How Bad Was FBI Spying on African American Writers? An Interview with William Maxwell

Historians/History
tags: racism, Black History, FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, interview, William Maxwell



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: robinlindley@gmail.com. Click here to view a list of his other interviews.

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.

Robin Lindley: How thoroughly in your time period, 1919 through 1972, was Hoover monitoring the program on black writers? Was Hoover always obsessed with it?

Professor William Maxwell: He had many obsessions—rivaling the CIA as the would-be “mind of America”—so I would not say it was an exclusive one, but black writing was a consistent and a somewhat unusual interest. One point I make in the book is that the FBI was deeply interested in African American writing at a time when most white cultural institutions didn’t even know there was a renaissance in Harlem.

Hoover was at least bureaucratically on top of the FBI’s scrutinizing of black writing; he got all the paperwork. But at various moments, as in the 1960s when he discovered James Baldwin’s work, he was personally and intensely interested. He worried about Baldwin’s “perversion” of American literature, and scribbled this in his distinctive blue ink on one FBI document.

Robin Lindley: By the sixties, you had the COINTELPRO [counterintelligence program] of the FBI that was monitoring black militant organizations and civil rights groups including the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Dr. King.

Professor William Maxwell: Absolutely. What I discuss at the start of the book is the document recognized as the nadir of FBI history, a hateful, anonymous blackmail letter sent to King in 1964. The letter was probably written by one of Hoover’s lieutenants, William Sullivan, a troubling and fascinating character.

Beverly Gage, a Yale historian, recently discovered an unexpurgated version of this letter, sometimes called “The Suicide Letter,” since it calls on King to expose or eliminate himself before damaging information about his extramarital affairs is made public. It was sent to King just before he picked up the Nobel Peace Prize, but was discovered after he returned from the ceremony. It was accompanied with a tape containing bugged evidence of King’s contact with various lovers in various hotel rooms. Coretta Scott King is the person who opened this package.

The present FBI Director, James Comey, has a pretty progressive understanding of Bureau history. He has said that he keeps a copy of the King letter in his desk at the FBI to remind him of the Bureau’s excesses and to understand the burden of its history. I think that’s an impressive thing to do.

The point I make in my book is that this letter is in part the fruit of the Bureau’s obsessive interest in African American writing. The letter is written in a black voice, a kind of literary blackface, as though it comes from a civil-rights foot soldier—so William Sullivan is imitating black writing, though not of an especially literary sort. Throughout the book, I try to place this infamous letter in the context of many prior years of FBI fascination with African American writing and literacy.

Robin Lindley: And Sullivan was a leading ghostreader of black writing at the FBI with Robert Adger Bowen as well as a lot of FBI agents without the same literary background.

Professor William Maxwell: Right. Another task I tried to accomplish in the book was to identify the FBI people who were reading African American writing.

Part of the problem is that FBI agent names are not often included in FBI file documents and many people who had no particular literary interest were assigned to investigate these writers.

But two figures—ghostreaders-in-chief, I call them—stand out and left direct evidence of their fascination with black writing. William Sullivan was a primary ghostreader in the 1960s, and one of the authors of the COINTELPRO program against so-called “Black Hate,” which involved a good deal of imaginary black writing. Not all of it had great aesthetic value, but you had FBI agents—the great majority of them white—producing pseudo-African American poems; Black Arts theses; lots of letters from prison—an important genre of Black Arts literature; and at least one entire newspaper. So there were many white FBI agents in the era pretending to be black authors during this time, and Sullivan was in a sense the main author of that. When he was tired of the intricacies of FBI work, he would fantasize about becoming an English professor.

Robert Adger Bowen was another ghostreader who worked as an author before he joined the FBI’s anti-radical division as the main editor and translator of radical writing in New York in the early 1920s. He wrote novels and short stories at the turn of the century, and was a literary critic and a literary editor at Appleton, a leading publisher at the time. His literary fame, such as it was, came as a white writer of black dialect, a kind of lesser Joel Chandler Harris, the author of Uncle Remus tales taken from African-American folklore. When Bowen read Harlem Renaissance literature, he was in fact reading the literature of those who were supplanting him as a supposedly authentic black voice. And early Harlem Renaissance literature is highly self-conscious about its break from this decade and more of ersatz black dialect writing, which emphasized Amos and Andy-like comedy and scenes of the sunny South.

