Charlene Obernauer: Reflection on Maxwell’s Total Literary Awareness

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

 

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.”

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3 Comments

  1. Hi Charlene, Thanks for this and thanks for letting us know you wouldn’t be in class last night. As it turned out, neither Flora nor Chelsea were either. Please make sure you check in with Damele, the only one there, so your Group can move ahead. Your blog post is excellent and raises issues that I know we’ll be looking at again: “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.” That conduit of artist/FBI surveillance/US policy abroad is going to be a major theme throughout the class. You’ll find that we took fairly extensive collaborative notes on the class Google Doc so you can see what you missed–much of it in this direction. See you next week. Take care!

  2. Thanks for this, Charlene. I imagine there’s a way to tie where the FBI does and does not locate queerness within its surveillance subjects, and the way that’s coded in the files (Lorraine Hansberry’s “Italian cut” hairstyle; the repeated reiterations, without comment, of Baldwin’s comment’s on his own sexuality) to the way that the State continued its construction of a homosexual subject at that time. Within the references you included in your blog post and in Maxwell’s writings, that construction definitely appears as a work-in-progress that was being processed through the surveillance and recording of coded-to-overt referents. And I guess the same could be said of their construction of a black internationalist subject! The vision is so limited/ing in either case.

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