Criticism on James Whitfield is sparse, which is not surprising, given that his 1853 America has never been reprinted. Critical debate has focused on two large issues: 1)The quality of his poetry; 2) Whitfield’s attitude toward America. The following excerpts stake out some of the key critical positions in Whitfield criticism:
Whitfield collected poems he had written in America and Other Poems, published in 1853. Racial protest was, very possibly, the one big concern never absent from his mind. Even so, not every poem in America and Other Poems involves itself with America’s transgressions against the Negro. The slender book contains also lyrics about love and some occasional verse. These poems by Whitfield not intended primarily as instruments of social engineering afford a fairly clear picture of his basic virtues as a poet. They reveal him, whatever kind of poetry he chooses to write, as the possessor of a good ear for appropriate diction in his verse and of equally as excellent an ear for the selection and orchestration of the sounds of the spoken word in ways calculated to enhance the value of that diction as an attribute of his poetry. They reveal him also as something of an adept in the handling of poetic rhythms and as a craftsman in the mechanics of versification of whom it cannot be said that he is ill suited to his vocation. These basic virtues to be found in his poetry without protest occur, undiminished in their strength, in his poetry of protest. They help to lift his verse, even in the realm of his protest, above the level of simply pamphleteering.
----Blyden Jackson, A History of Afro-American Literature, volume I (1989)
Whitfield’s verse is outstanding for its metrical control, breadth of classical imagery, commanding historical sense, and for the biting cynicism of his antislavery tirades and the anguished pessimism of his self-portraits. He denounces oppression worldwide, scourges America’s morally corrupt church and state, and dramatizes the estrangement and defeat by race prejudice of an African American who aspires to high ideals and poetic art. No poet of his time combines anger and artistry as well as Whitfield does in his intense and convincing poems.
----Joan R. Sherman, African-American Poetry of the Nineteenth Century (1992)
Whitfield had not only read Byron. His "To A. H." and "Ode for Music," each to a great extent a catalogue of classical allusions, hint strongly that he was familiar with Thomas Gray. But for most of his poems it is easy to find models in the antislavery newspapers. His reading did not quite unmake his native imagination . . . Except for encouraging him to indulge too freely in alliteration, his imitation of other poets seems to have affected little his . . . feeling for the music of language. His verse always moves with sound if not with thought. If his education had been even less unsubstantial, his work would possibly have been more natural, and therefore better. Like many of the early Negro poets, he suffered from having a little learning.
----Vernon Loggins, The Negro Author (1931)
Throughout his long poems the invective tone is astonishingly well sustained and has qualities that foreshadow certain polemical works to which the Negro Renaissance will give birth almost three-quarters of a century later. Scorning the sentimentality of many abolitionists, Whitfield displays a vigor of thought that has a thoroughly modern flavor and is surprisingly open to the consideration of every world problem.
He maintains, in the first place, that slavery is a flaw within democracy, whose founding cost the lives of blacks as well as whites during the Revolutionary War. But democracy can only be one and indivisible, and in his view the lot of the American slave is closely linked with that of the citizens of European countries, where the fragile hopes that sprang up during the revolutions of 1848 were extinguished by the aggressive return of the tyrants and their absolutism. . . .
This brings us to Whitfield’s second main argument. Slavery, which represents the bankruptcy of democracy, represents also that of a Christianity unable to remain true to itself.
----Jean Wagner, Black Poets of the United States (1973)
Whitfield did not believe America was capable of redemption; and . . . he died on a journey to find something better. Since Whitfield’s primary goal is to get a political "message" over, his poetry, as art, leaves some things to be desired. . . . Whitfield expressed concern for global oppression; quite modern in this, he served, more or less, as a chronicler of world turbulence and a harbinger of the direct and emphatic assaults that today’s black poets heap upon tyranny.
----Eugene B. Redmond, Drumvoices (1976)