Robin Lindley: That was fascinating. As you mentioned, FBI “dirty tricks” included publishing work supposedly by black authors in its efforts to undermine black organizations and leaders.

Professor William Maxwell: Yes. This COINTELPRO literature is often interested in embarrassing particular people or misdirecting radical movements. A newspaper attributed to the Black Student Union at Southern Illinois University was meant to disrupt African American radical activity in the St. Louis region. That’s my home these days, and the birthplace of the Black Lives Matter movement, and so this aspect of the history means something special to me.

There was a lot of Black Arts activity in St. Louis centering on jazz and poetry, and several of its artists wound up in New York City helping to produce the loft jazz movement of the seventies. St. Louis was a significant Midwest site of the Black Arts Movement and it was not an accident that the FBI tried to disrupt that activity.

Robin Lindley: It was stunning for many Americans that the FBI wrote editorials to undermine Dr. King, and these FBI editorials were published almost verbatim by newspapers as their own writing.

Professor William Maxwell: It is astonishing. What’s disturbing is the willingness of those newspapers to run these. Of course there was fear, but there was also ideological sympathy.

Hoover’s FBI kept serious records of who was with them and who wasn’t in the media. There were lots of favors for sympathetic columnists, editors and newspapers across the country. There was a “Special Correspondent’s List,” and you wanted to be on that list if you wanted to curry favor with the FBI.

Another point I make in the book is that the young Hoover knew he was coming into an organization that needed to produce effective publicity and propaganda. The United States had no great tradition of national policing and there was a lot of skepticism about a federal police department from the very inception of the FBI in 1908. Hoover knew the FBI needed good public relations and he was a genius—some may say an evil genius—at both bureaucratic management and public outreach. From its earliest moment the Bureau was quite conscious about its need to cultivate its image with newspaper editors and in books and magazines and later on radio and in the movies.

While not a physically alluring person, Hoover knew how to cultivate his own image, to the point that in the thirties he a national media celebrity on par with Shirley Temple, with whom he was photographed. He was pictured often with FDR as well who appreciated that the FBI was an excellent advertisement for the expanded federal programs of the New Deal.

Robin Lindley: Hoover had that image of a tireless crime fighter during Prohibition and the Depression.

Professor William Maxwell: Absolutely. And agents other than Hoover were not allowed to take individual credit for the FBI’s high-profile successes. Agent Melvin Purvis tracked and killed John Dillinger and other famous gangsters in the thirties, but Hoover hated the fact that Purvis was getting credit so he forced him out of the Bureau. You were permitted to be part of the publicity machine if you were content to be a duplicable, anonymous G-man.

Robin Lindley: Readers may also be surprised by the use of informants in targeting black writers and by the people in the publishing industry who gave the FBI advance copies of the works of these writers before they were public.

Professor William Maxwell: Yes. By the 1950s, the glory years of the Cold War, there were informants at least sympathetic to the FBI inside many major New York publishers. That didn’t mean there was outright censorship of a Soviet kind, but the FBI could slow down or punish the publication of some of the first critical work on FBI history. This is what happened to Max Lowenthal, who wrote The Federal Bureau of Investigation, maybe the first thoroughly researched anti-Bureau book, published in 1950. The FBI hounded him and somehow obtained a copy of the book even before it was published.

Later anti-FBI books were passed around between publishers and vetted by the FBI. They were not prevented from appearing, but the FBI could make life very difficult for someone who commented against them.

Robin Lindley: And the FBI made life difficult too for many African American writers. Among other things, they prevented people getting federal jobs and even interfered with travel.

Professor William Maxwell: Yes. Even with Claude McKay in the 1920s, there was a desire to control his travel patterns. One of the ironic things I discuss in the book is that the FBI was alert to the international range and importance of African American writing earlier than most academics were.

In the case of McKay, the FBI used “stop notices” at major U.S. ports: New York, Los Angeles, even Baltimore. A stop notice didn’t mean you were to be jailed immediately at the border but it meant you were to be stopped and frisked and asked many questions. This information got back to McKay, who was famous for wandering around Europe and Africa in the twenties at the height of the Harlem Renaissance he helped to found. In the book, I claim that his travels weren’t made just in the spirit of Bohemian adventure, but that he knew it would be difficult to return to the United States. And the FBI did this sort of thing with stop notices into the fifties and sixties, impacting Baldwin, among others.

