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  • Dark Mirror: African Americans and the Federal Writers’ Project by J. J. Butts
  • Robin Lucy (bio)
Dark Mirror: African Americans and the Federal Writers’ Project. J. J. Butts. Ohio State UP, 2021. x + 185 pages. $64.95 hardcover; $29.95 PDF.

The first part of the title of J. J. Butts’s impressive and exhaustively researched Dark Mirror: African Americans and the Federal Writers’ Project is taken from the conclusion of Richard Wright’s 12,000,000 Black Voices: A Folk History of the United States (1941). It traces the shifting meaning of this image from a prophetic warning calling for the repudiation of American racism, to the need for mutual struggle during World War II in Wright’s work, to the possibilities of a generative national politics shaped by the continuous presence of Black history in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952). In the New Deal era, the writers of Black intertexts, whether those of the Federal Writers’ Project’s Negro Units’ social histories or their subsequent texts, used Black history as a rhetorical lens to scrutinize the federal government’s declared commitment to a civic pluralism, which included Black citizens and its associated efforts at modernization and the equitable “redistribution of social goods” (33).

Dark Mirror focuses on a group of Black intertexts written by writers “as FWP writers” (165). Their work documented Black urban neighborhoods in the North, with their influx of Southern migrants from the 1930s to the early 1950s. These intertexts used vernacular narrative modes and materials associated with the Black folk as vital records, as vernacular histories, of “difference, inequity or injustice” (16) and as “memories of oppression, struggle, and hope” (19). These forms remained culturally and politically vital in shaping the present. Butts argues that Black intertexts, including Jack Conroy’s collaboration with Arna Bontemps, have been analyzed largely in the context of the influence of the American Communist Party while “the cultural implications of the liberal state as the ascendant state form in the US” (21) have been overlooked. In situating these intertexts primarily in their relationship to the New Deal, and the beginnings of the liberal welfare state, Dark Mirror is a significant contribution to an expanded analysis of the cultural and political complexities and tensions of these works and this era.

Chapter 1 examines how the FWP guidebooks, with their federal authority, were largely “propaganda” (52) for the New Deal and its state-directed [End Page 223] modernization efforts. Chapter 2 demonstrates that the promise of public housing in Black communities was presented in the guides as the most tangible realization of the state’s commitments to national inclusion and access to resources. Subsequent chapters of Dark Mirror show that in most of the Black intertexts, substandard housing remains a concern and the degree of its amelioration an index of New Deal success or failure overall. The guidebooks adopted “a sociological narrative of urban pathology” (47) justifying government intervention in Black neighborhoods while largely ignoring the history of racial inequity and its effects. The design of public housing reflected these perspectives, Butts shows, with its “normative ideas of healthy space” (65). Similarly, chapter 5 shows how gender norms (women stay at home and men are the wage-earners) were built into these projects (134). As Butts argues persuasively, all these assumptions are active in the FWP guidebooks’ “conflation of description and prescription” (52). If civic pluralism ideally included Black citizens, modernization, as a concept, excluded places, people, and cultures not yet incorporated into the emergence of a defined American futurity. In this context, Black culture—associated with Black place—was seen as anachronistic, pre-modern, or, at best, useful only as it was collapsed into the so-called national culture.

While the guides documented vernacular forms as a part of, but largely absorbed into, the New Deal future nation, Butts shows that “they do not offer a means of reworking representation through the vernacular terms they uncovered. Their “lens separates the folk as an object of study from its active role mediating modern culture” (68). Chapter 3, on Zora Neale Hurston’s Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939) and Wright’s 12,000,000, begins the examination of...