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Mama Black Widow: A Story of the South's Black Underworld

4.09  ·  Rating Details  ·  689 Ratings  ·  59 Reviews
"Mama Black Widow" is the nickname of Otis Tilson, a comely and tragic black queen adrift with his brothers and sisters in the dark ghetto world of pimpdom and violent crime. His story is told in the gut-level language of the homosexual underworld-an unforgettable testament of life lived on the margins of a racist and predatory urban hell.
Paperback, 288 pages
Published June 1st 2002 by Payback Pr (first published 1969)
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(showing 1-30 of 1,917)
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Blair Blanchard
Aug 19, 2007 Blair Blanchard rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: YO MAMA!
dark, graphic and real... the author doesn't skim on being polite about anything... you don't get many voices like this in American fiction... highly recommend
Jan 23, 2016 Nakia rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
My first read of 2016.

Believe it or not, this popped up on Buzzfeed's "27 Seriously Underrated Books Every Book Lover Should Read" list last year. I'd never heard of this novel, but thought the synopsis was the complete opposite of anything Iceberg Slim would write about: a drag queen in the 1940s.

"Mama Black Widow" is the coming of age story of Otis Tilson, born in Mississippi, the youngest boy in a family of six that migrates to Chicago, unprepared for the harsh life that awaits. This novel c
Nov 23, 2007 Joe rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a very graphic and gritty novel but not for the squeamish, faint of heart or those who want a happy ending because a happy ending you're not going to get. I must say it was probably one of the most nailbiting page turning protrayals of inner city 1930s black urban life. I seriously could not put it down as much as I wanted to at some points.

The story is about Otis Tilson, otherwise known as Sally or Tilly by his cross dressing pals or Sweet Pea by the arachnoid mother of the title.

Oct 19, 2013 Shaun rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I'm coming down the home stretch of reading everything Iceberg Slim wrote, and I'm glad this one was saved for the endgame. I think I have one or two more left, and then I'm done.

Like most of Slim's work, very few punches are pulled. As a matter of fact, I can't think of a single instance of Slim pulling a punch. He tells it like it is. I found PIMP to be one of the bleakest, most depressing books I've ever read, and MAMA BLACK WIDOW is cut from this cloth.

One word that I've never heard used to
Tami Egonu
Aug 12, 2014 Tami Egonu rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I've re-read this novel after many years and continue to love Iceberg Slim's gritty, great, poetic writing/language. The subject matter is brutal, honest and really tragic, written by a man who experienced and saw enough to give a voice (in this case to Otis )to those caught up in the dark underbelly of family and life in Chicago in the early 20th century. It's a masterpiece for a reason. Not for the faint hearted.
Jul 30, 2013 Cristalle1 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a tough book to read but once you get through the first chapter and enter Otis' life you will find this a hard book to put down. Iceberg Slim provides a window into the life of a Black family that like so many others at that time joined the migration to the 'promised land', the North. They struggled to survive in the most difficult of circumstances. It is a tragedy but a real portrayal of the inhumane suffering that one family and others in their time in history in the Chicago ghetto sou ...more
Jul 15, 2015 Matt rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I ended up reading this as a way of backtracking from Goines. This wasn't quite as satisfying-- instead of a plotted novel, this is ostensibly an oral biography that the protagonist tells Iceberg Slim. I have no info to judge the veracity of that conceit, but its storytelling is awkward enough to make it credible.

The protagoonist, Otis Wilson, is a gay transvestite who seem to be hemmed in by the pressure of his mother, who psychologically manipulates Wilson through most of his life. Wilson and
Feb 08, 2015 Tasha rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Iceberg Slim tells the story of a family plagued with so many of the horrors that plague the urban neighborhoods. Poverty, prostitution, violence, murder, drug deals, and grittiness that few are able to explain in a way that others can understand are easily visualized as Iceberg Slim spins this tale. A homosexual young man is struck with the difficult question of whether the way his mother has treated him is the cause of his inability to become aroused with a woman. He struggles to grasp the und ...more
Jul 19, 2014 Richard rated it really liked it
Shelves: read-in-14
Endlessly grim, but written with wit and verve.

I'm surprised this book doesn't have more traction as a document of the bad old days of queer history - I had never heard of it before last week. It's a negative portrayal, yes, but it deals quite honestly with self-hatred and the pain and complications that follow from that.

I'll admit that I enjoyed this as a melodramatic page-turner, although the relentless tragedy goes over the top by the midpoint and there's at least as much Perils of Pauline as
Skivvy Jones
Aug 30, 2015 Skivvy Jones rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Delicious, grotesque, explicit and real. The first book I've finished before the sun rose the next day. Reminded me of the famous Gordon Parks photo series about the Fontenelle family.

People have also mentioned Hubert Selby Jr. and that's not far off. Instead of Tralala and Georgette we are given Sally, a humdinger in her own right. And wait 'til you meet Mama.

Mama Black Widow emits an uncanny sensation in which you wonder how much Chicago (and the world at large) has changed and how much has r
It's not easy being a queer black man. Especially in 1940s - 50s Chicago.

I read this because I was in the mood for something pulpy. This isn't a review, just some things I want to note so I can remember the language used.

