- African Americans against the Bomb: Nuclear Weapons, Colonialism, and the Black Freedom Movement by Vincent J. Intondi, and: F. B. Eyes: How J. Edgar Hoover’s Ghostreaders Framed African American Literature by William J. Maxwell
Two recent books remind us—in case we need reminding—that the relationship between African Americans and the U. S. state in the twentieth century was by no means confined to the standard heroic narrative of the struggle for civil rights and fuller inclusion in the American body politic. In African Americans against the Bomb, Vincent Intondi, examining the role played by African Americans in the movement for nuclear disarmament, portrays them as the conscience of the nation as they linked the black freedom struggle in the United States to global efforts to ensure the survival of life on the planet. William Maxwell’s F. B. Eyes takes a far more sardonic view of the connection between African Americans and the state. In his telling, from the Harlem Renaissance until late in the twentieth century, African American writers were subjected to intense surveillance and, frequently, state coercion, confirming Richard Wright’s wry joke that any African American “who is not paranoid is in serious shape” (179). In Intondi’s book, the state is on the right side of history, and black Americans supply its moral compass; in Maxwell’s, the state consistently violates the rights of those writers of African descent who would dare to question the morality and logic of the status quo.
Intondi situates his study in the “new scholarship … of the past two decades” that, by emphasizing “the black freedom struggle’s international dimensions … challenges the idea that [it] was an isolated movement in a narrowly defined set of years” (2-3). He proposes to remedy a key blind spot in this narrative, however, by directing attention to the role played by African Americans in the fight for nuclear disarmament. From the impassioned antiracist response of Langston Hughes to the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he proposes, through the participation of black Americans in the Stockholm Peace Appeal (1950), the Bandung Conference (1955), the Sahara Project (1959), the Walk for Disarmament (1976), the massive 1982 antinuclear weapons rally in New York’s Central Park, and culminating in then-presidential candidate Barack Obama’s 2008 pledge to try to rid the world of nuclear weapons, African American artists, politicians, and activists have insistently linked the fight against racism in the United States to the universal need of all people to live free from the threat of nuclear annihilation.
Intondi’s narrative contains a number of useful insights into black political debates from midcentury onward, as well as an expanded portrait of their participants. Figures well known for their anticolonial internationalism, such as W. E. B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson, are given their due; but figures less prominent in the familiar narrative—several of them women, such as Eslanda Robeson, Erna Harris, Lorraine Hansberry, and Coretta Scott King (67-72)—reveal the wide-ranging commitment to nuclear disarmament embraced by many well-known African Americans. At times Intondi’s enumeration of the people involved in the peace movement—whether political figures such as Bayard Rustin, Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson, and Harold [End Page 215] Washington, or entertainers and artists, from Sidney Poitier to Lena Horne to Ruby Dee—sounds like a Who’s Who of Black America.
Intondi by no means passes over political differences, however, noting the extent to which anticommunism motivated NAACP leaders like Walter White and Roy Wilkins to keep at arm’s length the left-affiliated activists in the Ban the Bomb campaign—even to the point, indeed, of supporting the government’s designation of Du Bois as the agent of a foreign power. While noting the steadfast commitment of African American activists to linking nuclear disarmament with the fight against racism in the United States...