Critics have complained that Baraka’s essays are uneven, offering flashy rhetoric more often than logically presented evidence or original thought. His music criticism, however, is generally accepted as insightful and innovative. It is clear that his writing has influenced wide audiences and strongly affected younger African American artists. Critics have seen Baraka’s changes of political philosophy as contradictory and confusing. The philosophies he espouses have ranged from Black Nationalism to grassroots political organizing, from Beat generation alienation to a self-proclaimed and idiosyncratically defined Marxism-Leninism. There are, however, several consistent themes in Baraka’s essays. There is also a very clear and unwavering commitment to the social utility of art.
“Who is our audience, for whom do we write?” asks Baraka. “Are we educating or titillating? Audience is one large shaper of content, and content is principal.” His essays, beginning about 1965, are most often aimed at an African American readership, and his purpose is to define methods by which those readers can both understand their cultural history and devise strategies of political empowerment that will redress a history of racial and economic disadvantage. Whether or not Baraka’s suggestions are practical, they have been effective in awakening a critical consciousness in an entire generation of readers.