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Condemnation & Redemption: The Works of Donald Goines

[By Jerry Ward]

Addison
Gayle, Jr. was not a signifying monkey.  
Many contemporary scholars and critics ignore his existence; they
dismiss his insights as strident sub-literary talk, noise not to invite to
dinner at the Academic Big House.  A few
critics of my generation refuse to erase him. 
We do not embrace Gayle’s views without question.  We do, however, respect the historical
importance and contemporary relevance of his thought.  We find his exploration of fiction in The Way of the New World: The Black Novel in America (1975) to be
bracing.  We find useful insights in the
essays he collected in The Black Situation (1970), and one of those
essays “Revolutionary Philosophy” seems poignant in the midst of debates about
the status of the gun in the United States. 
Rereading that essay casts light on issues explored in Word Hustle.

In
the introduction to commentary on the works of Donald Goines, L. H. Stalling
notes that Gayle  acknowledged neither
the existence of street literature nor “its importance to a Black Arts or Black
Power Movement” (21).  Nevertheless,
Dennis Chester’s essay on Goines’ Daddy
Cool
(1974) recognizes the importance of contrasting Gayle’s quest for
freedom, justice, and the creation of a new society with Goines’ s depiction of
a new society which is deeply flawed and “whose fundamental principles are
contradictory” (100-101).  Chester and
other contributors to Word Hustle
realize that critiques of street literature are necessary to continue the
unfinished projects of the Black Arts/Black Aesthetic cultural phenomenon.  As Candice Love Jackson argues in “The
Paradox of Empowerment: Colonialism, Community, and Criminality in Donald
Goines’s Kenyatta Series” (33-48), Goines’s works urge readers “to navigate new
articulations of Black consciousness cautiously and soberly” (47).  The overseers of American literary
acceptability miss a lot by trying to confine Goines to the outer reaches of
the canonized plantation.  Bourgeois
dismissal of Gayle as a critic and of Goines as a novelist only increases one’s
appetite for a literary historical epiphany.
In
one moment of reading Word Hustle, I imagined condemnation should be “con/damnation” and redemption should become “re/deepenation.”  Such linguistic sport can engender its own
kind of hustle, a hustle to expose how the cunning of ex-cons who write novels
(prison novels in particular) can advance dread-filled “truths” about the power
of language much better than do many post-whatever novelists.  The sport can affirm hip-hop deconstruction
of revolutionary dreams in fiction and become a timely enterprise for literary
and cultural criticism.  Word Hustle warrants our engaging the
counter-canon of American literature, the unsaintly works that boldly address
certain realities of intraracial caste and class, of race-riddled sexism and
homophobia, of confused descriptions of American masculinity, power and
hegemony, and reform/revolutionary acts. 
Like their elite and proletarian cousins, Goines’s novels do employ
traditional narrative strategies, and they do belong “in non-Hegelian
conversation” with criminalization and mass incarceration schemes, aesthetic
smokescreens, subliminal concerns regarding praxis, economics, labor, and with
the trauma of genuine historical consciousness that orthodox humanities, print
or digital, desperately wish to conceal.
Literature
is not salvific.  As Addison Gayle
reminded us in “Revolutionary Philosophy,” some of us “dreamed not of
integration but nationalism, not of a melting pot theory but of a pluralistic
theory, not of a great society but a new one. 
More important, we dreamed of fashioning Canaan out of the debris of
American society, of erecting a nation predicated not upon the gun but upon
morality, and if these dreams are hopeless, then  so too is the future of mankind” (221).  Literature can’t save us if we are determined
like terrorists to destroy ourselves and everyone else.  But “in conversation,” Gayle and Goines promote
recognition that the twenty-first- century world order is gangsta and ratchet.
For a nice contextualization  of  “ratchet,” read Imani Perry’s “Of Degraded
Talk, Digital Tongues, and A Commitment to Care,” Profession (2012): 17-24
Stallings, L. H. and Greg Thomas, eds. Word Hustle: Critical Essays and Reflections on the Works of Donald Goines. Baltimore: IMPRINT EDITIONS, 2011.