Arelle Binning: Response to William J. Maxwell’s “Total Literary Awareness: How the FBI Pre-Read African American Writing”

By on February 6th, 2018 in Blog Posts, Week 1

 

William J. Maxwell’s “Total Literary Awareness:  How the FBI Pre-Read African American Writing” interests me on several levels. The first is that I was not aware of how bad a surveillance problem we have. Secondly, the possibility of FBI agents becoming radicalized by some of the same content they researched was interesting. Third, was the reference made to the watered-down intelligence that was deemed acceptable for inclusion in any published works. Fourth and last, the paranoia of the government towards the African-American writer is beyond what I would ever imagine possible.

The surveillance problem that this article exposed to me in this reading is intense. It was almost as if I was reading a James Bond novel regarding the extents to which the Federal Bureau of Investigation went to in order to suppress the points of views of these artists. The need for the FBI wanting to be casted in a good light, and therefore only approving works that showed them in that light, to was also too familiar to a James Bond novel playing out. It reminded me of the bad guys monologue at the end of the movie, where he tells his life story and the reasons for his habitual misconduct, before he is defeated by the story’s protagonist. In other words, the FBI wants to be seen as the good guy but will do anything, including the horrible, to succeed in that mission. How ironic.

Also eye-catching was the possibility of the FBI agents, researching these books and attending these plays, may eventually find themselves “succumbing to the spell of the black expression.” This reminded me of the radicalization process in terrorism. With enough reading and watching of videos someone can become sympathetic to at the cry of the author.

Most captivating to me was the term “appetite” to describe the paranoia in searching for something, or anything, that the African-American artist/writer produced. Appetites, typically used to describe the urges of serial killers, usually aren’t full until a person gets exactly what their body wants. In other words, you can drink as many bottles of soda you want but if its water your body wants your thirst will never be quenched. This article mentions that the FBI thought that an “upper-middle-class black woman who abandoned a comfortable existence for identification with the racially and politically oppressed” was a “typical profile of present danger,” mystified me. It makes me wonder, what exactly the government feared by a liberated person of color? I want to know – is there is more than fear of communism or an uprising that fuels these investigations?

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2 Comments

  1. Thanks for such an evocative blog post, Arelle. You write: “It makes me wonder, what exactly the government feared by a liberated person of color? I want to know – is there is more than fear of communism or an uprising that fuels these investigations?” I think this will be an issue we think about and talk about all semester. Why does our government so fear people of color? Is it politics, is it fear of “retaliation” for racism, is it a definition that makes a person of color automatically “suspect”? These are stated and implied questions that the writers we will be reading all grapple with.

  2. I also was moved by your question, “It makes me wonder, what exactly the government feared by a liberated person of color? I want to know – is there is more than fear of communism or an uprising that fuels these investigations?” I think that the history of communism and the suppression of communists has been so whitewashed that the combination of the two is not commonly analyzed in many left analyses. That’s what makes this course and studying these works so essential.

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