Henry Williamson’s Hustler (1965)

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Not much is said about the influence of literature on the Blaxploitation film genre. Sure, there is mention of Iceberg Slim (Pimp and Trick Baby are required reading, in my opinion) and Donald Goines (who was somewhat contemporaneous with the Blaxploitation genre) but little is written about the autobiographical works that preceded it. These popular books began to prove that there was a viable (read: profitable) audience for a realistic portrayal of Black life. These early works of non-fiction depicted the harsh realities of the inner city and the tough decisions many Blacks had to face once the dreams of an urban utopia dissipated for these new migrants from America’s South.

Released during the same year as the Claude Brown’s renowned autobiography Manchild in the Promised Land (1965), Henry Williamson’s Hustler! (1965) is a fascinating tale of a man whose life existed outside the rules set by American society; where violence and crime were as normal as the greater populace’s morning coffee. True to its title, Hustler! explores the illegal means Williamson uses to survive in his life outside the margins. Thiefs, racketeers and junkies inhabit Williamson’s milieu and would, only few years later, inspire the celluloid dreams of Blaxploitation. Told to and recorded by Williamson’s welfare worker on the Southside of Chicago from 1961 – 1963, it is an unusual story of a man who makes no apologies for doin’ wrong or much of a political statement about his “Blackness”. Sadly long out of print, Hustler!’s starkly minimalist cover only enhances the world the reader will discover once inside. The savvy bibliophile will scour their local used booksellers in search of Williamson’s visceral tome. Dusty fingers and all, it’s a decision you won’t soon regret.

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