The Legends:

Donald Goines, Chester Himes,
Ishmael Reed & Ice Berg Slim

by Elaine Watkins
Urban Book Source
February 2006

Donald Goines

Donald GoinesA role model and icon to many of today’s Urban Fiction authors and fans alike. Rumored to have sold close to 10 million novels, Goines is what street legends are made of. But unlike many of the troubled youth of today, Donald was born into a middle-class family. In his youth Goines attended Catholic school and was expected to take over the family dry cleaning business upon graduation. Instead of following his parents’ wishes Goines fudged his age on Army applications and enlisted in the US Air Force. While serving his country, in Japan, Goines discovered heroin and returned home an addict.

The rest of Goines’ life was overrun with gambling, pimping, stealing, and prison sentences. It was in jail that Donald’s pen caught a blaze, trying his hand first at westerns, but quickly giving it up to write his nostalgic street classics, which were inspired by Iceberg Slim’s work. Upon his release, Donald released his first of sixteen novels, Whore-son under Holloway House, including his Kenyatta series which he wrote under the pseudonym, Al C. Clark.

Goines maintained a strict writing regimen, writing only in the mornings throughout his career. With his mammoth creativity, Goines was known to complete novels in as little as one month. His stories were bona fide tales of street life, to say the least. Filled with vernacular, and familiar ghetto battles; Donald painted honest portraits. No glorification or sugar coated realism, just hardcore facts. From Dopefiend to Black Girl Lost, Goines implemented shadows of his life into all of his works.

Like many legends Donald’s life came to an abrupt end, as the result of a vicious shooting, which claimed the lives of him and his wife in 1974. Goines’ work continues to be read and celebrated by many, from hip-hop lyrics to movies (Never Die Alone), Donald Goines’ legend will undoubtedly continue to live on for generations to come.

Chester Himes

Chester HimesJust call him the master of Black detective novels, producing 17 full length novels and over 60 short stories. Although highly underappreciated in the US, Chester Himes’ work turned him into a famed novelist in Europe, and a paradigm to many contemporary mystery writers. Praised by Walter Mosley, Ishmael Reed and many more, Himes’ work has made its stain in the literary hearts of many.

Chester was born to a family of educators; his mother a musician turned home-school teacher—father a metal trade professor, in Jefferson City, Missouri. With the intentions of becoming a doctor, Himes entered Ohio State University in 1926, but was later expelled for taking his classmates to a gambling/whorehouse. Dejected, Himes slide over to the dark side, drinking, smoking opium, gambling, and later committing burglaries, which he was later convicted and sentenced to a 25 year term at the age of 19.

In prison, with the support of his mother, Himes taught him self how to type, writing short stories that he later submitted to black newspapers and magazines. Chester’s writings quickly gained the respect of many inmates, who encouraged him to publish his works after his release. After serving only seven years of his sentence Himes was discharged on parole.

Eight years later Himes released his first novel, If He Hollers Let Him Go, which was followed by Lonely Crusade, both of which did horribly in sales. Blaming his publishers, Himes moved to France, where he met an agent who swayed him into writing a detective novel, which sparked the successful literary career he dreamed of. Chester painted the black experience on paper with a cynical and violent twist, often using bourgeois characters as his muse.

Himes died in 1984, after a battle with Parkinson disease. But even as the disease took its final course Chester willed himself the strength to sign copies of his novel A Case of Rape, proving to be dedicated to fans until the end.

Ishmael Reed

Ishmael ReedOften touted as one of the most controversial writers in African American history. To date he has published a total of nine novels, five books of poetry, two collections of essays, and has edited four major anthologies.

Unable to afford his education at the University of Buffalo, Reed moonlighted as a correspondent for Empire Star weekly and a co-host for a radio show where he interviewed Malcolm X. Becoming weary of Buffalo Ishmael moved to New York City, where he aided the development of one of the first underground newspapers, and helped to spark to Black Arts Movement.

The Free-Lance Pallbearers, Reeds first novel, published in 1967, was riddled with humor. Pallbearers was trailed by Mumbo Jumbo, which is his most acclaimed novel thus far. Filled with slave narrative styled diction, Reed laid down his own set of rules, creating Neohoodooism, which was the term Reed created for anything being done on the behalf of the mistreated and wronged. Although Reed was the constant Black activist, his Neohoodooism was a mixture of elements of black and American cultures.

Reed currently resides in California with his wife, where he continues to lecture at the University of California at Berkley. His teaching credits include Yale, Harvard, Dartmouth, and SUNY Buffalo.

Robert Beck, a.k.a. Iceberg Silm

Robert Beck aka Ice Berg SlimBorn as Robert Lee Maupin, is as real as they get. Pimping from the age of 18 until his last bid in prison, which he spent ten months in solitary confinement at 42, Slim, had gathered enough stories to tell for days. Deciding that the life of illicit activity wasn’t for him anymore, Iceberg started to scribe his stories.

Iceberg’s first novel, Pimp: The Story of my Life, set the tone for what was to come in his prolific career as a writer. This semi-autobiographic tale went on to be translated into German, French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Swedish, and Greek. Some of his other works included Trick Baby, which was produced into a film, Mama Black Widow, and Death Wish, which were all published under Holloway House, who boast that his books have sold over six million copies.

Slim’s stories have definitely secured a place with street literature lovers and has even crossed the literary lines into hip-hop culture, with rappers like Ice T and Ice Cube adopting monikers in his honor. His last novel Doom Fox was published in 1998, six years after his death from liver failure.

Elaine Watkins is the Editor-in-Chief of The Urban Book Source.

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