Black Girl Lost: An Existentialist Journey Through An American Ghetto

 

Donald Goines

Donald Goines

Donald Goines lacked the education and literary pedigree to write as eloquently as the likes of Cormac McCarthy or Toni Morrison, and while other American writers of his generation were brought up on Steinbeck and Faulkner, Goines was brought up on Iceberg Slim.  Drawing on his own experience, though, Goines was able to write as van Gogh painted, with a rude but inspired hand.  Though his finished product may never be remembered as favourably as the Dutch counterpart, his words remain forceful and prophetic, and nowhere is this more evident than in his novel Black Girl Lost.  The novel, which can be seen as a contemporary and novelized marriage of William Blake’s “The Little Girl Lost” and “The Little Black Boy”, details the life of a young girl named Sandra and follows her up until her 17th year.  Though Goines likely had not read Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, the novel reads like a textbook definition of how existentialist theory plays out in the American ghetto, highlighting the tragically deterministic facticity and absurdity of the life of a Black girl in the ghettos of America during the 1960’s and 70’s.  However, Black Girl Lost is not limited to philosophical debate as it has a more practical and almost journalistic quality when Goines details the nature of police brutality in passages that prove eerily and sadly prophetic/relevant.  Though there is a touch of melodrama, which even Dickens was guilty of, and though Goines did not have a finely tuned hand, the force of his passion and experience breathe a life into the work that makes it easy to overlook the faults in his writing and appreciate Goines’s ability to report on the world that he observed on a daily basis.

 

FACTICITY vs. AUTHENTICITY

 

Jean-Paul Sartre

Jean-Paul Sartre

It is clear from the outset of the novel that Sandra, the novel’s titular character, is in a constant struggle to overcome the obstacles of life that she was born into.  Her behaviour, though outwardly uncouth and immoral in many respects, is not reflective of her authentic self.  For example, she eats mashed potatoes with her hands, leading a strange man to note that “She ate like an animal” (14).  This is not because she is animal-like, but because her context has created this behaviour.  Aside from having a drunken mother who had not cared for her adequately and from whom Sandra “had received too many beatings”, Sandra lacks utensils, and so has no spoons or forks with which to eat.  Moreover, she is moved by extreme hunger, and so is rushed to eat. This is highlighted by Goines, who writes that “What drove her on was the hunger pains that kept flashing across her stomach” (9).  As a result of being undernourished, “Her legs were so thin that she seemed deformed” (12) and her hunger pains were constant.  When taking these extremes into consideration, this seemingly uncouth behaviour can clearly be attributed to her facticity, and not her authentic self.

 

 

black girl lost 2This hunger led Sandra to make a number of choices she would not have otherwise made, and which were not reflective of her authentic self.  For instance, when her “Hunger overcame her” (11), Sandra got into a strange man’s car, putting herself in a vulnerable situation she would not have done were it not for her hunger. Moreover, “Sometimes when Sammy”, a local business owner who took a paternal interest in Sandra, “was busy with customers she’d go in and steal a can of sardines… Then her conscience would bother her” (21).  Though Sandra steals, it is only to satiate her hunger, and so this physical need that is a component of her facticity, and not her authentic self, pushes her to commit an act that is contrary to her conscience.  This is demonstrated after she secures a job, at which time “She had stopped stealing because there was no reason for it” as “She had all the money she needed” (37).  Likewise, when questioned as to why she was not in school, Sandra “didn’t want to tell [Sammy] that she had been too hungry when she got up to think of school” and that “she couldn’t sit in a classroom all day… without lunch” (20).  Though some might see Sandra skipping school as deviant behaviour, it is her hunger, not laziness or a disinterest in learning, that prevents her from going to school.  Even when Sandra wasn’t hungry and “silently wished that she was in school”, she “remembered the way the kids talked about her clothes” (24), and this would also discourage her from going to school, and also from participating when she was there as she did not want to call attention to herself.  Neither was this reflective of her authentic self as Sandra had a thirst for learning and would “go sit in the public library and read all day” when she skipped school (33), demonstrating that she possessed a voracious thirst for knowledge. It seems clear, then, that Sandra’s behaviour was the product of her facticity, or, in laymen’s terms, that “she was a product of circumstance” (28).

 

SOCIAL IDENTITY

 

Donald Goines, who met an end equally tragic to that of his characters.

Donald Goines, who met an end equally tragic to that of his characters.

