Luis Zambrano: Blacklisted: Response to “Total Literary Awareness: How the FBI Pre-read African American Writing. ” American Reader. Maxwell, W.J.

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


Fiction itself would hardly be able to invent the scene of an eager FBI agent who, intent on assiduously analyzing and surveiling for Communist sympathies the theatrical premiere of a Black playwright’s dramatic work, attends the performance and is moved to his soul by the emotional impact of the work.  Government work can be risky indeed.  

Such arch episodes could be more fully amusing if it were not for the fact that they necessarily followed from the baleful machinations that proliferated within the FBI’s unfettered harassment of Afro-modern artists during the Civil Rights Era.  

William J. Maxwell’s critique from the American Reader  of the Bureau’s censorship efforts of communist sympathizers and, in particular, of Black authors, evokes the irony of a surveillance whose tentacles spread deep beyond mere surveillance, to include not only the policing of alleged immoral behavior, but also the inference of mere thought and intention of artists from thematic elements in those artists’ work.  As excerpted by the author, one agent reported:   “[I]t would be rather difficult to depict in such graphic style an act which had not been experienced by the narrator” (18 Mar. 1954).” 

Indeed, the Bureau’s practice of Total Literary Awareness (TLA) meant that even White control of the means of production was not satisfactory to achieve the Bureau’s aim, whatever that aim was.  As the author suggests, TLA in effect became surveillance to presage the intent behind the genesis of Black artistic work while in the act of, or even before, its creation.     

It is hard to imagine today the cause and the depth of such popular fear that would in turn be able to motivate such comprehensive government surveillance.  Certainly, fifty years in the position of director of any agency, as Hoover was at the FBI, cannot be good for any institution’s sanity.  Further, such a toxic amalgamation of communism and racism cannot alone reasonably explain the surprisingly banal behavior of a large web of willing informants and collaborators in this effort.  As always, the challenge of historical examination is to de-privilege the exceptionalism of gazing from the present in hindsight upon the past, to another social milieu, in order to examine truthfully how such surveillance could have emerged so organically.   

Of course, the FBI ultimately failed, if their aim was the silencing of such artists.  Limitations can be catalytic too, especially to an artist.  Thus, that history of surveillance is perhaps most effectively chronicled in the very work produced during that surveillance.  Such surveillance, unimaginably limiting and constricting to the artist, was most assuredly sublimated by these artists into work of even more imaginative and creative power.  

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1 Comment

  1. Hi Luis, What a great writer you are! Even in a short post, your prose is really splendid and the thinking lively. I love this wry punch: “Government work can be risky indeed. ” I also agree that, being head of the FBI for fifty years, gave Hoover astonishing power, the “permanent government” through many changes in presidencies and many social changes. Yet it’s the artists who remain and endure. And how ironic to now have a government that is so right wing that it denounces the FBI. “Ironic” is too soft a word. And yet again, we are in an era where the art of people of color–African American, Latinx, Asian American–is absolutely stunning. Thanks for such a great blog.

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