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Book Commentary: An Analysis of Eddie B. Allen’s Low Road

Book Commentary: An Analysis of Eddie B. Allen’s Low Road


Date: 12/16/2004
By: C. Liegh McInnis
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Low Road:  The Life and Legacy of Donald Goines by Eddie B. Allen is a work driven by excellent research and poignant insight, showing that the power of literature is its ability to inform us of the unfamiliar, order our lives, affirm the worth of people who have been traditionally viewed as inferior, and find a way to connect us all to the common thread of humanity.  Quoting Goines enthusiast Robyn Ussery, Allen writes, “I recognized people in my neighborhood who were like characters in his books.”  Ultimately, Allen’s work is one of metaphoric reflection, where someone looks at a single event and uses the event as a prism or a microcosm for understanding a lager movement.  Goines’ life and work, like Robert Johnson and Thomas A. Dorsey before him, should be read as the crossroad of the various paths that African people can take as a reaction to or as a survival tactic to living in an oppressive state.  In the same way that Dorsey used the secular (cafe/juke joint) aesthetic to articulate his Christian message to the worldly people, Goines is similarly speaking to a particular group in their style and language.  And in the same manner that Dorsey was rebuked by the traditional, upper-class church, Goines was rebuked by the traditional, upper-class keepers of the literary canon.  However, rather than adhere to the Du Boisian notion of showing the universality of our humanity by showing the best (most sanitized) of us, Allen takes the same unflinching look at Goines’ life as Goines takes at the life of the Black underclass.  By enduring the stench of man’s worst conditions, Allen shows how Goines provides a greater understanding of what it means to be human by forcing us to acknowledge, address, and solve our flaws, affirming the Last Poets’ assertion that “I must love niggas because niggas are a part of me.”  Goines never completely rejects Du Bois but moreso embraces the notion of Claude McKay in his Home to Harlem that the truth of humanity is found in how people react to and endure the worst of times and themselves.  Neither Goines nor Allen suggests that we must celebrate nhilism, but it must be addressed if we are to ever conquer it.  To not discuss life in its entirety is to ill prepare the people for life.  Goines seems to inherit this attitude from his grandparents.  “Neither proud nor ashamed of their purported relation to one of the most infamous racist in history, the Baughs simply accept this ancestry as a part of who they were.”  Thus, Allen presents Goines’ work as “cautionary tales” where a person who has endured, if not survived, the low road warns society of the dangers of taking certain roads, especially when living in America is, for African people, a low road.  It is the complexity of Goines as a man and his characters that becomes the center of Allen’s book, where Allen forces us to take a deeper look at what it means to be Black in America by contextualizing Goines and his work into the socio-political circumstances, movements, and developments of America’s cultural landscape.  Allen places Goines’ narrative within the narrative of the modern civil rights movement and its success, failures, and many transformations.  What we find is that America’s schizophrenic attitude and policies had/has a direct affect on the mental shape and conditioning of African people and their various responses to America’s schizophrenia.  For Allen, to understand Goines is to understand America, and to marginalize Goines’ worth as a literary figure is to have a misunderstanding of America and the purpose, power, and role of literature.
 
Not dry or merely journalistic, keeping in the tradition and style of Goines, Allen blends the objective with the poetic to create a certain empirical beauty (meaning), where Allen uncovers Goines as an allegorical figure in that Goines’ life and work parallel the underclass within Black culture that needs art to provide a meaning if not affirmation of their existence and worth.  Before we read for entertainment or even information, we read for affirmation.  In the same manner as J. F. Cooper’s readership looked to Cooper’s work for a sense of what they were doing was of worth, Allen shows us how Goines’ readership looked to Goines to see themselves painted beautifully—not unflawed but with the notion that their humanity mattered even if they had few material (economic) markers.  With the title of the book, Low Road, Allen is displaying the poetic flair of Goines as well as the poetic (figurative) existence of Du Bois’ “double-consciousness,” where Black life is a series of decisions driven by the decision of whites to enslave and then perpetuate the second-class citizenship of African peoples.  Hence, choice in the face of an existential existence becomes a running theme in Low Road as it is a running theme throughout the body of Goines’ work.  By giving us this understanding of Goines, Allen helps provides more literary or critical insight into the themes of Goines’ body of work.  Allen shows us that naturalism, fatalism, and nihilism are not the central issues of Goines’ work.  Of course, there is always the structure of a character being born in a bad time, in a bad place, with limited resources, but what tropes all of this is one’s choices.  Allen, through his research and literary weaving, paves a narrative that fluctuates as Goines’ choices fluctuate.  Through Allen’s meticulous plotting, we are lead to understand that Goines’ legacy is two fold—literary pioneer and a road map of choices that parallel the choices of the Black underclass.  In doing this, Allen repaints Goines, not as a mindless savage merely reporting the horrors of his world, but as a complex, intellectual man, struggling to tell a story and to use that story to give meaning to his life and his community.  “I don’t want to sound [d]efiant, or like some smart-ass nigger.  What I’m trying to say is…I want to write, but there is not much money in paperbacks, as we both know, unless the writer turns them out like comic books.  But I want to write something that you and I would both be proud of. I have a novel in mind, but it’s utterly impossible for me to spend that much time on one book when I can turn out three others in the same length of time.”  Allen gives us writer who is struggling with how best to tell his community’s story and, at the same time, navigate the problem that Langston Hughes called the “Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” where the African writer is often asked/seduced to sacrifice integrity for payment, as Hughes asserts that African writers are pressured to “Be stereotyped, don’t go too far, don’t shatter our illusions about you, don’t amuse us too seriously.  We will pay you.”
 