The preconception through which others view Sandra is indicative of the existentialist belief that identity is defined by other people, and serves to demonstrate flaws in the educational system.  Teachers, for instance, assumed that because Sandra didn’t perform well, she was a dullard, and “Some of them even believed she couldn’t read” (33).  However, these teachers failed to consider the environmental factors that impeded Sandra’s academic performance.  When Sandra shows potential, teachers display a confirmation bias as they “didn’t want to believe that what they had been so sure was a half-witted child was actually one with an agile mind” (35).  They treat Chink, Sandra’s boyfriend, in much the same way and “Most of the young white schoolteachers couldn’t stand to look upon his features without shivering” (45).  This allows their perceptions to impact how they teach them, ultimately impeding the intellectual growth of students.  This is a lose-lose situation for Sandra and Chink: they are dismissed by teachers for the way they present themselves, but when they begin to dress nicely, the teachers become suspicious of them (57).  Thus, whether they dress poorly or well, the two are dismissed by the teachers either as dullards or as criminals.  Because others view Sandra and Chink as intellectual inferiors, they are treated as such, and so this becomes their identity, though it sits in contrast to their authentic selves.

 

 

Black Girl LostSimilar biases can be found in law enforcement, and it is this socially constructed identity that is projected onto Sandra and Chink that makes it easy for the police to dehumanize and then brutalize the two youths.  The police, for instance, view people of colour as animals.  After excessively beating a Chink, a teenage boy, one officer describes him as “one black bastard that’s a bull” (59).  This animalistic rhetoric is reinforced when one officer refers to Sandra as a ‘bitch’ (61).  By dehumanizing Sandra and Chink, the officers are able to rationalize their brutalization of the youths.  For instance, it is only after referring to Sandra as a bitch (a female dog), that an officer “stepped up and slapped her” (61).  When the officer assaults Sandra, not in self-defence, but to shut her up, she defends herself.  Then the “white officers… rushed at her” and did not view her as “a young black girl anymore”, but rather “just someone black who had found the nerve to strike back at them” (62).  Though “one well placed blow put her to sleep” and neutralized any potential threat, the police “rained [other blows] down on her prone body” (62) and then “caught [Chink] behind the ear with [a] club” (62), despite the fact he was already restrained.  It is clear from the discourse that follows that the police had dehumanized the youths as one officer refers to the pair as “a couple of damn animals” (63), and another confirms this, stating “That’s all the fuck they are is animals” (63).  This social construction of their identity usurps their authentic selves and allows the police to see the pair as something other than what they are.

 

A faux movie poster created in response to the abuse of a 14-year-old girl at a Texas pool party.

A faux movie poster created in response to the abuse of a 14-year-old girl at a Texas pool party.

The police, too, are viewed through a social lens, and so conduct themselves with their social identity in mind: it is this social identity that validates their abuse of Sandra and Chin. Though the police handle Sandra roughly in front of the teachers, “Not one [teacher] asked what the problem was” as “The rough handling of the girl meant nothing to them, as long as they weren’t involved” (60).  The Black teachers, in particular, were silent as “they knew what the white police thought of all of them”, and these teachers knew they “would be handled the same way if they so much as opened their mouths” (60).  This collective silence, then, serves as a kind of support that allows the police to abuse their victims.  Likewise, when Sandra mouths off to an officer, his internal dialogue reveals that it is his social identity he seeks to preserve as he “couldn’t allow no black kid to talk to [him] in that manner in front of such a large group of people” (61).  Thus, in order to assert his authority, the officer assaults the young girl. This remains reflective of contemporary issues.  In the summer of 2015, for instance, a 14-year-old Black girl was thrown to the ground and handled brutally outside of a pool party when a police officer took her language as a slight to his authority, and though she had committed no crime, the officer in question treated her much like Sandra was treated in Goines’s novel.  This need for officers to preserve their authority in a social context, then, continues to lead to excessive violence for police, and the narrative Goines details, though a fictional account, reads more like a journalist description.

 

Eric Garner, being choked to death for allegedly selling loose cigarettes.

Eric Garner, being choked to death for allegedly selling loose cigarettes.

The crowd, though, manages to prevent further escalation of the violence.  One witness shouts at the police as they beat Chink, questioning their practices: “Don’t shoot him, you no good bastards… You got ten men.  Ain’t that enough to take one little black boy?” (59) In yelling at the police, the crowd alert the police of their presence and then challenge their authority by questioning why they needed so many of them to handle one ‘boy’.  This ensured that the violence wouldn’t be fatal, at least in the case of Chink.  When Sandra is being beaten, it takes another officer to intervene, and only when told by another officer to stop do those beating Sandra cease their assault on the girl (63).  Today, cell phones act in much the same way, but tragically they have proven to be an ineffective deterrent as hundreds of police homicides still happen each year, and police who are caught on film still get off, as demonstrated by the Eric Garner case.  Still, the proliferation of cell phones has allowed any number of bystanders to record events, keeping at least some police in check as they know they are being recorded, much as the crowd described in Goines’s novel reduced the police violence.  However, given that one reports suggest that 80% of dash cams on the police cruisers in Chicago are missing, it seems there are ways for police to work around this.  Nevertheless, this does highlight how police violence can be curbed in the face of the social judgment.

