Washington University Professor, William J. Maxwell, Discusses FBI Surveillance of African American Writers

Author photograph by L. Brian Stauffer.
Author photograph by L. Brian Stauffer.

It’s no secret that the Federal Bureau of Investigation under Director J. Edgar Hoover intensely monitored and disrupted African American civil rights campaigns and militant groups in the nineteen fifties and sixties. The Bureau’s hounding of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is legendary with its tracking of his movements, wiretaps of his phones, and electronic surveillance of his rooms at every turn as well as an active program to discredit and undermine him and his associates.

What may surprise and infuriate many readers now is the extent of FBI surveillance of African American literary figures, both acclaimed and obscure, during the course of Hoover’s entire career with the agency, from 1919 to his death in 1972. During this time, Bureau “ghostreaders” closely examined all forms of black American literary output ostensibly to anticipate political unrest as agents monitored the creators.

Professor William J. Maxwell details the intricate and lurid story of the FBI spying on black American authors in his fascinating new book, F.B. Eyes: How J. Edgar Hoover’s Ghostreaders Framed African American Literature (Princeton University Press). In recounting this story, Professor Maxwell reviewed and analyzed almost 14,000 pages of FBI documents on 51 writers, from Harlem Renaissance pioneer Claude McKay and poet Langston Hughes to the iconic novelists Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin and playwright Lorraine Hansberry, and many more literary figures. He also explores how the FBI ghostreaders came to influence the creation and reception of African American literature.

In addition to his groundbreaking book, Professor Maxwell has created a website that contains the thousands of pages he reviewed, the “F. B. Eyes Digital Archive: FBI Files on African American Authors and Literary Institutions Obtained through the U.S. Freedom of Information Act”: http://digital.wustl.edu/fbeyes/

Professor Maxwell’s book and the website are a treasure trove for readers and researchers alike, especially those with an interest in political history and literary history.

F. B. Eyes has been widely praised for its depth of inquiry, extensive original research, lively and witty writing, fresh insights on many historical figures and events, and timeliness in a new age of government surveillance.Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Harvard University, commented: “F.B. Eyes is a fascinating study of the FBI’s decades-long surveillance program targeting the who’s who of the African American cultural scene. What we read as art, Hoover’s G-Men coded as threats. In poring over black writers’ output across the long arc of the civil rights struggle, the FBI’s ‘ghostreaders,’ as diabolical as they were paranoid, added layers of weight to–and in some cases informed–the African American literary canon, which Maxwell reveals in an irresistible narrative steeped in investigative research.”Gene Seymour wrote in Bookforum: “[T]he book’s fresh perspective on the FBI’s fitful tango with both its targets and its own intentions gives twenty-first-century artists potentially more daring variations, in the NSA age, on the arch replies of Wright, Ellison, Hughes, et al., to the spies. But the prospect can never neutralize the queasy, infuriating sense of so much officially sanctioned energy-squandering on generations of writers who wanted little more than to be taken more seriously than their ancestors.”

William J. Maxwell is 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. His scholarly research, rooted in both modernist and African American studies, addresses the ties among African American writing, political history, and transatlantic culture.  His articles and reviews have appeared in academic and popular journals including, among others, African American Review, The American Historical Review, American Literary History, Harper’s, The Irish Times, Modernism/Modernity, Politico, and Publishers Weekly.

Professor Maxwell recently discussed his book and his remarkable research by telephone from his office in St. Louis.

Robin Lindley: How did you come to undertake this sweeping study of FBI surveillance of African American writers?

Professor William Maxwell: It began with the acquisition of a handful of files for my first book, New Negro, Old Left, on African American writers and communism in the nineteen twenties and thirties.

The file that most caught my interest was on poet Claude McKay. He was one of the founding figures of the Harlem Renaissance, and arguably its first poet. He wrote militant yet formally pristine sonnets, the most famous of which is “If We Must Die,” a call to black resistance in the face of race rioting in 1919.

I compiled an edition of his complete poems, and I wrote away for his FBI file after finding references to it in the work of a biographer, Tyrone Tillery, who was quite generous with me. What startled me about the file was its early date. The FBI was compiling information on a leading African American poet as early as 1921. And the file exposed accurate information about McKay that many critics and historians have been reluctant to look at. Much of the file concerns McKay’s trip to the Soviet Union for a meeting of the Comintern. U.S. intelligence was translating his Russian-language articles and desperately trying to discover his exact travel schedule. And the file exposed the seriousness of McKay’s interest in communism and his eager participation in the world communist movement—something that most academic critics had done their best to forget.

So the first FBI file I consulted on an African American author revealed surprising things not only about the FBI’s interest in African American writers but also about that writer himself. It was the years after 9/11 and the U.S.A. Patriot Act, however, with the unignorable return of state surveillance to everyday American life that made me want to collect the entire set of FBI files.

I looked at the introduction to The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, then and now the gold-standard anthology of black American writing. I took down the names of every author grouped there with material from 1919 to 1972, Hoover’s years at the Bureau and what I call the Hoover Era. I looked for all of these authors’ FBI files and added some names of my own to create a credible list of nationally prominent African American authors from that period.

In return, I received word of 51 files in total—a “hit rate” of 48 percent. There are probably other files that have been lost and perhaps a small handful that the FBI for various reasons does not want to acknowledge.

This was a large percentage of “the filed,” one I thought significant. I began to read through the documents—about 14,000 pages in all—and did my best to understand them.

Robin Lindley: I appreciate your extraordinary efforts in reviewing the mass of material from the FBI. You read and analyzed thousands of pages. Can you say some more about your research process?