Yet, Allen, even in his most desperate moments, found the integrity to be unflinching in his artistic commentary.  Much like Melvin Van Peebles, Goines strove to make the community (its extended persona) the star (protagonist) whereby the hero takes on an epic quality of having the desires, hopes, and values of the people embedded in him.  Accordingly, Allen is able to reconstruct the term “protagonist” or “heroism” no longer to mean unflawed but to mean being able to face one’s flaws and demons on a daily basis.  As we are shown Goines, himself, struggling to “kick” his heroin addiction, we see his protagonists struggling to overcome both their external and internal foes.  This makes Goines, as well as his characters, a metaphor for the double-consciousness of Africans fighting themselves while simultaneously fighting their exterior oppressor.  In this confusing and perverted system built on entropic or monopoly capitalism, even when Black people break the law, it can be seen as an attempt to fight a larger evil as in the case of civil disobedience.  We learn from Goines’ work that doing right in a system based on wrong can and will often be considered wrong.  And in a system based on wrong, it becomes easier to accept wrong as the right course of action.  By raising this issue, Goines seeks to heighten our understanding of how America’s perversion has infected African people to the point that right and wrong are merely arbitrary points on a slippery slope to survival.  So where we may survive for the moment, the actual act of the survival is ultimately killing us.
 
“Apart from its employment of runners and managers throughout various urban centers, the [numbers] racket was largely supported by the black community because of the reciprocal role its organizers played in building institutions.  Philanthropic gestures by policy makers provided supplemental income to the businesses that fronted for numbers stations.  Additionally, hospitals, social organizations, and other well-regarded establishments received assistance in keeping their doors open and making their services to the public available.  Policy organizers were seen as men and women of the people.” 
 
There has always been a Robin Hood type of attitude associated with the Black underclass, which has always struggled to find its identity and place, especially in the struggle of what is right legally and what is right morally and who will define this for African people.  And by the late sixties and early seventies, economic concerns had replaced moral concerns as the primary concern of the Black mass, especially as whites continued to use religion and morality as a tool to perpetuate Black second-class citizenship.  This continues to be seen with the 2004 election as white Christians use morality as an excuse to support policy that perpetuates the second-class citizenship of African people.  “Unlike the ‘43 disturbance, this was an explosion of tensions and hostility that was borne of economic circumstances and was directing itself primarily at the city’s economic foundation.”  At the core of this complexity is the notion that Goines, himself, is the product of a family that fared pretty well from an economic stand point and had a positive sense of self esteem, “If there was any proclivity toward passing in the Baughs, however, it didn’t seem to show itself.  Their neighbors in Big Rock Township were black or of similarly mixed descent.  They worked, worshipped, and socialized in the areas of Little Rock that found black presence acceptable.”  Yet for all of this family and race pride, not even the Baughs could anticipate the matter in which pseudo-integration and gentrification would fragment and destabilize black families and communities, including their own:  “… the construction of expressways and urban renewal…had translated into urban removal for poor residents who have been ‘bulldozed out of their homes.’  Of course, they had no prospects of fleeing to the suburbs because of residential restrictions that were still being legally enforced.”
 