In another famous case, the FBI helped to seize W.E.B. Du Bois’s passport.

And they were involved in the withdrawal of the passport of Paul Robeson, the singer, actor, and globetrotting black radical.

From the 1920s on, then, the FBI was quite involved in the monitoring of African American travel abroad. And most everybody writing black literature was aware of this fact. It was a kind of “public secret.” Writers told each other about this and there would be jokes as well as worries.

As I note in the last chapter of my book, there’s a long line of black writing about the FBI and against the FBI from the Harlem Renaissance through the Black Arts movement and beyond. It composed a kind of counter-tradition within a counter-tradition. It’s not always best of African American writing, but it’s definitely a deep vein, and I try to trace it out.

Robin Lindley: And several of these writers were aware of the FBI surveillance and they responded fiercely and directly to the FBI monitoring.

Professor William Maxwell: Yes, as early as the 1920s, Du Bois was publicly saying “it’s nice the Justice Department is finally paying attention to us. Too bad it’s not thinking about lynching.”

Some of the earliest contributions to Harlem Renaissance magazines were responses to the FBI’s initial publication on black literature, Radicalism and Sedition Among the Negroes as Reflected in Their Publications, issued in 1919. James Weldon Johnson, author of The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, takes on this publication in print, as do several voices from the Garvey movement.

Given the FBI’s public reaction to their work in Radicalism and Sedition, the writers have every reason to know the FBI is reading their stuff. African American authors from the start of the Harlem Renaissance onward thus considered the FBI an important audience.

Robin Lindley: I wanted to ask about a few prominent writers you mention in your book. What are some things you learned about the FBI monitoring of acclaimed poet Langston Hughes?

Professor William Maxwell: To trust his FBI file, the first notice the FBI takes of Langston Hughes is in 1925 in the midst of the Harlem Renaissance. One of the things noted repeatedly in the file is Hughes’s opinion that Negro consciousness is becoming international, and the FBI responds in kind, with its surveillance expanding internationally as well.

The FBI didn’t have as much on Hughes as the McCarthy Committee did when he was marched before that committee in the fifties and embarrassed publicly. But Hoover was attuned enough to Langston Hughes’s writing to produce a pamphlet in which he attacks Hughes’s once-notorious poem called “Goodbye Christ.” Hoover actually signed a public work of literary criticism that targeted Langston Hughes. Hughes’s FBI file shows that thousands of people read Hoover’s pamphlet, with citizens both white and black writing the FBI for more information on this character Langston Hughes and just how close he was to the communist movement. Is it okay for children to read his books? they asked. Is it okay for schools to stock them? Is it okay for my church or elementary school to invite him as a speaker?

And Langston Hughes was one of the first fully professional black authors in the sense that he didn’t do anything else for a living. He had no teaching or preaching job. He made his money by writing in virtually genre and by touring the country reading his work almost every year for most of his adult life, making money from his speaking engagements. The FBI’s opinion went to the heart of his income.

Robin Lindley: And then you have the novelist Richard Wright who got a great deal of attention from Hoover’s Bureau.

Professor William Maxwell: Richard Wright was a prominent member of the American Communist Party who was even more famous for withdrawing from it. His file dates from 1942. Some citizens had written in about his nonfiction book on the history of black America called Twelve Million Black Voices, wondering if it damaged the war effort against the Nazis. Hoover immediately ordered his agents to buy and read everything by Wright and then report back on him.

Of course, the FBI underlings found reason to begin tracking Wright, and they started following him around New York City in the early 1940s. They continued to monitor him even after he became the most famous African American expatriate in Paris after World War II.

I would say that Wright’s case is distinguished by his lasting self-consciousness about the effects of the FBI interference in his life and work. By the end of his life, some other black Parisians saw this as a form of paranoia, but he was right to be paranoid in his case. In fact, he once announced that any African American “who is not paranoid is in serious shape.”

Wright produced an amazing, still-unpublished novel, Island of Hallucination, about the experience of the black community in Paris after World War II being spied on and then spying on itself—about how the sense of freedom from American racism there was overturned by the presence of government agents and their techniques. And he’s the guy who wrote the poem “The F.B. Eye Blues” that gave me the title for the book and also some important inspiration. It’s a classic blues poem that’s humorous but also somewhat terrified about the weird intimacy of surveillance, a poem complaining about the “FB eye under my bed/telling me all I dreamed last night, every word I said.”

