William Maxwell’s “Total Literary Awareness: How the FBI Pre-Read African American Writing” shines a light on Hoover’s Total Literary Awareness campaign in the FBI and its racist screening of Black writers. Maxwell writes of many Black authors of the time period, including Lorraine Hansberry, whose file was opened when she raised suspicions due to her upper-middle-class background and coinciding identification with the oppressed. Her “1,052-page file” was stuffed with musings about her work, including her well-known “Raisin in the Sun,” which an agent was sent to screen for Communist overtones. Even the agent was inspired by Hansberry’s work and issued a flourishing review – far beyond what was expected from his presence at the theatre. However, the agent expressed concern over Hansberry’s depiction of Africa, concerns that, according to Maxwell, made their way all the way to the Einsenhower Administration and impacted U.S.-Africa policy.
Willard Motley’s file, writes Maxwell, showcased the Bureau’s fascination with “black queerness,” and was clearly screening Motley himself for queer behavior. For example, a description of queer sex in Knock On Any Door was described in such detail that, the FBI argued it must have been experienced by the author himself. To do this – to write in vivid detail of experiences an individual might not have had – is the very essence of being a creative writer, but that irony seemed lost on the Bureau.
Ultimately, Maxwell concludes that the Total Literary Awareness Campaign, by the FBI’s own standards, was unsuccessful. The Bureau was unable to fully screen books before they were published to prevent controversial art from airing. For example, even if the Bureau objected to Hansberry’s “Raisin in the Sun,” at the time they began screening the piece, it was already destined for Broadway. The FBI’s campaign, in effect, did what it sought to prevent: it helped radicalize the next generation of Black artists, destined to “beat state interference to creation’s starting line.”