Goines, then, is shown as a symbol of failed integration, at least from the point that as African people gained more financial status they paid less attention to metaphysical issues, which caused African individuals, such as Goines, to drift farther into a sea of whiteness where money and power are more important than heritage and history.  On the other hand, Allen is clear that Goines’ life is as much about choice as it is about white oppression because he parallels Goines’ decision with that of Berry Gordy.  “While Donnie had been out hustling with women and schemes, a young music lover and entrepreneur named Berry Gordy was hustling songs.”  Though his parents were honest, hard-working entrepreneurs, Goines gravitated more toward the spoils of economic diligence than to his parents’ work ethic and dignity.  This is especially seen in the chapters “Dope Fiend” and “Cash and Bitches,” where Goines, for lack of mentorship due to the distance between he and his father, embarks on a lifelong road of misguided revolution.  “To hell with a job.  He had to make a living on his own terms.”  Goines failed to realize that his father’s successful business was an act of revolution because it both destroyed a state of dependency and built a state of independence.  And contrary to what Dr. Todd Boyd asserts in H.N.I.C., gaining wealth for the mere sake of gaining wealth is not a revolutionary act even if white families like the Kennedys are able to use illegal gains as a way to become respectable American citizens while Black drug dealers are sent to jail.  The hypocrisy is that the prohibition on alcohol ended because white mothers grew tired of seeing their sons dying in the streets, but America seems not to care about Black sons dying over crack.  As a result of America’s hypocrisy, the Black drug dealer is engaged in a misguided revolution for survival because his momentary gratification is killing his community.  In this sense, Goines is the perfect role-model for Hip Hop icons, such as DMX, Tupac, and Biggie Smalls, because each of them has had to come to terms with what is the true definition of a revolutionary and how does this definition differ from merely being a thug. And where we realize that “Dope Fiend” and “Cash and Bitches” could be the title of any Hip Hop album or song released today, we also realize that this complexity of plan and reaction is both constant and historical, especially when Allen acknowledges that even from the Norman Rockwell-like songs of Gordy’s Motown grew the socio-political criticism of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On?, which asserted that “[a]fter standing on the front line in Southeast Asia…they found themselves at the back of the line when it came to getting ahead.”  So instead of painting Goines as a helpless victim or a flat one-dimensional writer, Allen challenges us to look unwaveringly and objectively at Goines and his work so that we may take what is useful in our perpetual walk along America’s low road, which, as seen in Goines, we have managed to turn into a thing a beauty, such as the tight organization of the numbers game or the power of Black music.  In both cases, African intelligence, creativity, and ingenuity are at the center.  Even as a hustler, Goines was able to use the Motown assembly line work ethic to crank out well-written works.  When viewing Goines we should see a man and a culture of intellect and beauty no matter the thorns and fertilizer in which they may grow.
 
Moreover, when we speak of beauty, we are essentially speaking of aesthetics, which is also what Allen is highlighting in Goines’ life and work, how African people have turned the ugly scraps and remains into the beautiful quilt that is African American culture.  As Frederick Douglass stated, “They take the meat and give us the skin, and that is the way that they take us in.”  Yet, African people have taken the skin and other discarded items and created a beautiful tapestry of American life.  At the core of this particular aesthetic is survival.  For Black art is never art for art’s sake in the same manner that Goines’ characters are driven by purpose and are not mere savages acting and reacting instinctively.  Therefore, it is the purpose the keeps Goines’ work from being “blaxploitation.”  In most “blaxploitation” films, Black attitude and behavior (Black stylization) have no real purpose than that of entertainment with a side order of sticking it to the man for the mere satisfaction of sticking it to him.  Yet in Goines’ work, there seems to be some sense of African humanity because his protagonists, such as King David, are thinking men who are often pondering their place in society and the universe, at least from the point of how their actions affect others.  This notion of how one’s actions affect others is the most essential quality of humanity, a quality that America continues to strip from Black people that Goines was trying to return.  The second aspect of humanity is the aspect of human growth and development, where Goines characters rarely remain stagnant, growing as he, himself, grows.  “Black Girl Lost came in January 1974.  The novel, which depicted a life of neglect that virtually forces a pretty teenager to seek survival by doing crime, revealed a level of compassion for the adolescent that [Goines] hadn’t shown in any of his five previous books.  Despite her scheming and lawlessness, she easily became the most sympathetic character Donnie had been able to craft.”  So, on the one hand, Goines, like his characters, is a product of a particular environment and time where his stylization is a response to the circumstance and one’s desire to fashion a way to survive it.  Goines is then affirming Margaret Walker’s notion of a people “trying to fashion a better way from confusion, from hypocrisy and misunderstanding, trying to fashion a world that will hold all the people, all the faces, all the adams and eves and their countless generations…”  The beauty, then, is their ability to create beauty and humanity in the midst of the most inhumane circumstances.  And on the other hand, Goines literary stylization is an affirmation of the beauty and genius of the Black underclass, which is why his books are loved by them.