#WhiteHistoryMonth: The FBI’s obsession with African-American Literature

In today’s installment of #WhiteHistoryMonth scholar and novelist Jacinda Townsend reviews William Maxwell’s new book, F.B. Eyes: How J. Edgar Hoover’s Ghostreaders Framed African American Literature (2015)

“That old FB eye/Tied a bell to my bed stall,” begins the Richard Wright poem that fronts this comprehensive history of the FBI’s decades-long engagement with African-American literature. And truly, readers will be stunned–though not shocked–at the level of awareness that African-American writers had about their status as the subjects of state surveillance, even as far back as the Harlem Renaissance. Writers such as Dudley Randall, the Detroit poet and publisher of the Broadside Press, have even gone so far as to disseminate the “Informer Poem,” minor verses conceived with the idea of “letting the Bureau know that you know.”

But readers should also prepare to marvel at the level of awareness FBI agents, particularly the “G-men” of the J. Edgar Hoover era, held about African-American literature. Maxwell posits that the FBI was African-American literature’s “most dedicated and influential critic,” and in one chapter recounts a four-page critique of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, written by a Philadelphia-based special agent who was in the audience at the play’s initial run at the Walnut Theater. “A mysterious Philadelphia FBI agent,” Maxwell writes, “may thus have been among the first to understand the play’s budding black internationalism.”

Maxwell, armed with years of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, has engaged in an impressively systematic discovery process that yields pages upon partially redacted pages of information on a dazzling list of names both familiar and less so, from Renaissance giant Claude McKay to Andy Razaf, the lyricist of “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue”; from poet Georgia Douglas Johnson, who engaged in “perhaps the pettiest of wartime literary crimes” by sponsoring a social letter club for unmarried black soldiers and the women who would be their sweethearts, to James Baldwin, whose FBI file is a magnificent 1,884 pages long. The FBI, Maxwell writes, has been threatened by such writers almost since the inception of the agency itself: “The Bureau acted on a tenacious suspicion… that authoring Afro-modernism and jeopardizing national security were one and the same… Hoover specified that there was little more dangerous than supplying the rhetoric of racial parity to a racially diverse public.”

Unable to make his own FOIA requests for living writers, Maxwell has nonetheless relied on the self-discovery of files from writers such as Ishmael Reed and Nikki Giovanni to help produce a portrait of an FBI that continues to remain in “hot and literate pursuit” of the African-American writer.

As our legislatures provide continued sanction to a government that edges ever more towards Hoover-era secrecy–as we witness a presidential administration that calls itself “the most transparent ever” nonetheless issue an executive order exempting itself from FOIA requests–this book comes at an important moment in the United States’ intelligence history. But the book’s triumph is beyond this moment, for it is a rare examination of the documents birthed by an agency that used its intelligence and counterintelligence powers to hinder a movement.

And as a comprehensive examination of such, it is also the story of the Bureau’s using its power to hinder not just other movements but the coalition of such movements. F.B. Eyes: How J. Edgar Hoover’s Ghostreaders Framed African American Literature is, then, an important contribution not just to the history of African American literature but to all of American history.

Jacinda Townsend

Jacinda Townsend is the author of Saint Monkey, recently awarded the James Fenimore Cooper Prize. She is a professor of Creative Writing at Indiana University.

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