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February 12, 2015

The “most dedicated and influential forgotten critic of African American literature” is…the FBI?


Homunculus/thought leader J. Edgar Hoover, contemplating who to watch next. Image via Wikipedia.

Homunculus/thought leader J. Edgar Hoover, contemplating whom to watch next. Image via Wikipedia.

I watched the excellent and terrifying Citizenfour this past weekend, and what it impressed on me above all was the sheer amount of data both being generated and collected by our hypertrophic intelligence apparati. The term “metadata” sounds innocuous and unsexy, but it essentially amounts to the negative space around every action and path you take; bank transactions, location, contact networks, all forming a surveillance narrative that legally requires almost nothing to officially construct around any human being who interacts with technology.

But this isn’t entirely new, it’s just way more extensive than before. The information age did not beget mass surveillance; paranoia, propaganda, and government overreach did, The grandaddy of the American surveillance state was, of course, the second-to-most-recent-controversial-Eastwood-biopic-subject J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover aggrgated data not by collusion and outright extortion of telecom giants, but through a network of intimidation and confidential informants.

And while Hoover had many (perceived) enemies, a book that draws from recently declassified FBI files shows the true and fascinating extent to which the agency surveilled prominent black writers. The vast amount of manpower and scrutiny spent by the agency over  period of more than 50 years has led the book’s author, William Maxwell, to dub the FBI “perhaps the most dedicated and influential forgotten critic of African American literature”.

Maxwell told The Guardian that the book grew out of a FOIA request for the FBI file of Claude McKay. The length and detail of the file, which topped out at 193 pages, led Maxwell to search for more, and more he did find.

He made 106 freedom of information requests about what he describes as “noteworthy Afro-modernists” to the FBI; 51 of those writers had files, ranging from three to 1,884 pages each.

“I suspected there would be more than a few,” said Maxwell. “I knew Hoover was especially impressed and worried by the busy crossroads of black protest, leftwing politics, and literary potential. But I was surprised to learn that the FBI had read, monitored, and ‘filed’ nearly half of the nationally prominent African American authors working from 1919 (Hoover’s first year at the Bureau, and the first year of the Harlem Renaissance) to 1972 (the year of Hoover’s death and the peak of the nationalist Black Arts movement). In this, I realised, the FBI had outdone most every other major institution of US literary study, only fitfully concerned with black writing.”

Of course it’s no secret that the FBI spied on the civil rights movement and any prominent citizen with even a whiff of radicalism or counterculture. MobyLives has previously covered their surveillance of other suspected Communists authors like Studs Terkel, Carlos Fuentes, Camus and Sartre. As many prominent black literary figures like Langston Hughes, WEB Dubois, and Richard Wright developed ties with the growing socialist and communist movements, tasking the agency to dig into black literature meant Hoover had the platform he needed to pursue two of his favorite targets; black radicals and leftists.

He then expanded the bureau’s operations to include Hughes Dubois, Wright, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Alice Childress, and Chester Himes among others, as well as black publications and journals like Ebony and Negro DigestLorraine Hansberry caught the Bureau’s all-seeing-eye in the early 50’s after working on Paul Robeson’s newspaper Freedom, and whose iconic play A Raisin In The Sun was monitored while still in rehearsals:

FBI officials monitored the progress of Raisin even before it premiered on Broadway, and sent an especially literate undercover agent to a Philadelphia try-out at the Walnut Theatre.  “The play contains no comments of any nature about Communism as such,” this ghostreader certified in a sensitive review, “but deals essentially with negro [sic] aspirations, the problems inherent in their efforts to advance themselves, and varied attempts at arriving at solutions.”

The files are all posted here for public consumption, and they are messy (and we know a little about poorly formatted government documents). But despite their extreme redactions, blurry third-generation scans, and sheer length (Baldwin’s file is nearly 2,000 pages) they’re worth browsing. There are historical asides like when Martin Luther King’s advisor Stanley Levison, while being questioned by the bureau, dismisses Baldwin as “not too deep intellectually” and further opines that he and Bayard Rustin were “better qualified to lead a homo-sexual movement than a civil rights movement.” This moment and many, many others form a fascinating history of civil rights and black literature as collected by people with absolutely no investment, at least initially, in either.

The bureaucratese that frames the surveillance records, which also include speeches, related conversations, newspaper clippings, and other primitive metadata all scrawled with alternately legible marginalia, really does begin to blur the boundary between criticism and surveillance. Maxwell posits that black writers weren’t the only ones whose output reflects the awareness of being watch—that the ghostreaders sifting through data were becoming accidental scholars.

In the 1950s, he said, the FBI aspired to “a foreknowledge of American publishing so deep that literary threats to the FBI’s reputation could be seen before their public appearance”…he added, “the files also show that some FBI spy-critics couldn’t help from learning that they liked reading the stuff, for simple aesthetic reasons”.

The endless attention paid to these writers’ overseas travels, and the subsequent detainment they faced when crossing borders, is chillingly familiar; it’s exactly that experience that Laura Poitras, the director of Citizenfour, describes in the movie, and it was happening to her for years before Snowden made first contact. Molly Crabapple’s FBI file is over 7,500 pages long. The government’s relentless data mining of writers, much like the fight for civil rights and the unintended (but necessary) effects of immersing oneself in diverse literature, is far from being a thing of the past.


Liam O’Brien is the Senior Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.