Few institutions seem more opposed than African American literature and J. Edgar Hoover’s white-bread Federal Bureau of Investigation. But behind the scenes the FBI’s hostility to black protest was energized by fear of and respect for black writing. Drawing on nearly 14,000 pages of newly released FBI files, F.B. Eyes exposes the Bureau’s intimate policing of five decades of African American poems, plays, essays, and novels. Starting in 1919, year one of Harlem’s renaissance and Hoover’s career at the Bureau, secretive FBI “ghostreaders” monitored the latest developments in African American letters. By the time of Hoover’s death in 1972, these ghostreaders knew enough to simulate a sinister black literature of their own. The official aim behind the Bureau’s close reading was to anticipate political unrest. Yet, as William J. Maxwell reveals, FBI surveillance came to influence the creation and public reception of African American literature in the heart of the twentieth century.
Taking his title from Richard Wright’s poem “The FB Eye Blues,” Maxwell details how the FBI threatened the international travels of African American writers and prepared to jail dozens of them in times of national emergency. All the same, he shows that the Bureau’s paranoid style could prompt insightful criticism from Hoover’s ghostreaders and creative replies from their literary targets. For authors such as Claude McKay, James Baldwin, and Sonia Sanchez, the suspicion that government spy-critics tracked their every word inspired rewarding stylistic experiments as well as disabling self-censorship.
Illuminating both the serious harms of state surveillance and the ways in which imaginative writing can withstand and exploit it, F.B. Eyes is a groundbreaking account of a long-hidden dimension of African American literature.
William J. Maxwell is associate professor of English and African American studies at Washington University in St. Louis. He is the author of New Negro, Old Left: African-American Writing and Communism between the Wars and the editor of Claude McKay’s Complete Poems.
"[An] immensely important story about the black authors that we thought we knew, from the 'notorious negro revolutionary' Claude McKay to the Black Arts poet Sonia Sanchez. . . . [A] welcome model for seeing state interference in culture as a two-way street."--Los Angeles Review of Books
"[A] bold, provocative study. . . . Maxwell's passion for the subject spills onto every page of his detailed, persuasive documentation that 'the FBI [was] an institution tightly knit (not consensually) to African-American literature.'"--Publishers Weekly (a Publishers Weekly pick of the week)
"[S]tartling. . . . Much of what Maxwell has discovered . . . paints a sobering picture of state-sanctioned repression and harassment over decades. It's a tribute to the strength of the panoply of FBI-targeted writers, intellectuals and leaders that they, for the most part, toughed it out and remain with us today as a fundamental part of the fabric of American history and letters."--Repps Hudson, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
"[T]his well-researched volume illustrates the paranoia and self-censorship that altered the course of African American literature for decades as a result of the bureau's surveillance. This scholarly work will appeal to academic readers with a particular interest in African American literature or the FBI."--Library Journal
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