 

THE ABSURD

 

black girl lost 1Much as Sandra’s identity is created by her facility and social perceptions, so too is it shaped by random events, framing her personal narrative as absurdist.  When struggling with poverty, Sandra receives help from random places.  A potential child molester, for example, reconsiders his actions and rather than victimizing Sandra, buys her food.  Sandra receives more help from Sammy, who not only takes an unplanned paternal interest in the child, but also offers her a job, much to his own surprise.  This allows Sandra to embrace her authentic self.  Later, Sandra stumbles onto a police chase by chance and recovers a significant amount of uncut drugs, which leads her to form a relationship with Chink, the only dealer she knows.  This chance happening then shapes the rest of their lives.  When Chink is in prison, Sandra becomes the victim of an assault, which compels Chink to break out of the juvenile detention facility he is in to revenge his girlfriend.  The relationship Chink and Sandra form and the loyalty they feel toward each other becomes the most important thing in each of their lives, and so they manage to find a meaning in life on their own terms.  Each of them finds solace in the fact that they are loved by the other, and though death or imprisonment await them, this meaning that they find brings them fulfillment.  Their partnership, though, and the tests that forge it, are determined by random, outside factors.  This reinforces the existentialist notion that life is unfair and meaningless, and Sandra’s ability to find her own meaning within the context of her relationship with Chink, frames her as an existentialist hero who creates her own meaning.

 

CONTEXT

 

An image that seems to convey the spirit of Goines's work, borrowed from here.

Electric Tears, by Laurie Cooper, a work that seems to convey the spirit of Goines’s work.

Though elements of the novel are tragically deterministic, Goines allows for voices that challenge the facticity, social constructs, and absurdity that acts as a tyrannical force over Sandra’s life.  When police dismiss both Sandra and Chink as animals, for example, one officer silently wonders “if the white cops who called them animals could have come from such hardships as children and survived as well as this young couple had” (63), highlighting the context the Sandra grew up in.  After visiting Sandra’s home, Horner, a Black police officer, states that “when you see homes like that… you can’t help but wonder why all the ghetto children don’t turn out bad” (165).  His Caucasian partner, Fisher, dismisses this, noting that Horner “came up in the ghetto” and is “not mixed up in… shit” like Sandra and Chink (165).  Horner counters, underscoring that he “had parents that cared” and who “saw to it that [he] had everything they could give” him.  He then asks Fisher to imagine if Sandra’s mother gave “her daughter the love and care she needed” (165).  Through this dialogue, Horner pushes Fisher to see the broader context and look at Sandra outside of the box of her facticity.  Considering Sandra’s context is even easier for Sammy, who, as a survivor of the concentration camps, is able to recognize the look of hunger in Sandra’s face as “He had seen the look on too many faces when he was in a concentration camp in Germany” (20).  This passage not only effectively demonstrates how empathy can encourage one to examine the broader context that those around them are coming from, but highlights that even thirty years after WWII, America was still treating it citizens with African ancestry in a way comparable to the way the Nazis treated the Jews.  Throughout the novel, Goines inserts peripheral characters who challenge the view that Sandra and Chink are defined by their facticity and encourage those around them, and the reader most especially, to consider their context.

 

OBLIGATORY CONCLUSION

 

Donald Goines

Donald Goines

Though Goines did not have a background in academic philosophy, his narratives often work through the philosophical problems postulated by the likes of Sartre.  Black Girl Lost is an existentialist novel.  The titular character, Sandra, is like a figure trapped in Plato’s cave, only rather than never having seen the light of the sun, she has never seen life outside of a ghetto, and as such, doesn’t “understand anything about the ghetto, because she had never lived in anything but a ghetto” (33).  She sets off on an existentialist journey to discovery her authentic self, and along the way meets an existentialist partner, who doesn’t “need the company of another person to help him find the nerve” (112) to be the person he is.  Together, they navigate a world where they are judged based on their facticity, and the social construction of their identities and absurdist acts of chance shape their journey.  Though tragic, the novel empowers these two figures as they find meaning on their own terms, overcoming the impediments of the educational system and law enforcement in their own way.  Goines was not a master prose writer, but the spirit of his work, though at times melodramatic, remains forceful and compelling, and Black Girl Lost is perhaps one of his finest achievements.  Had he written under the guidance of a literary pedigree instead of a heroin addiction, his work may have been better received by academia, but it may have also lacked the raw vigour that makes his works so appealing.  As it stands, the work, though flawed in many technical and stylistic respects, remains fascinating read.

 

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Works Cited:

 

Goines, Donald.  Black Girl Lost. Los Angeles, CA: Holloway House Books. 1973.  Print.

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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