Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)
This novel is an important transitional work between Reed’s The Free-Lance Pallbearers (1967), which sketches the outline of the Neo-HooDoo aesthetic, and Mumbo Jumbo (1972), in which he presents a mythic history of African American culture.
Reed has been judged harshly by several African American critics, and in many ways his novels are his response. Bo Shmo, for example, is a thinly disguised embodiment of the Black Arts movement of the 1960’s. Bo says, “All art must be for the end of liberating the masses. A landscape is only good when it shows the oppressor hanging from a tree.” This alludes to Amiri Baraka. Because Reed rejects the prescriptive nature of Baraka’s criticism, he and Baraka have waged critical battles throughout their careers.
Reed is also attacked by feminists, especially African American feminists. Believing that black women writers too often portray black men negatively, Reed retaliates by making his female characters either lesbians or sexually promiscuous, a strategy that feminists understandably find deplorable.
Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down must be seen in the historical context of the 1960’s, when African American literature was “rediscovered” by academia, when the Black Arts movement insisted on the political functionality of black literature, and when feminists protested the outrage of male chauvinism. Also significant for the novel are the “law and order” administration of President Lyndon Johnson and the “Flower Power” and Free Speech movements of Berkeley, California. Reed satirizes all these targets.