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Black writers were targeted by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI for over fifty years in a systematic attempt to undermine their cultural influence and to paralyze racial equality movements as a result. William J. Maxwell’s F.B. Eyes lays out an airtight case against the Bureau and Hoover’s G-Men, demonstrating how writers like Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Lorraine Hansberry, James Baldwin, and Amiri Baraka were spied on, surveilled, and harassed throughout their careers. Maxwell examines nearly 14,000 pages of FBI files on some of the most significant writers of twentieth-century African American literature to show how the “Hoover boys … aimed to make a national public enemy of the Harlem Renaissance” (29). He also argues that this campaign of destruction was only partially successful. Undoubtedly, countless “writers and works were lost” to covert modes of censorship and overt, strong-arm tactics of “the FBI’s culture war on African American letters” (218), but many others survived to tell the tale in more or less thinly veiled ways. Afro-modernist writers were well aware of the gaze always on them, and they engaged with the censor actively and sometimes openly.
Maxwell argues convincingly that at the core of Hoover’s practices was not only a desire for “nationwide public approval” (29) but also a warped recognition of the power of literature to influence and shape the national consciousness. As his “librarian-pirates” set to work seizing “entire institutional libraries” during the Hoover Raids (50) and his G-Men kept close tabs on the comings and goings of Afro-modernist writers, Hoover put many more agents to the task of “ghostreading” every shred of African American writing they could get their gloved hands on—before publication, in many instances—from 1919 to 1972. The sum total of these practices was meant to garner “knowledge of all published threats to the state, especially threats to the state of the Bureau’s reputation,” an agenda Maxwell calls “Total [End Page 568] Literary Awareness” (100). But at the height of the Black Power and Black Arts era, Bureau practices extended beyond the acquisition of knowledge and even beyond duplicitous, state-sponsored violence. None of these tactics satisfied what Maxwell contends was Hoover’s and the FBI’s “hunger to speak the foe’s literary language” (113). And so the Bureau undertook a kind of twisted ghostwriting, which Maxwell aptly calls “blackface minstrelsy’s literary afterlife” (4). By appropriating and adulterating “Black Nationalist vernaculars,” Maxwell explains, “[d]ozens of G-Men stole time from the turmoil of the late 1960s and early 1970s to counterfeit … hundreds of poems, letters, comics, political platforms, and at least one entire newspaper” (113). In pen-mightier-than-sword fashion, this phony genre not only garnered clout for “Hooverite antiradicalism inside FBI headquarters,” Maxwell argues, but for much of the twentieth century it also posed a genuine threat to literary expression and to social justice (124).
F.B. Eyes is more than just a historical laundry list of the FBI’s racist practices. Perhaps two of its most compelling assertions are these: first, that the power of Hoover’s FBI was tied directly to his ruthless agenda of containment for African American literature and its writers and, second, that the success of this agenda was tied directly to the “model citizen’s” willingness to see Hoover as a literary as well as a moral authority. Maxwell illustrates just how effectively the Bureau was able to couple racism with anti-Communism in the minds of midcentury white Americans and just how easily author and speaker could be elided so that any attempt at creative criticism of the Man automatically meant the author was guilty of at least literary treason. Hoover’s attack on African American literature happened with the aid of the 1940 Smith Act, which made it criminal merely to express antigovernment sentiments. It also happened right under the nose of the academy. F.B. Eyes is an important reminder that the study of American literature...