Donald Goines is your favorite rappers favorite writer. A pimp and a stickup man, addicted to heroin most of his short life, Goines’s books, with titles like “Whoreson” “Dopefiend” and “Black Gangster”, have sold over 6 million copies. Written in a frenzy between 1970 and ‘74, Goines’ novels are a dark portal into black street life and the misery of addiction and are probably the most widely read set of books in the American prison and jail system. Other than the street itself, he is probably the single biggest inspiration to gangster rap music, a billion dollar business, and while Goines ended up with a criminal record for pimping, armed robbery, bootlegging liquor, and drugs he actually grew up in a relatively affluent family in one of Detroit’s most thriving black neighborhoods.
So Goines’ family is like the Jeffersons, they had a mini dry-cleaning empire in Detroit, and Donald’s father I’m sure wanted to bring his son into the business, but after getting kicked out of Catholic school young Donald dropped out of the 9th grade and joined the Air Force, just in time for the Korean War.
Goines came home from the military with two newfound hobbies that he’d picked up in Asia- heroin and prostitutes. He spent the next 15 years shooting heroin, pimping, and doing stick ups. He went to Federal prison for manufacturing bootleg liquor and state prison for robbing a numbers house. He once stuck up a Bingo hall that his own mother was at. He spent most of the 1960’s in prison and missed the Detroit riot of ‘67- he was locked up. In 1969 he read the bestseller PIMP, written by Iceberg Slim, and decided to start writing himself. Goines got a publishing deal with Holloway House, the same publisher as Iceberg Slim, and in a drug fueled frenzy Goines pumped out 15 books in 5 years, between 1970 and ‘74.
Murder of Donald Goines
On October 21st, 1974 -Goines and his girlfriend were found murdered in their Highland Park apartment. Both shot 5 times…the two .38 pistols used to kill them left lying in the front hall, and his girlfriend’s 2 small children left unharmed.
Goines’ books have made tens of millions of dollars and will probably make even more as time goes on, but more than anything his legacy lives on in the billions of dollars made off gangster rap music, some of it real, most of it fake, and all of it sounding like something Donald himself could have written.
Was Donald Goines a great writer? Probably not. Is reading his novels a good thing for prison inmates to be doing? Probably not. But is an important writer. He catalogued an important part of American history with his books, he gives us a real record of street life in the 60’s and 70’s. A life that millions of people lived, and whose voices are rarely heard. Tens of millions of guys from the inner-city’s first, or only, exposure to books was through Donald Goines, and, in a way, that puts him high up in the rarest air of literary giants.
Goines’ life, times, and death, is also something of a referendum on the American Dream. As you read the twisted tales he spun in his heroin daze, pecking away at the typewriter, remember that Donald Goines was the child of the American Dream, he grew up in a nice house with parents that owned their own thriving business, there were new cars, trips, clothes, Catholic school…but that wasn’t fulfilling, as it isn’t for a lot of people in America, so he looked to the streets, to drugs, for meaning. And that still resonates today, Goines and the characters he created were lost souls looking for meaning, people that society threw away, or people that couldn’t find meaning in the soul-less blur of work, mortgage payments, and going to the mall. And remember, the next time you see some rapper on television babbling about his drug transactions and his murderous ways, he’s probably just the imitation of an imitation. Donald Goines was the real thing.