As a writer, one of Pinckney’s illuminating qualities has been the probing respect and curiosity with which he engages his elders and tradition ... Pinckney is a companionable guide to this difficult era — like Baldwin, a fabulously erudite insider’s outsider: black and queer and thus always on guard for the way a situation will turn, surely his safety has depended on the maintenance of such sense ... As a reporter, on the ground, he is brisk, and leads with his hometown wits ... There wasn’t a critic in America who could speak with equal measures of warmth and intelligence like Baldwin until Pinckney emerged in his full power in the 1990s...Yet Pinckney's critical acuity never wavers before the pulse of biography ... Maintaining this level is one of Pinckney's other great skills. It’s not that he will not be rifled, or that he has a critic’s cold powers of isolation; rather, he remains committed to what Baldwin found in his life and work, a path between the poles of Washington and Du Bois, or Dr. King and Malcolm X, one of clear-eyed yet hopeful struggle and self-determination ... Looping from past to present, the sine-curve of Busted in New York is still heartbreaking. From Pinckney’s petty arrest in the East Village for marijuana possession to Freddie Gray — killed in a rough ride to a Baltimore jail, the kind that merely banged up Pinckney — there is a direct line. Yet if you refuse to see the struggle as linear, Pinckney’s essays argue, if you work backward to see ahead, that line is — if not broken — certainly not inevitable. Along the way, you might just meet the man you’ve been prevented from meeting for four hundred years.
Here, [Pinckney] reveals himself to be a skillful chronicler of black experience in literary criticism, reportage and biography ... what stands out in this collection are the moments when Pinckney turns his eye toward the contradictions of the black bourgeoisie, of which he is a longtime member ... A hazard of growing up black and middle class is the misguided belief that money and education will provide refuge from discrimination. Pinckney shows how those presumptions are often manifestations of internalized racism, and that even he is not immune to them ... Not all of the essays have aged well ... [Pinckney's] prose can also seem belabored and overwrought ... The crown jewel of this book is 'Banjo'...In it, Pinckney pinpoints a devastating irony of growing up in a privileged, intellectual milieu like his: Frequent conversations with his parents about race became a way for the family to deflect real intimacy. The pressure to live up to his parents’ expectations led to its own kind of oppression, one he sought to escape by traveling to Europe but addresses head on in this essay, which captures his journey toward self-discovery. Through race, Pinckney implies, we hide from each other and ourselves.
Pinckney is a tireless relater: there is always a lineage or history he may cite, a personal or familial resonance to be sounded, some instance of embedded witness that demands to be told. Pinckney’s writerly calm is what allows him to see it all, and only sometimes to miss the point or blur the picture ... In such pieces, which are frequently book reviews elegantly redirected or expanded to say considerably more, Pinckney is a generous type of essayist, one who cannot leave his influences uncredited ... Occasionally, Pinckney’s rarefied milieu seems to inflict on him in these pages a peculiar tone-deafness, or deposit him at some hampering remove from the scene he’s describing...but for me the properly culpable moment comes later in the same essay, when Pinckney joins the 2002 Countryside Alliance march in London...an odd, dismaying lapse in an otherwise learned, precise, and engaging collection.