Donald Goines spent his writing career exploring the underbelly of black urban life in what his publisher dubbed “black experience novels.” He wrote and published sixteen novels in the span of his five-year career and is still touted by his publisher as “America's best-selling black author.”
Born 15 December 1937 in Detroit to parents who owned their own dry-cleaning business, and a product of Catholic elementary school, Goines spent his formative years outside the world he treats in his novels. This began to change during his midteens, however, when he falsified his age to join the U.S. Air Force, served in Japan during the Korean War, and returned to Detroit a heroin addict at the age of seventeen.
After leaving the air force, Goines's range of experiences provided the background for his novels. At various times he was a pimp, professional gambler, car thief, armed robber, and bootlegger. These illegal activities landed him in jail several times, which proved to be productive: Goines was heroin-free only while in prison and focused on his literary talents there as well. During a term in Jackson State Prison in 1965, Goines wrote his first novels, which were Westerns. After being discouraged from writing in this genre and being inspired by Iceberg Slim's Trick Baby, Goines began to write in earnest and produced the first of his ghetto novels during another prison term at Jackson in 1969. After a fellow inmate gave the work his approval and suggested Goines submit it to Slim's publisher, Goines sent Whoreson, The Story of a Ghetto Pimp to Holloway House and the manuscript was accepted. Whoreson (1972) is Goines's most autobiographical novel and the only one written in the first person. He uses his own experiences as a pimp and multifaceted hustler to paint a vivid portrait of a ghetto pimp and the types of street characters who surround him.
His second novel, but the first to be published, is Dopefiend: The Story of a Black Junkie (1971). In this Goines explains the power dynamics between dealer and junkie and illustrates how a perverted, cowardly, black drug dealer in a dilapidated ghetto house can exert his influence across socioeconomic boundaries over anyone who becomes addicted to heroin. Goines emphasizes that no heroin user can emerge from the experience unscathed.
He lived his own lesson. After leaving prison with an advance from his publisher in 1970, Goines resumed his life as a heroin addict. He did continue writing, however, and his next novel, Black Gangster, appeared in 1972. This novel tells the story of a gang leader named Prince who uses his organization, the Freedom Now Liberation Movement, as a front for illegal activity. Although Prince's ability to mobilize his community is admirable, Goines illustrates how the positive efforts of the black community are often stunted by the American system that continually proves individual capitalistic gain the only insurance for survival, while it blocks the path that leads to legitimate economic success.
Goines's next significant novel (which follows Street Players, 1973) is White Man's Justice, Black Man's Grief (1973), framed by Goines's “An Angry Preface”, which exposes the racial and economic inequities in the bail-bond system and urges politicians to make changes. The story that follows personalizes the issue and demonstrates how this type of discrimination targets mostly poor black men who become hopelessly tangled in the “justice” system once they have entered it.