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  • Black Deconstruction: Russell Atkins and the Reconstruction of African-American Criticism
  • Aldon Lynn Nielsen (bio)

“What does that signify?” “It don’t signify nothin’ Mr. Warner.”

—Russell Atkins, Maleficium

There are, everywhere unheard (as one might see deep in an electron microscope) rigidities   violently breaking

—Russell Atkins, Whichever

Critical debates about the applicability of recent literary theories to the reading of African-American writing have often been marked by curious lacunae. Despite the rapid proliferation of critical texts addressing themselves to black writing, it remains the case that many critics come to black writing with methodologies and agendas already in hand, while few critics have taken upon themselves the task of rereading the critical history of African-American work in theory. This has often resulted in a sort of critical shortsightedness, with the field of black literary theory presented as a foreshortened, if now more level, playing field. While some have engaged in arguments about the question of whether or not African-American writing should be engaged by poststructuralist theorists (a question that seems to begin with the assumption that poststructuralism is a particularly white mode of mythology), the fact is that a form of deconstruction had been theorized by an African-American poet long before deconstruction had entered the American academy. That this fact is largely unknown among contemporary critics is the result of a continuing practice of not reading the theoretical work of black poets who have published outside the established circuit of the academic press. With the prominent exceptions of poets like Amiri Baraka, June Jordan, Larry Neal, and Haki Madhabuti, the critical writings of recent African-American poets have seldom been collected and circulated in any very effective way. Characteristically, Neal’s essays were gathered into a book posthumously, and Madhabuti’s have been published and distributed primarily through his own publishing house. Even Baraka’s collections have been allowed to pass out of print in most instances, only the books on music remaining readily available throughout his career. This may change for black poets who write in more mainstream modes in the near future. Now that Rita Dove has served a term as Poet Laureate of the United States and Derek Walcott has won the Nobel Prize, we might expect a modest increase in interest by publishers and readers in critical works by poets whose forms are less troubling than their content. And black poets who attain academic credentials and write scholarly/critical essays, such as Nathaniel Mackey and Harryette Mullen, may succeed in getting their works published by the university presses. However, surveys of shelves in bookstores and [End Page 86] libraries will confirm that there has been little concern among even university and small presses to collect and preserve the critical legacy of black experimentalists in the way that the essays of Charles Olson, Ed Dorn, or Robert Creeley have been maintained before a public.

Russell Atkins has been one of the most prolific and demanding of black poets writing criticism and theory in the last four decades, but like Percy Johnston, central figure of the Dasein group of poets centered at Howard University in the 1950s, he has had to publish most of this work through his own magazine and workshop press, and there has never been a published collection of his critical work. The special Russell Atkins number of the Free Lance, a journal with which Atkins was associated for two decades, included a section surveying his work in critical prose, but little of that work has found its way into the broader critical discourse of literary scholars (it has fared a little better with musicologists), and Atkins’s prose is infrequently cited. As eccentric as Atkins’s prose can sometimes be, these works are important early signs of a break with the “rigidities” of traditional humanist discourse among African-American writers. Atkins’s statements on music, literature, politics, and education parallel the works by Baraka leading into and out of the Black Arts Movement, but Atkins, as he does in his verse, travels an independent and often disturbing path.

Speaking of Anthony Braxton’s experimentalism, Ronald Radano observes that it “emerged from the changing landscape of urban American life, from...