “sporting life”, characterized by pimping and prostitution, the sale and use of narcotics, and a wide variety of confidence games collection. While “The Life” was not the experience of all lower-class Black people, many were directly connected to and/or impacted by some element of it.
“The Life” consist of “toasts”, folk poems related to this subculture that could be heard on the “streets of the inner city, in bars and “shooting galleries”, poolrooms and prison yards”. And I want to be clear, while “toasts” in “The Life” glorify this subculture, that is not the intent of this post…which is to shine light on all facets of the black experience. This is part of our history. The “toasts” were recited as a performance of sorts. Think Jerome on the 90’s sitcom “Martin”‘s “I’m a Playa, from the Himalayas”:
A better example is from the 1975 movie “Dolemite” staring Rudy Ray Moore, who actually recited a “toast” that is included in this book called “The Signifying Monkey”.
No one knows who are the originators of each “toast” are and everyone has their own version. This book not only shares the “toast” but also evaluates and relates it to other “toasts” in the book, as well as providing a glossary. Some of these go back to 1955.
Here is a “toast” recited in 1966 called “The Hustler”
The name of the game is beat the lame,
Take a woman and make her live in shame.
It makes no difference how much much she scream or holler,
‘Cause dope is my heaven and my God the almighty dollar.
I would climb in the ring with nothing but two P-.38s
And send either on that moved through the pearly gates.
The “toasts” in this book were “taken down by shorthand from spontaneous recitations during the 1950s and 60’s by one of us (authors) at the time an inmate in the prisons of New York – Sing Sing, Clinton, Attica, and Auburn…Telling, like telling jokes, is a social entertainment; and like jokes “toasts” may be known by everyone in the audience but can only be recited well only by people with special talents.”
Next month we will be back with our first BLV “A Book A Month” Book Club pick. A reminder of the rules for the books of choice:
• book has to be at least 100 pages
• Preferably a book by a #BlackAuthor
That’s it. At the top of the month, I’ll share the book for the month.
Please feel free to share what you are reading and or make a suggestion for a book in the comments.
Don’t forget: Patronize Black Bookstores. Visit your local library. Participate or create book exchanges with your friends so that you don’t have to spend a lot of money on new books. Just read. Reading is all that matter. Any genre. Fiction or non-fiction. Romance or sci-fi. IceBerg Slim or Siata Souljah. You name it.
And if you are already reading a minimum of a book a month…To quote D.L. Hughley from “The Kings of Comedy”, “y’all go on & keep the party going”.
Malcolm X once said “People don’t realize how a man’s whole life can be changed by one book”. I look forward to sharing with you as I hope you share with me.