F.B. EyesHow J. Edgar Hoover's Ghostreaders Framed African American Literature

F.B. EyesHow J. Edgar Hoover's Ghostreaders Framed African American Literature

William J. Maxwell

Print publication date: 2017

ISBN: 9780691130200

Publisher: Princeton University Press

Abstract

Few institutions seem more opposed than African American literature and J. Edgar Hoover's Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). 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, this book 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 this book reveals, FBI surveillance came to influence the creation and public reception of African American literature in the heart of the twentieth century. This book 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, it 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, this book is a groundbreaking account of a long-hidden dimension of African American literature.