Wright was highly self-conscious about U.S. government surveillance and tried to turn this self-consciousness into art. He was thus an extreme case of a common experience and impulse in African American writing throughout the twentieth century.

Wright died somewhat mysteriously in 1960. I’ve seen nothing in my research to suggest that the FBI was involved in his death, but there were immediate rumors that perhaps the FBI or CIA had got to him. Some of his associates in Paris—Ollie Harrington and Chester Himes—thought the FBI had done him in, and John A. Williams wrote maybe the most important novel of the Black Arts movement, The Man Who Cried I Am, with a Wright character who knew too much to survive government assassination.

The Wright estate has never allowed publication of his novel Island of Hallucination, in part because there were ugly things written there about a character who looks a bit too much like James Baldwin, a Wright mentee turned enemy. It’s not Wright’s finest novel. There’s a lot of bitterness in it, but it’s a fascinating document, and it’s amazing to me that it hasn’t been published yet.

Robin Lindley: Then you have Ralph Ellison, author of the award-winning classic novel Invisible Man, who was also a target of FBI monitoring.

Professor William Maxwell: Ellison knew from Wright and others of the government’s interest in black literature. But he’s more ambivalent and sympathetic than Wright when it comes to FBI’s interest in black lives.

There was a section in the next-to-last draft of Invisible Man, probably the most important black novel of the 20th century, cut before publication, in which the Invisible Man dreams about becoming a secret FBI spy, and meditates about the underground connections between spying and the position of African Americans in the United States. The connections are also encapsulated in the character of the grandfather who gives the Invisible Man cryptic advice. One of the things the grandfather says is that he’s been “a spy in the enemy’s country” since Reconstruction, analogizing the African American presence in the United States with the work of a spy amid a hostile power.

There wasn’t as much criticism of the FBI in Ellison’s work—here too he breaks from his early mentor Richard Wright—but there’s a fascinating undercurrent even in the published version of Invisible Man.

Robin Lindley: Did the FBI’s interest in Ellison continue until his death?

Professor William Maxwell: I think the FBI understood that the Ellison of Invisible Man and after was not a major challenge to the American order. By the time Invisible Man was published, he had broken with the Communist Party, and the novel is in part a long and intricate justification of that break.

But the FBI continued to monitor his publications because Ellison became a famous public man associated with the birth of American public television. They did background checks of him when he was invited to the White House, and in doing so, they raised the specter of his radical past.

The FBI compiled a bibliography on him that later critics couldn’t quite equal. Ellison came up as a radical author in the thirties and cut his teeth by publishing in and editing in communist magazines. The FBI was always aware of that, even as it was less interested in him than in the more outspoken authors of the Black Arts Movement, many of whom saw Ellison as a kind of Uncle Tom. He was harshly treated by the younger generation of militants in the sixties, some of whom, such as Larry Neal, later made peace with his work.

Robin Lindley: You also discuss the renowned playwright Lorraine Hansberry who wrote Raisin in the Sun.

Professor William Maxwell: That was one of the most surprising files I examined. I’m not the first one to look at her file. There’s an excellent critic of Hansberry in New York, Kathlene McDonald, who gave me a copy of it, but I believe I put it into a new, fuller context.

Like most American kids raised since the 1960s, I grew up with Raisin in the Sun. It’s one of the texts through which the American public school system tries to come to terms with our racial past. It’s on the official liberal curriculum. I saw a memorable musical version of it on Broadway when I was a child in the 1970s.

What’s surprising, given all this, is that the FBI was afraid of Hansberry’s play even before it came to Broadway. As I discuss in the book, Hoover sent an agent to review the play in Philadelphia at one of its pre-Broadway tryouts. A sharp-eyed FBI agent who went undercover to the Walnut Theater in Philadelphia quickly dispensed with the worry that the play was a communist diatribe, which it certainly isn’t. But then he proceeded to write what I describe as a solid five-page paper on the play, one I’d have given an A to. The author might have been an agent with an unusual background in literature, an in-house English major, when most FBI agents had law and accounting degrees. What the agent discovered, which academic critics have only recently begun to talk about seriously, is the dose of Black Nationalism in the play articulated through an African character.

