The Best Memoirs: Gangsters Edition

I’m back again with another collection of my favorite memoirs written by gangsters (which include gang members, pimps, drug dealers etc.).  These are not traditional reads in the literary memoir sense, but rather fascinating because it’s almost like reading real-life urban literature.  Here are some of my favorite memoirs written by gangsters.

Pimp: The Story of My Life by Iceberg Slim

Considered a classic by fans of urban literature and one of the forefathers of street literature, I found the biography of street pimp, Iceberg Slim, to be raw and uncut.  Iceberg Slim is brutally honest about his childhood which included an abusive father and the experience of being molested by a babysitter.  When his mother leaves his loving and supportive stepfather for a notorious gigolo, Slim is heartbroken and quickly takes a turn for the worse.  He begins committing petty crimes and ends up in a juvenile prison.  There, he learns more about the street life and leaves there as a young criminal mastermind ready to earn his stripes as a young pimp.

Iceberg Slim does not make the life of a pimp look glamorous.  Instead, he tells the reader how rough the lifestyle is, how abusive he was to his women and often how broke he was.  Still, it’s a classic and a must-read.

Mr. Untouchable by Leroy Nicky Barnes

Leroy “Nicky” Barnes shares his life story here including details about his childhood, life as a junkie, his rise to power in the streets and his downfall.  Barnes tells it all and especially why he decided to inform on his old crew, The Firm. 

Interestingly, my uncle knew him personally from their old neighborhood in Harlem.  (In fact, he’s mentioned as one of Nicky’s childhood playmates.)  So, I grew up hearing little stories about him from back in the day, and before he became a big-time gangster.

In his memoir, Barnes shares all he little dirty secrets about his life as a drug kingpin and the situations that caused him to turn on his old crew.  It is quite the read and I highly recommend it and the documentary film, Mr. Untouchable, which features the urban legend himself.

Rosebudd: The American Pimp by John Dickson

This memoir comes from Rosebudd, one of the stars of the hit film, American Pimp, a documentary produced by the Hughes Brothers.  He details his life before and after he became a pimp.  An educated man from a very religious family, Rosebudd strayed “into the life.”  First, he hustled as a pool shark before making a foray into the world of pimpdom.  Rosebudd travels from the streets of Fresno and Oakland down to Hollywood, making a name for himself along the way.  A must-read for any fans of the American Pimp documentary and urban literature.

Always Running by by Luis Rodriguez

Luis Rodriguez, a Chicano and former gang member from East Los Angeles, wrote this memoir about his life as a gang member in LA in an effort to help his troubled teenaged son who had recently joined a gang in their new home of Humboldt Park, Chicago.  While Rodriguez eventually found redemption in activism and through his poetry, he had served the gang of his youth for many years including the years he spent incarcerated.  He talks about the environmental factors that caused a rise in gangs in the Los Angeles area.  By sharing his story, Rodriguez addresses the issues that cause young people to join gangs---violence, prejudice and poverty---and shares how many of his friends and family members were not as fortunate to escape.  A great read that I can’t recommend enough.

Harlem Godfather: The Rap on My Husband, Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson by Maymee Johnson and Karen Quinones Miller

Bumpy Johnson is a legend among the underworld and in the streets of New York.  He was one of the few African American men to stand up to the mob and to control the “black side” of Harlem for decades.  He was a numbers king-turned-overlord who protected Madame St. Clair during the Numbers Wars in New York City.  When she retired, Bumpy took over the rackets in Harlem and controlled all the activities of Harlem’s underworld.  Written by Mayme Johnson, Bumpy’s widow, she gives a personal account of Bumpy’s life and the truth behind his reputation in the streets.  The widow doesn’t mince words and sets the record straight on urban myths and legends surrounding Bumpy’s legacy.

Queen Pin by Jemeker Thompson

Queen Pin should be a movie! I give this short little tome 5 stars because Jemeker Thompson-Hairston told the story of her life as a gangster and now a reformed minister. Engrossing from beginning to end, Ms. Thompson-Hairston really shares what life is like behind the scenes during the now famous 1980s crack/cocaine era. She was one of the best to ever do it and had it all but lost so much during her reign---her husband, Daff, and later her freedom when she served 12 years in prison.

Jemeker Thompson-Hairston does not shy away from the harsh truths and realities of her former life and shares openly her dramatic and religious transformation. I first learned of the author from the A&E series, America's Most Evil, and was fascinated by her story. This memoir picks up where the documentary show left off and really gives a more thorough glimpse of the lifestyle that Jemeker led and her transformation into a Christian.

For Christians like myself, who love to read and enjoy a good gangster book or film every now and then, this book addresses both worlds. The only thing the book is missing are pictures. I would have loved to see pictures of Jemeker high stepping it back in the day. Still, I highly recommend it and would love it if the book were made into a film.

The lives of gangsters are interesting because no matter how predictable the outcome (death or jail), the path there has infinite possibilities.  I’ll continue reading and posting about more memoirs in the future.

Keep reading,

Naj