New Day Jazz

Justin Desmangles

Joining me this afternoon, in the 5 o'clock hour, William J. Maxwell, author of F.B. Eyes: How J. Edgar Hoover's Ghostreaders Framed African American Literature. Tune in for what promises to be a vital, provocative discussion of this immensely important new book. 

"According to the Bureau's own declassified word, Hoover and many lesser FBI ghostreaders pored over scores of Afro-modernist poems, plays, stories, novels, essays, and reviews - some even before publication with the aid of bookish informers at magazines and publishing firms. Alarmingly, the files divulge that the FBI readied preventive arrests of the majority of the black authors shadowed in its archive. Twenty-seven of fifty-one were caught in the invisible dragnet of the Bureau's 'Custodial Detention' index and its successors, hot lists of precaptives 'whose presence at liberty in this country in time of war or national emergency,' Hoover resolved, 'would be dangerous to the public peace and the safety of the United States Government' (Hoover, Directive 409). By the time the Black Panthers and Black Power, Hoover's literary-critical G-men style of state minstrelsy bent to counterintelligence purposes of simulation, infiltration, and plausibly deniable manipulation. The early and creative intensity of the Bureau's watch on black literature has been unknowingly minimized, the files collectively suggest, both in literary studies and in recent historical exposes harnessing FOIA requests to uncover either the Bureau's 'war on words' or its 'secret file on black America,' parallel tracks that should acknowledge their parallel underground crossings. The backdating and thick description of FBI surveillance of legal dissent, a muckracking preoccupation since Hoover's passing, is thus due for extension into the field of African American literary history. And the Bureau's peculiar contributions to this history are due at least a moment of national self-reflection. Even now, when it takes massive NSA 'data mining' to excite resistance to the surveillance of daily life, it is not just an academic matter that U.S. state intelligence essentially arranged to jail the African American literary tradition at mid-century. Well before the labeling of the prison-industrial complex, the republic of black letters joined black urban communities as an exceptional zone of police supervision." ~ William J. Maxwell, F.B. Eyes: How J. Edgar Hoover's Ghostreaders Framed African American Literature 

Few institutions seem more opposed than African American literature and J. Edgar Hoover’s white-bread Federal Bureau of Investigation. But behind the scenes the FBI’s hostility to black protest was energized by fear of and respect for black writing. Drawing on nearly 14,000 pages of newly released FBI files, F.B. Eyes exposes the Bureau’s intimate policing of five decades of African American poems, plays, essays, and novels. Starting in 1919, year one of Harlem’s renaissance and Hoover’s career at the Bureau, secretive FBI “ghostreaders” monitored the latest developments in African American letters. By the time of Hoover’s death in 1972, these ghostreaders knew enough to simulate a sinister black literature of their own. The official aim behind the Bureau’s close reading was to anticipate political unrest. Yet, as William J. Maxwell reveals, FBI surveillance came to influence the creation and public reception of African American literature in the heart of the twentieth century.

Taking his title from Richard Wright’s poem “The FB Eye Blues,” Maxwell details how the FBI threatened the international travels of African American writers and prepared to jail dozens of them in times of national emergency. All the same, he shows that the Bureau’s paranoid style could prompt insightful criticism from Hoover’s ghostreaders and creative replies from their literary targets. For authors such as Claude McKay, James Baldwin, and Sonia Sanchez, the suspicion that government spy-critics tracked their every word inspired rewarding stylistic experiments as well as disabling self-censorship.

Illuminating both the serious harms of state surveillance and the ways in which imaginative writing can withstand and exploit it, F.B. Eyes is a groundbreaking account of a long-hidden dimension of African American literature.

William J. Maxwell is associate professor of English and African American studies at Washington University in St. Louis. He is the author of New Negro, Old Left: African-American Writing and Communism between the Wars and the editor of Claude McKay’s Complete Poems.

 

"[An] immensely important story about the black authors that we thought we knew, from the 'notorious negro revolutionary' Claude McKay to the Black Arts poet Sonia Sanchez. . . . [A] welcome model for seeing state interference in culture as a two-way street."--Los Angeles Review of Books

"[A] bold, provocative study. . . . Maxwell's passion for the subject spills onto every page of his detailed, persuasive documentation that 'the FBI [was] an institution tightly knit (not consensually) to African-American literature.'"--Publishers Weekly (a Publishers Weekly pick of the week)

"[S]tartling. . . . Much of what Maxwell has discovered . . . paints a sobering picture of state-sanctioned repression and harassment over decades. It's a tribute to the strength of the panoply of FBI-targeted writers, intellectuals and leaders that they, for the most part, toughed it out and remain with us today as a fundamental part of the fabric of American history and letters."--Repps Hudson, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

"[T]his well-researched volume illustrates the paranoia and self-censorship that altered the course of African American literature for decades as a result of the bureau's surveillance. This scholarly work will appeal to academic readers with a particular interest in African American literature or the FBI."--Library Journal 

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Sunday 2/15/2015 @ 3:00PM - 6:00PM
ArtistSongAlbumLabelComments
John Coltrane Lush Life Lush Life Prestige
Thelonious Monk Epistrophy Monk's Music Riverside
Billie Holiday Cheek to Cheek All or Nothing at All Verve
Airbreak
Billie Holiday Love Me or Leave Me Lady Sings the Blues Verve
Billie Holiday Too Marvelous for Words Lady Sings the Blues Verve
Nina Simone Lilac Wine Wild is the Wind Philips
Charles Mingus West Coast Ghost East Coasting Bethlehem
Bill Evans Trio When I Fall in Love Portrait in Jazz Riverside
Michel Legrand featuring Miles Davis Wild Man Blues Legrand Jazz Columbia
Michel Legrand featuring Miles Davis Django Legrand Jazz Columbia
Airbreak
Sonny Rollins Come, Gone Way Out West Contemporary
Joe Henderson Blue Bossa Page One Blue Note
Hank Mobley Message from the Border Mobley's Second Message Prestige
Thelonious Monk Liza (All the Clouds'll Roll Away) The Unique Thelonious Monk Riverside
Airbreak
Roscoe Mitchell and the Sound Ensemble 3 X 4 Eye 3 X 4 Eye Black Saint
Interview with William J. Maxwell by Justin Desmangles Interview with William J. Maxwell by Justin Desmangles Interview with William J. Maxwell by Justin Desmangles Interview with William J. Maxwell by Justin Desmangles
Miles Davis Quintet Budo Facets CBS-France