The agent’s review of Hansberry is an example of what happens in a number of the files on black authors: an FBI ghostreader becomes sympathetic to the literary work that he is spying on. The FBI reviewer of Raisin in the Sun fell into the play and began to appreciate it, and I think also began to see himself in its characters. You can’t do good literary criticism without imagining yourself as part of the work, of course.

I probably exaggerate these moments somewhat for effect in the book, but I am interested in the ways that FBI agents produced sometimes insightful and sometimes sympathetic criticism of African American writing. They took this writing deeply seriously when not everyone did, at least from outside the black intellectual community. So I declare half-sarcastically in the book that the FBI is perhaps the most important forgotten critic of African American literature.

Robin Lindley: Do you think the public or scholars learned much from what the FBI was doing in this program?

Professor William Maxwell: Everyday citizens would write to the FBI regularly, asking for advice on African American literature, and as I said, inquire about the poetry of Langston Hughes, or about plays by LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, or about James Baldwin and the “obscenities” in his novels.

There was some public awareness of the FBI’s interest in black writing then, but I don’t think this interest had that much influence on the course of African American criticism. It had a more important influence on the consciousness of African American writers themselves, who knew of this surveillance and tried to reckon with it in their work.

Robin Lindley: What are a few things you learned about the FBI monitoring of a very complex writer, James Baldwin?

Professor William Maxwell: He indeed was a complex thinker and, in the present, an increasingly important one for the young generation of black activists. In a way that’s surprising to me that he’s become a major voice in the post-Ferguson contingent of black radical activists. He’s very often quoted in “Black Lives Matter” arguments, and Ta-Nahesi Coates has of course been knighted as Baldwin’s official successor by Toni Morrison. You have dozens of young activists on Twitter with handles like “Son of Baldwin.”

Baldwin is thus very present now, and I think that has to do with his combined eloquence and pessimism about American race relations and his ability to see American race relations through an international lens. Baldwin was also a bravely open gay man writing about the sexual nexus within American racism, and this strikes a chord with DeRay McKesson and other leaders of the young generation of activists, many of whom are gay or certainly much more willing than earlier activists to think about sexual difference in the context of black struggle. As his file shows, Baldwin is also their close predecessor in being tracked by national intelligence agencies.

Robin Lindley: Did Baldwin’s sexuality affect Hoover’s obsession with his work?

Professor William Maxwell: Absolutely. As I mentioned earlier, one of the most forthright Hoover additions to the James Baldwin file is Hoover’s scribbling on the side of a document “Isn’t he a well-known pervert?” I’m not the first to notice that this question is somewhat ironic given Hoover’s emotional life. Hoover thought he should be discreet about his affections, and Baldwin, an incessant articulator of experience, was not discreet in any way, which made for a lot of suffering in his own day.

The Baldwin file seems to be the longest single file that the FBI compiled on a black writer and that reflects not only its interest in his sexual life but also the fact that Baldwin was directly and sometimes heroically involved in the civil rights struggle. He was criticized at the time for escaping to France and Turkey, but he kept jetting back. He became a major public explainer of the second, more militant phase of the civil rights movement, the Black Power Movement. And the FBI insisted on documenting all of this. They put him on their “Security Index,” which meant that in a time of national crisis, he could be jailed to insure American national security.

Robin Lindley: Did the FBI consider Baldwin a militant?

Professor William Maxwell: Totally. He in fact maintained a sympathetic but distant relationship to the Nation of Islam and the Black Panthers who counted on him for his public advocacy but also didn’t embrace the style of masculinity he presented. It was a complicated relationship. But the FBI saw it as all one and the same and imagined Baldwin as the most dangerous nationalist writer of that period.

Robin Lindley: I recall that Baldwin was very public and often appeared on television talk shows so he had quite an audience.

Professor William Maxwell: He had a large audience and a major prophetic voice. He wrote perhaps the most important literary essay on the civil rights movement, The Fire Next Time, which became a bestseller and has recently served as the deep blueprint of Ta-Nahesi Coates’s Between the World and Me.

During the early sixties, Baldwin threatened the FBI with a book he was going to call The Blood Counters. Another of the reasons for his thick FBI file is that the FBI was fascinated and worried about Baldwin’s promised anti-FBI book, which he swore would “blast J. Edgar Hoover to the wall.” It’s not clear that he ever truly intended to write this but he clearly enjoyed playing a cat-and-mouse game with the FBI. He talked about this book publicly many times. And the FBI followed the twists and turns of its composition—real or imagined—and wondered if editors had contracted the book.

