In “Total Literary Awareness: How the FBI Pre-read African American Writing,” I found William J. Maxwell’s description of the “machinery of political repression” intriguing. It seems this machine could identify those whose rhetoric was unacceptable to the FBI at that time, and code those identified as dissidents, rebels, and communists. The ideas, writings, and speeches of those dissidents needed to be repressed and black listed at all costs. Though I am not well versed in this era, I was surprised to find that teachers were the target of the machine as well. Maxwell posits, “Well-honed Bureau techniques for indexing dissent directly fed the classic sin of the blacklist, fingering over 400 public employees for firing, most of them school and university teachers.”
It seems that the FBI held powerful sway over publications during the Cold War. According to Maxwell’s account, books like The FBI Nobody Knows was originally rejected by Random House due to a copy being forwarded to Hoover. The FBI wanted to control the narrative about the inner-workings and the tactics of the bureau. Anyone who wanted to tell a counter-narrative was subject to having their work rejected, being placed on a watch list, and being surveilled. The term “Editorial informants” is new to me, but it seems as though newspapers, magazines, and publishing houses were rife with such people, who were willing to feed the FBI information about writers who dared to criticize the bureau. While Critical Non-Fiction was a target of the FBI, according to recovered files, it was revealed that they did take particular interest in African American poetry and prose.
Maxwell calls the FBI’s counterliterature siege “Total Literary Awareness”. This effort or agenda to eradicate writing at odds with its views is evident in the meticulous file they kept on Lorraine Hansberry. It seems that Hansberry’s militancy was alarming to them. Hansberry’s well known play, A Raisin in the Sun, was monitored closely by the bureau. According to Maxwell, a year before the play was produced, Hoover issued this order, “[p]romptly conduct [a] necessary investigation in an effort to establish whether the play…is in any way controlled or influenced by the Communist Party and whether it in any way follows the Communist line”. The reviewer assigned to the case ultimately found that Communism was absent from Hansberry’s work.
While the FBI could surveil, and perhaps delay publications, they could neither suppress Black intellectual thought, nor eradicate Black writers and their works. Black authorship was doggedly stalked by the bureau. However, Afro Modernists like Ralph Ellison, Shirley Graham Du Bois, Frank London Brown, William Gardner Smith, continued to resist white control of their voices, and were inspirations to their communities and beyond.