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A Hustler’s Legacy: Donald Goines

By Mark Anthony Neal | @NewBlackMan | with thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)

Sunday, July 9, 2017.

Donald Goines has been name dropped by just about everyone in hip-hop—Nas’s “Black Girl Lost”, for example, is based on Goines’s 1973 novel of the same name.  DMX portrayed the character King David in a film adaptation of Goines’s Never Die Alone.  In many ways, the very genre of so-called Gangsta ap would have never existed if Goines had never put pen to paper, but who really was this former hustler-turned-literary folk hero?  In his book, Low Road: The Life and Legacy of Donald Goines, journalist Eddie B. Allen, Jr. illuminates the life and writings of arguably the most influential chronicler of Black urban life in the post-World War II era.

Allen was first introduced to the work of Donald Goines as a kid—an older female cousin was reading a copy of his first published novel Dopefiend: Story of a Black Junkie (1971). Years later as he pursued a career as a journalist he could appreciate the ghetto realism of Goines’s writing. “But I had not learned exactly how real the details of the novel were” Allen reflects, “they had been taken directly from experiences and observations in the life of Donald Goines.”  This was something that became clearer to Allen as he tried to pull together slithers of information about a man whose books, according to his publishers, have sold more than 5 million copies, but whose family couldn’t remember where he was buried.

What we know about Goines is that he, like so many, was profoundly inspired by the work of Robert Beck—Iceberg Slim for the uninitiated—whose autobiography Pimp: the Story of My Life (1967) caught Goines attention when he was in prison. It was with Pimp in mind that Goines began to pen his first pieces of urban fiction—the precursor to today’s so-called “street” literature.  

The mass appeal that Pimp found among black audiences in the 1960s was not surprising.  Iceberg Slim represented an undistilled take on Black urban life, a view that was not mediated by front-page Negrotarians or White tastemakers. As Allen describes it, “Pimp was a form of literary insubordination…it directly challenged notions, stereotypical and otherwise, about the American image of black men and sexuality.” (106)

What we also know about Goines is that he had the epitome of the hustler’s work ethic—he wrote 16 books in a four year period from his release from prison in 1970 and his murder in 1974. Years before “can’t knock the hustle” and “on my grind” became Hip-hop mantras, Goines embodied the “hustle” in ways that foreshadowed notions of work within the culture industries during the era of hip-hop.  

But Goines, as Allen asserts, was also the “product of the post-Depression era city, where men of color still walked a fine line between pride and self-preservation.” (vii)  In  other words, it might have been all about the “hustle”, but with an attention to craft and detail, that ultimately separates the work of Goines and Beck from your favorite mumble rapper.

All of Goines’s novels have been published by Holloway House, a LA-based outfit that bills itself as the “World’s Largest Publisher of Black Experience Paperbacks.”  Holloway was the same house that made serious money off the publication of Beck’s Pimp, as well as Louis Lomax’s To Kill a Black Man (1968) and Robert H. deCoy’s classic The Nigger Bible (1967).  The irony, of course, is that Holloway House was a white owned publishing company.  

That Holloway House continues to make money off of Goines’s work, including film rights for Crime Partners (2003) and Never Die Alone (2004),underscores Allen’s suggestion that figures like Goines and Beck were being pimped—“put out on the street to make money for a White owned publishing company.” Indeed, whatever money Goines made off of writing, largely supported his heroin addiction.

According to Allen, when Goines and his wife Shirley were murdered in October of 1974, many regarded him as “just another dead junkie.”  Invisible to a White owned culture industry that made money off of him and ignored by a Black gate-keeping elite that despised the characters he brought to life in his novels, Donald Goines death barely registered, even amongst hard core fans of his work.  Fittingly and thankfully,  Eddie B. Allen, Jr.’s Low Road: The Life and Legacy of Donald Goines brought that legacy into even sharper focus.

Mark Anthony Neal is a professor of African and African-American studies at Duke University, Durham, NC, USA.  He is the publisher and editor of newblackmaninexile.net

A Hustler’s Legacy: Donald Goines

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