And Baldwin would, when giving addresses during this period, loudly tip his hat to the CIA and FBI agents in the crowd. He knew he was playing a dangerous game with the FBI.

A good biographer of Baldwin, James Campbell, believes that the FBI and the sense of surveillance it caused slowed Baldwin’s production and began seriously damaging his literary imagination by the late 1960s. I don’t see it quite that way, but there are reasons for Campbell’s view.

Robin Lindley: Did you get a sense that any of these authors were under the same intense FBI scrutiny as Dr. King with his rooms bugged and phones tapped?

Professor William Maxwell: Yes, in a few cases in the sixties and seventies. Baldwin’s phone was definitely tapped, and he believed he was tapped, which is just as important if you’re interested in the history of his art. I don’t know if Richard Wright ever thought his phone was tapped, but he understood that he was being read constantly.

There were agents who did street-level surveillance of Lorraine Hansberry. They recorded when she had her haircuts. Once in her file they note that she had shifted to an “Italian-cut” style. Now that’s close observation.

But the FBI’s interference with King was finally above and beyond. I didn’t find evidence of attempts to blackmail literary people with their indiscretions, as the FBI did with King and some other political figures. The word in Washington held that Hoover had files on everyone in the capital, on anyone in the city’s public life—pretty much any extramarital affair or so-called deviant form of sexuality would be recorded there.

Robin Lindley: I think many people will be surprised by this extensive and certainly expensive FBI effort to monitor these great American literary figures.

Professor William Maxwell: There was an interest in many white writers too. Natalie Robins, a poet and critic, wrote a very well-researched book, Alien Ink: The FBI’s War on Freedom of Expression, on the files on many prominent white American writers. There were files on Hemingway and Faulkner and even small dossiers on expatriates T.S. Eliot and Gertrude Stein.

But I think there was a special and disproportionate interest in African American writing. I believe it was more likely for an African American writer to be monitored than an analogous writer who was not African American during the Hoover years. It also was more common for African American writers to be put on the strictest surveillance lists and Security Indexes than it was for white writers.

Robin Lindley: Is there anything you’d like to add for readers on your illuminating study?

Professor William Maxwell: As we touched on earlier, I think there is probably more out there. The book is a first stab. Readers can go to the files available at the “F.B. Eyes Archive” and do their own research there.

One thing I’d like to suggest to people interested in history, and literary history in particular, is to write away for the FBI file on the person you are interested in. These files are absorbing and surprisingly revealing documents even, or especially, when they are inaccurate.

There’s a funny way in which the FBI—a great keeper of secrets—is also the researcher’s best friend. Even if you’re interested solely in the artistic side of someone’s life, you can find out a lot from the FBI files. It’s surprising how helpful these files can be.

For years, it was difficult to get these files released without large redactions, but it’s less hard now. I don’t think the FBI is particularly worried about its Cold War history any longer and I don’t believe it’s consciously censoring these files beyond legally permitted deletions for security and privacy, etc. It’s much more concerned with anti-terrorism. So the FBI’s twentieth-century history is more open terrain than it’s ever been.

Robin Lindley: So the FBI files were quite accessible?

Professor William Maxwell: Yes. Some files are excerpted or partially “blacked out” for reasons of national security or for keeping the names of private citizens private. But it’s easier to extract many files than you might think. I had good relations with the FBI records department when I asked for documents, and I think that historians should give the Bureau the chance to do the right thing.

Robin Lindley: What’s your next project?

Professor William Maxwell: By the standards of academic literary criticism, the book has received a lot of attention, in the popular press as well, which is gratifying for a middle-aged academic. It’s been bit of a fantasy for a professor, but it also turned out to be tiring. I’m taking a sabbatical break now and trying to figure out what comes next.

One thing that’s been proposed to me is to write a new cultural biography of James Baldwin through the lens of his FBI file, which is appealing because I want to understand why Baldwin is so important during the current rebirth of the civil rights movement. I might then do a more focused study in a more open voice about Baldwin and his meaning today.

Robin Lindley: Thank you for your thoughtful comments and your fascinating new book Professor Maxwell.



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