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Hoover’s FBI Monitored Great Black Writers for Much of 20th Century To See What Black America Was Thinking

The FBI’s incessant monitoring of Black leaders like Martin Luther King and W.E.B. DuBois is now a well-known parcel of American history. But it turns out J. Edgar Hoover’s obsession with Black culture and the activities of Black thinkers went so deep that the FBI had thousands of pages on dozens of prominent Black writers, including Claude McKay, Ralph Ellison and Lorraine Hansberry, stretching across much of the mid-20th century.

This treasure trove was discovered by scholar William Maxwell, associate professor of English and African-American studies at Washington University in St. Louis, who got his hands on the many newly declassified documents with the use of freedom of information requests. Not only do the files contain thousands of pages of notes detailing the movements of these great writers, but there were essentially book reviews critiquing their work—often written before the manuscripts were even published, meaning the FBI’s reach extended into the publishing houses.

Maxwell has compiled his research into a new book, “FB Eyes: How J Edgar Hoover’s Ghostreaders Framed African American Literature,” which is scheduled to be published on February 18 by Princeton University Press. The book says much of this surveillance was fueled by Director Hoover’s “personal fascination with black culture.” As a result, the FBI became a “most dedicated and influential forgotten critic of African American literature.”

Interestingly, Maxwell said it was clear that the writers were aware of the FBI snooping, based on some of their writings.

There are digital copies of 49 of the FBI files available to the public online. Maxwell said the sheer volume of the files comes out to 13,892 pages—”or the rough equivalent of 46 300-page PhD theses,” Maxwell writes in the book. “FBI ghostreaders genuinely rivaled the productivity of their academic counterparts.”

William J. Maxwell

William J. Maxwell

“From the beginning of his tenure at the FBI … Hoover was exercised by what he saw as an emerging alliance between Black literacy and Black radicalism,” Maxwell said in an interview with The Guardian. “Then there’s the fact that many later African-American writers were allied, at one time or another, with socialist and communist politics in the U.S.”

Maxwell first came upon the enormous stash when he submitted a freedom of information request for the FBI file of Jamaican writer Claude McKay, a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance. Maxwell was working on an edition of McKay’s poems, which at one point were recited by Winston Churchill. What he got back was a file that was 193 pages in length, chasing McKay all across the world. Knowing there likely was a lot more there, Maxwell made 106 freedom of information requests about what he describes as “noteworthy Afro-modernists” to the FBI.

Of the 1o6, a total of 51 had files, ranging in size from three to 1,884 pages.

“I suspected there would be more than a few,” Maxwell said. “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 realized, the FBI had outdone most every other major institution of U.S. literary study, only fitfully concerned with Black writing.”

The result is the first extensive expose ever published of the FBI’s more than 50 year monitoring of Black writing. Maxwell writes that the FBI scrutinized passport records and “for scraps of criminal behavior and ‘derogatory information,’” with some writers even threatened by “‘stops’, instructions to advise and defer to the Bureau if a suspect tried to pass through a designated point of entry” to the U.S.

With the help of informers, the FBI was able to review works such as Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” and Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” before publication. On the website where the public can access files, of Hansberry the site says, “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.'”  

“What did the FBI learn from these dossiers? Several things,” Maxwell told The Guardian. “Where African American writers were traveling, especially during their expatriate adventures in Europe, Africa, and Latin America. What they were publishing, even while it was still in press.”

The bureau also considered “whether certain African Americans should be allowed government jobs and White House visits, in the cases of the most fortunate” and “what the leading minds of black America were thinking, and would be thinking.”

Maxwell said the files also show that “some FBI spy-critics couldn’t help from learning that they liked reading the stuff, for simple aesthetic reasons.”

What people are saying

11 thoughts on “Hoover’s FBI Monitored Great Black Writers for Much of 20th Century To See What Black America Was Thinking

  1. God knows what type of monitoring programs are active now this is really scary.

  2. It's not scary. It's war. We should be thinking like them and frame our behavior according to the conditions.

  3. Bill Ramos says:

    Fabrizio Colonna de Moravid If you live in the US you have it 1,000 times better than if you had stayed in Africa so please quit with the race card bullshit or go back, its a simple as that.

  4. Fabrizio Colonna de Moravid I hear that. I am afraid to even post a comment on here because I know for a fact the sites that are the spear of truth are definitely being monitored. By all means that doesn't mean not to visit them it just means be very wary and do not post comments. They are listening and watching.

  5. You'd think he'd be more interested in Fredricks of Hollywood!

  6. That's really a defeatist attitude. If you're willing to cower in the corner and not post anything because "they are listening and watching", you'll remain a victim forever. Be bold. Be fearless. If nothing else, use the fact that you know they're watching you against them. Ever hear of propaganda? It works both ways. Besides, you just posted something in here when you told us not to post anything.

  7. Bill Ramos White people kill me with that 'race card' shit..Who created the 'race game & the deck'? Black people? When it was convenient YOUR kind invented the whole concept of race, now when your sordid and dysfunctional history is displayed, you want to deflect and blame us. Please. Deal with it. Troll.

  8. And they were not just monitoring either. Look up what the CIA did Paul Robeson..drugged him and were responsible for him being committed to a psychiatric hospital where they experimented on him and subjected him to electroshock therapy for YEARS. This is just ONE person they did this to and he was famous. Can you imagine what the mis-nomered 'intel' agencies are involved in now?

  9. Hank Wilson says:

    They ain't never stopped…they have just gotten more proficient. Even those that are still inside the womb are being watched…you can laugh at that if you like. However, these times are just realities of current events. A scared ethnic minority with total power doesn't control its environment from the inside of a box. It's always thinking outside of the box. That which others my perceive to be unimaginable is the world in which they thrive from within. Keep on sleeping, because it feels so good.

  10. Hank Wilson says:

    Yup, you're so right, we're being monitored…24/7 ever key strok and what ever is added to the net, it stays in the internet… help me God…lol

  11. The government is your enemy. they keep you close and resent you as citizens. CIUA probably being the worst.

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