Professor William Maxwell: I’m a literary historian by trade, so I tend to emphasize questions of art: how the FBI reckoned with the styles, voices, and publication histories of these writers and what the consequences were for their careers as creative producers. Readers more concerned with the history of U.S. government surveillance or African American radical politics might be interested in looking at the website I created that contains full copies of many of these files, “The FB Eyes Digital Archive”:http://digital.wustl.edu/fbeyes/

Robin Lindley: This website and your book will be a springboard for researchers on many topics related to these writers for years to come. Is that what you had in mind?

Professor William Maxwell: Yes, because I think that a startling—and often confusing—number of things are going on in these files. I didn’t have the space in my already thick book—or the even the full competency, given my training—so I decided to put my archive online. Some of it is tedious, as you trace the paper pushing of a vast police bureaucracy that seemed to want to know everything about everyone. But there are some fascinating nuggets there as well, so I think it would be great if political and intelligence historians also explored this material.

We’ve been working further on the files at the Digital Humanities Workshop here at Washington University this summer, and we’re hoping to make them more searchable. It’s an onerous process because these are odd, multidimensional documents, overwritten by hand stamps and marginalia from Hoover and others. It’s not like pages of a well-printed old book that you can scan accurately. There are many official redactions for security reasons as well. But we’ll add more searchability to the PDF’s that contain the files. I think other researchers will find that helpful, and make it less likely they’ll have to tear their hair out in search of those nuggets.

Robin Lindley: How long did this massive project take you?

Professor William Maxwell: It took enough time that I began to be embarrassed. I started writing the book seriously in 2006 and I finished in 2013. It took that long to take it all in; to read the files, analyze them, and write it all up in a way that was efficient but comprehensive.

Part of the challenge—a common one for historians—was how to present information of this density. That’s why in the published book I employed some pretty heavy-handed organizing theses, and even used them as chapter titles—a clear five-point plan that people can follow. A number of my more literary readers thought that was too much handholding, but I thought I would otherwise overwhelm readers with data. I thought I had to have the most discernible kind of structure.


Robin Lindley: J. Edgar Hoover started at the FBI in 1919, about the time Claude McKay became the first major African American writer targeted for surveillance. Was this program of surveillance Hoover’s idea?

Professor William Maxwell: The program probably would have existed without him. Early on, there was not a thrust directed against black writers per se. McKay and his work—especially the sonnet “If We Must Die”—was tied to the race riots of the so-called Red Summer of 1919. As the head of the FBI’s new Radical Division, the twenty-something Hoover was asked to investigate these riots. In response, he co-authored the anti-radical Palmer Raids—on balance, I think, we should call them the Hoover Raids—of 1919 and 1920.

It was the intersection of African American writing with postwar black radicalism, then, that gets the FBI interested in reading black writers—not only McKay, but also like-minded poets including Andy Razaf (later the lyricist of the songs “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “Black and Blue”), Archibald Grimke, and the better-remembered Langston Hughes

Hoover, too, had a general interest in African American life based on proximity. He grew up in Washington, D.C., at the turn of the twentieth century, when the city was actively segregating itself. Much of the rest of the South had violently separated, but it was just then happening in Washington, under the Wilson administration in particular. A teenaged Hoover, by the way, led a cadet corps that marched in Wilson’s inaugural parade.

So Hoover was a young man who watched segregation in housing, employment, and social life be built all around him. Later, this experience was likely intensified for him by rumors that his own family was not segregated enough, from the perspective of white racism: he probably heard tell that his family tree contained African American relatives. The author Gore Vidal, who also grew up in D.C., spoke about Washington gossip from the 1930s that Hoover was just passing for white. Hoover’s famous distaste for African Americans may have stemmed in part from a sense of unwanted kinship.

Robin Lindley: I hadn’t heard much about the rumors regarding Hoover’s racial background.

Professor William Maxwell: In some versions these rumors are ugly and scurrilous, as if to be black is to be tainted in some way. But there is at least one reputable genealogist, George Ott of Salt Lake City (thanks to the Mormons a world capital of genealogy) who has tracked this down. He established that there is a branch of Hoover’s family that held slaves in Pike County, Mississippi, and an African American family named the McGhees with relatives enslaved there by the Hoovers who also still claim them as relatives. There were very few racially pure people on mid-nineteenth-century American plantations, of course.

Robin Lindley: So Hoover’s obsession with black writers and other African Americans may be explained in part by his possibly being mixed race?

Professor William Maxwell: Yes, possibly. At least that’s the core of one rumor that troubled him. Better known is the accurate rumor that his emotional life was centered on a man, Clyde Tolson, who was second in command at the Bureau. They dined daily and vacationed together for decades and effectively lived like husband and husband, with Tolson receiving the widow’s seat at Hoover’s funeral. I don’t know—no one does, I don’t think—what the sexual facet of that relationship was, but it was accompanied by intense gossip about Hoover’s homosexuality. It was also accompanied by the FBI’s public anti-gay strikes, which came to a head during the early Cold War. There thus may be a pattern of intimacy and distaste in the realm of sex as well as in the realm of race for Hoover.

Robin Lindley: So Hoover looks at black writing as part of his early job as head of the anti-radicalism program at the FBI?

Professor William Maxwell: Exactly.


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SOURCE: History News Network
Robin Lindley is a Seattle-based writer and attorney, and the features editor of the History News Network (hnn.us). His articles also have appeared in Crosscut, Real Change, Documentary, Writer’s Chronicle, and others. He has a special interest in the history of medicine, and particularly in brain research history. His email: [email protected] Click here to view a list of his other interviews.

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