Blues People Essay - Critical Context

Amiri Baraka

Critical Context

As Nat Hentoff, a noted critic for The New York Times, observed in 1963, Blues People was a pioneering book, the first to explore music in the continuum of African American history. Hentoff pointed to minor historical inaccuracies in the book and questioned Amiri Baraka’s musical judgments, but he hailed the book as a significant contribution in the study of African American culture. Yet, fellow black writer Ralph Ellison, with whom Baraka is often compared, complained that Blues People did not show how black Americans transcended and overcame the oppression reflected in the music of blues and jazz. Other unfavorable criticisms continue to center on what the book does not contain, while some historians note that the book appeared before Baraka became interested in Black Nationalism. In this context, Blues People stands as one of the author’s least controversial works, written before his angrier, more polemic efforts of the late 1960’s when he became interested in separation from white America, not the assimilation that was a key aspect of Blues People.

Other critics, however, have been more enthusiastic, calling the book an innovative “jazz masterpiece.” As Bob Bernotas noted in Amiri Baraka (1991), a biography written for young readers, Blues People was written during a fruitful period for then-youthful LeRoi Jones, and many critics saw the book as but one manifestation of a promising career for an energetic, talented black writer.

Since its first publication, Blues People has, on many levels, been superseded and updated by a wealth of studies on jazz, the blues, and black history; what keeps the book alive is Baraka’s continuing reputation as an important black writer and the individuality of his perspectives expressed in Blues People and elsewhere. It remains a solid, easily understood history of African Americans before the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s.