"Ah jes hate white folks so much, Ah'm gonna' bus mah haht opun iffen Ah don bile en the leckrik chair. Ah got tu git way frum white folks, an stay way." - Mama

"Ain't yu uh blip, Mama dahlin'? Heah ah am fatern uh goose wif frogskins an kickin' yo doe down whilst yu playin' pos
Victoria Moore
Nov 29, 2014 Victoria Moore rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
When I read Iceberg Slim's book "Pimp" I was so intrigued by the subject matter of his book "Mama Black Widow" that I had to read it. Stylish and poetic, with a tragic twist, the story about Otis "Tilly" (Sally) Tilson, a glamorous drag queen struggling to survive in Chicago, Illinois is painful and graphic enough to make it highly melodramatic but compelling all the same. Despite that,it still has a lovely humanistic side that made me really care about the characters and what they go through i ...more
Apr 23, 2013 Pharaohess rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: anyone
Recommended to Pharaohess by: Noone
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Tamika Trammel
I couldn't finish this book. Too spiritually painful for me to read right now. I'll come back to it later in life, probably, just because I don't like to leave books I've started unfinished. A great book depicting the evils of the human spirit in different skin colors and sexes.
Mama Black Widow is brutal. Nothing good happens in this book. The happiest thing that happened was a childhood Christmas in which the mother makes stars for the tree out of the saved-up foil from packs of cigarettes and even that has an element of bleakness.

Review published on the Denver Public Library website
Arthur Vincie
Sep 29, 2015 Arthur Vincie rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A tragic, well-written and horrifying account of growing up poor and African-American in the south and then in Chicago. Some serious misogyny but worth the read.
Ka Nesmith
I've read all of his books, all of which could be screenplays, but this might be my favorite of his catalog.
Apr 20, 2014 Alisha rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The real deal... Descriptive and visual raw!
Jan 19, 2015 Harold rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Another bleak, gritty, and occasionally brutal tale of black inner-city life from the author of Pimp The Story of My Life (the only other Iceberg Slim novel I've ever read). "Mama Black Widow" tells the true story of Otis Tilson, a gay drag queen growing up in 1930s and '40s Chicago. Definitely not feel-good reading. Slim pulls no punches in his descriptions of violence and poverty and the book is full of colourful racist language.
Oct 10, 2014 ReaditALOUD32 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Dark novel but a good read.
Eva Leger
Jun 27, 2009 Eva Leger rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: my nephew first comes to mind
Recommended to Eva by: myself
Shelves: b-urban-fiction
I don't know what I was expecting from this but it was somewhat different from what I did think it would be like. Not to say it's bad- it's certainly not- I enjoyed it. It took a little while to get into for me, a little longer than I thought it would for sure, but once I got into it there was no turning back.
The main character, Otis, is so real you feel like he's your brother (or sister depending...) I was in awe of how much I was into the story once I really fell into it.
I can't wait to read
Katie Wooten
Jul 03, 2015 Katie Wooten rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Don't read this if you want to be happy. That being said, its some of the best prose I've ever read: challenging, beautiful, and heartbreaking. I read it quickly and will certainly read it again but I really can't stress enough that it is absolutely depressing.
Ula Lechtenberg
Book Club selection for Adult Popular Literature
Christopher Herz
To me, this is one of the classics of the second half of the 20th century. A first person narrative where Slim takes on the personality of a truly complex individual. His dealings with Race, the expansion of the inner city, the terror of the south, and the experience of what it means to be left out of the mainstream is incredible.

There are passages in this book that are still with me today. It is a novel that every American should read if they really want to understand the country they live in.

Jun 18, 2009 Dianne rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Ouch. The terrible things that happen in this book are difficult to quantify. Every time I thought things couldn't get worse for Otis a.k.a. Tillie a.k.a. Sweet Pea a.k.a Sally, they just did.
This book is was supposedly told as a first person account to Iceberg Slim, who formatted and adjusted it into a story. I don't remember much from Pimp, but the dialogue in this book certainly does sound like an awkward re-telling, which doesn't necessarily hurt the story.
Jan 10, 2010 Hmcdram rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I chose "Mama Black Widow" after I read "Pimp" by the same author. The reviews said it was the most "racy". It was the story of a homosexual transvestite. Once again, Robert Beck, as Iceberg Slim delivers a tragic tale of Otis Tillman "Tillie", giving us an inside glance at the desperate attempt at self-fulfillment in a severely limited environment. Beck is realistic in the sexual encounters, but he does not overdue it. Does this level of racism still exist?
Sep 08, 2007 Tosh rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Real literature lovers
It is amazing to me that Iceberg Slim is not more well known in the American mainstream press or even in schools. "Mama Black Widow" is probably one of the great American novels of the 20th Century. If this was going to be a film, only someone like Fassbinder could have filmed it. Also his "Pimp" should be required reading as well.

I wrote an essay on Iceberg Slim on my TamTam Books Blog:

Apr 02, 2014 Lanette rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A great read.

This book is a page turner. It was a learning experience inside of one man's struggle. This book has sexual content. However, it wasn't overwhelming.
Aug 03, 2011 Jared rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
So far, so good. Iceberg to me is better than Steinbeck; more readable, less overblown. The power is less in his characters but more in how he portrays humanity. There is no evil human, only evil actions, and they all stem from want. I was expecting more pulp and less literature when I checked this out from the library (undeniable prejudice on my part), and I must admit, I haven't been this tied to a book for a long time.
Doris walkins
Jan 03, 2008 Doris walkins rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Robert Beck writed about the underground black community of the 50s and 60's primarily but also the 70's. In this one, the subject is a man who is struggling with his queer identity. This book is so before its time. The ease and comfort with which he discusses the black queer community is awesome bc let most black folks from that era tell it, there were and are no gay black people and this is so contrary to that
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Iceberg Slim, also known as Robert Beck, was born as Robert Lee Maupin. Novelist and poet whose most famous novel, Pimp, is semi-autobiographical.
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