Robert Goines, the African American writer who turned out 16 novels under his own name and his pseudonym "Al C. Clark" in his brief literary career, was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1937. He was sent to Catholic school by his family, who expected young Donald to get his education and eventually work in the family's laundry business. In 1952, Goines enlisted in the US Air Force at the age of 17, lying about his age to enlist. During his three-year stint in USAF blues, he became a heroin addict while stationed in Korea and Japan, a monkey on his back that clung to him when he rejoined civilian life in 1955. Eventually, the monkey was demanding a century-note's worth of junk a day to remain calm and not run his claws through Goines' body and soul.
Unable to get straight, it was hard to fly right with such a burden, even for an ex-air man. Like many addicts, Goines turned to crime to support his jones. In addition to theft and armed robbery, he also engaged in bootlegging, numbers running and pimping. In and out of jail, he was incarcerated for a total of six and one-half of the first 15 years after he left the service. He wrote his first two novels while in stir.
Goines had first, while barred up and reduced to wearing prison stripes, tried his hand at writing Westerns, but he was uninspired by the genre. However, he found his muse when he discovered the writings of the ultra-cool Iceberg Slim, the legendary pimp and raconteur. Iceberg Slim's works such as his seminal "Pimp" inspired Goines to write the semi-autobiographical "Whoreson," a novel about a mack born to his trade as the son of a street-walker. "Whoreson" was brought out in 1972 by Slim's publisher, Holloway House, which specialized in African American works. It was his second published novel, after 1971's "Dopefiend: The Story of a Black Junkie."
Goines was sprung from the joint in 1970. He began writing at a frenzied pace for the four years that were allotted to him in this vale of tears, publishing 16 paperback originals with Holloway House. Still addicted to junk, Goines was disciplined enough to keep to a strict schedule, writing in the morning before giving over the rest of his day to letting the lady run her quick-silvery hands through his being. Writing at a furious pace, he could turn out a novel in as little as a month. His style is unpolished, his syntax rough, and his words liberally dependent on the language of the streets, shot through with black dialect (Ebonics). His novels are peopled by pimps, `hos, thieves, hitters and dope fiends, struggling to survive in a ghetto jungle beset with merciless predators. The books were written for an audience that had lived side-by-side with such creatures and to whom Goines' characters could never be deemed "exotics," readers to whom violence was or had been a part of life, not something wholly fictional.
The novels he published under his own name are about the "lumpenproleteriat," the criminal underclass. Under the name "Al C. Clark," Goines wrote five novels about a black revolutionary cat called Kenyatta. Unlike Goines' gangstas, Kenyatta - named after the great African freedom fighter Jomo Kenyatta - takes an active stance against exploitation and the depredations of inner-city life. He opposes the Establishment and is a sworn enemy of white cops. The head a black militant organization dedicated to the Herculean task of douching out the ghettos of drugs and prostitution, Kenyatta is killed in a shootout in the last book of the series, "Kenyatta's Last Hit" (1975).
Of his oeuvre, Andrew Calcutt and Richard Shepard in "Cult Fiction" (1998) opine, "Donald Goines wrote fiction the way other people package meat. There is little point in picking any of his titles as outstanding, since they are all formulaic. Equally, however, they are outstanding in that they are street-real and avoid the romanticism of many of the films and books about black life in America."
Between five and ten million of Goines books have been sold, though his work did not receive much critical attention until the the hip hop generation, which he influenced, became a cultural phenomenon. Goines' books have inspired gangsta rappers from Tupac Shakur to Noreaga as a new generation of rap-influenced African Americans adopted the long-gone writer as part of their cultural heritage. Goines' works reflect the anger and frustration of African Americans as a people. The hip hop generation was sympathetic and accepting of Goines' rejection of the values of white society.
The rapper DMX adapted Goines 1974 "Never Die Alone" into a movie, the first made from one of his novels. In the film, DMX plays King David, a gangster seeking redemption. The movie, directed by Ernest Dickerson, was financed by Fox/Searchlight Films and DMX's own Bloodline Films. No stranger to legal problems, DMX made the film because he identified with the writer.
Another rapper, Kool G Rap, one of the pioneers of street-hop, identifies himself as Goines' heir. Calling himself the "Donald Goines of Rap" due to his ability as a story-teller, Kool G says, "Before G Rap, they weren't talking about selling drugs in the street, murdering; they weren't doing nothing relating to the streets. They were talking about making new dances. But with Donald Goines, I took what I was seeing and tried to make it visual like him."
While hip hop as an art form cannot be considered a direct descendant of writers like Goines or Iceberg Slim, they did have a major influence on gangsta rappers. Nas and Royce Da 5' 9" both have songs called "Black Girl Lost," which is the title of a Goines book.
Donald Goines and his wife were shot to death on October 21, 1974 under circumstances that remain a mystery. Some people believe they were killed in a drug deal that went wrong. Their grandson, Donald Goines III, was murdered in 1992, part of the destruction of young African American lives that has not abated since long before the founding of the Republic, a country whose Constitution deemed African Americans as 3/5ths of a person for the purpose of establishing the apportionment of Congressional representation but did not give them any legal or social rights.
Thirty years after his death, Donald Goines's novels are as relevant as they were in the early 70s, offering a picture of a lifestyle immersed in violence, sex and drugs. It's a life - often sacrificed to the exigencies of the street - that has since become glamorized and more appealing for a new generation of African Americans and white "wiggah" wannabes due to the mainstream commercialization of gangsta rap by urban media moguls more concerned with Big Buck$ than social justice.
Major influence, along with his literary forefather Iceberg Slim, on gangta rap.
Shot to death along with his wife in what some think may have been a botched drug deal.
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