One of the many paradoxes of American society is that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has become both destroyer and archivists of 20th-century American radicalism. It has consistently provided to the public the intellectually sexiest of all public government documents — an FBI file on the life of an American radical. The bureau’s counter-intelligence program (COINTEL-PRO), a division of the FBI that spied on and attempted to disrupt and destroy American radical movements from the late 1950s to the mid-1970s, produced tons of paper that scholars and others have asked for, read and studied for the past 40 years.
Enter William Maxwell, a major scholar of the FBI and Black literature. In his new book, he shows that from the 1960s through the mid-1970s, the bureau treated James Baldwin, the Negro writer, as a “civil rights VIP” because the author and activist was at the crossroads of every shade of Black American activism of that period — Martin Luther King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the radical Black leftist Robert Williams, the Nation of Islam under Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad, and the Black Panther Party. Because he kept this level of company and integrity, the FBI put Baldwin in its “Independent Black Nationalist Extremist” category.
The book shows not only how the novelist was monitored by the FBI, but how Baldwin, who often claimed in interviews and speeches that he knew that the bureau and the Central Intelligence Agency were stalking him, fought back by publicly claiming he was going to write about the bureau’s devilish acts. The intellectual’s public threat enraged FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who had become one of the most powerful men in 20th-century America by mastering the sinister art of spying and disruption. Baldwin referred to Hoover as “history’s most highly paid (and most utterly useless) voyeur.”
“James Baldwin: The FBI File” is exciting and humorous in all the right and wrong historical ways. The disturbing civil liberties and privacy issues aside, it is always historically entertaining to see how afraid and ignorant white authorities were of Black people, particularly Black activists. One burst-out-laughing moment was when one agent described Baldwin’s elegant, flamboyant diction as a French accent. “Both uncloseted homosexuality and open criticism of the FBI were capital offenses in Hoover’s extra-legal criminal code,” reminds Maxwell, “and Baldwin was especially suspect for combining them in one super-articulate package. … The more Baldwin spoke out against FBI failings, the more dangerous he was judged and the more starkly this tension was set: one of America’s greatest living writers was also one of America’s most wanted.”
Baldwin made statements in these pages that in 2017 would get him banned from sitting on an MSNBC live roundtable but would get detailed negative coverage from Fox News. In a summary report, the FBI took the writer/activist’s quotes from a 1963 Washington, D.C., newspaper account of him speaking at Howard: “I wonder how long we can endure — stand and not fight back. … Many … even members of my own family who would think nothing of picking up arms tomorrow.” He was not afraid to often say that it was revolution that the United States needed — and not the mostly symbolic, electoral one Bernie Sanders is talking about today. One of Baldwin’s softer statements, translated from French, states, “We represent around 10 percent of the American population. Without talking about starting a revolution, it is certainly enough to destroy society.”
The bureau, which also created internal reviews of Baldwin’s books, officially gave up harassing the writer in 1974. Wrote Maxwell: “The nearly 2,000-page Bureau biography of Baldwin that took off with his speech before the Liberation Committee for Africa in 1961 thus landed with a whimper, a delisting rather [than] an arrest, an escape or a hard-to-imagine conversion to Hooverism.”
Like those of his Black activist contemporaries, Baldwin’s FBI files remind the reader how powerful Black activism was before it was co-opted by desegregation, Corporate America, the Democratic Party, the expansion of local and national broadcasting and film (and now, social media), and white nonprofit grant givers. That time’s political and social improvisation, along with the audacity of optimistic public self-determination, well documented here, makes the spirit hum.
Not surprisingly, this story of FBI easedropping doesn’t hide the movement infighting. Reading about how Stanley Levinson, Dr. King’s (white) leftist aide and ghostwriter, used the homophobic card in attacking Baldwin for saying (white) liberals were partly responsible for the bombing of the four little girls in a Birmingham, Ala., Baptist church, was fascinating. (Hoover, who saw Baldwin as both militant Black terrorist and homosexual pervert, enjoyed that tidbit.) The reports remind us now in 2017 how angry and militant Black activists were after that bombing.
The book’s major disappointment, however, is that the publisher, literally photocopying the bureau’s file, didn’t take the time, spend the money or make the effort to digitally clear up the unnecessarily unreadable English-language articles and translate the French interviews included. Even if this scholarly book supposedly triples as a coffee-table text and an advertisement for the author’s historically significant website archiving the FBI files of major Black American writers, Arcade’s refusal to do the extra work makes the total product pointlessly annoying; the author should be slightly embarrassed. Showcasing the powerful, public resistance of this world-historical figure should involve the most effort possible, because his words, public associations and open-air acts were so brave, bold and inspiring. No idea, no statement, should be left undocumented, untranslated and unanalyzed. History demands better, and Maxwell and Arcade know that and should have done better.
Maxwell, who correctly describes the FBI’s COINTEL-PRO files as “strange documents of both literally criticism and secret police work,” is yet another intellectual who has taken the academic field of Baldwin Studies a significant public step toward the full biographies that will one day exist now that Baldwin’s family has finally released much of his papers to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. “James Baldwin: The FBI File” includes a particularly powerful introduction by Maxwell comparing Baldwin’s public work and government harassment to the largely Facebooked and Tweeted, and therefore heavily monitored, Black Lives Matter movement: “Likely the single thing that Hoover’s bureau shares with Black Lives Matter, in fact, is the once-uncommon judgment that Baldwin was the ’60s’ most significant Black author.”
This collection of documents reminds Black America what real power looked like and could look like again. It should be experienced along with Raoul Peck’s superb Baldwin documentary “I Am Not Your Negro.” It must be purchased, read, passed around Black America and discussed in and out of the classroom immediately. Maxwell should be congratulated for allowing the reader, the recipient of Baldwin’s life and work, to read (into) the raw rage and fear of those faraway, somewhen days and nights filled with revolutionary fervor — that powerful time the pen and the sword threatened to merge.
TODD STEVEN BURROUGHS, Ph.D., is an independent researcher and writer based in Newark, N.J. He is the author of an audiobook, Son-Shine On Cracked Sidewalks, which deals with the 2014 mayoral election of Ras Baraka, the son of the late activist and writer Amiri Baraka, in Newark, N.J. The co-author with Herb Boyd of Civil Rights: Yesterday and Today and co-editor, with Jared A. Ball, full professor in Morgan State University’s School of Global Journalism & Communication, of A Lie of Reinvention: Correcting Manning Marable’s Malcolm X, he is currently co-writing a book, with Wayne J. Dawkins, an associate professor of Morgan State University’s SGJ&C, on Freedomways magazine.