Invisible Men

The Federal Bureau of Investigation used stink bombs against the Black Panthers. I know, right? Stop the presses! But it’s still a mildly disquieting hoot to come across this disclosure, mentioned offhandedly by William J. Maxwell in F.B. Eyes. Operation Stink Bomb (as it most certainly would not have been called) was just one of many acts of domestic spying perpetrated under the bureau’s notorious COINTELPRO program of the ’60s and ’70s, which sought to infiltrate and discredit, by any means necessary, the era’s burgeoning left-leaning protest movements. Citing congressional testimony, Maxwell writes that COINTELPRO agents “conspired to douse the offices of the Black Panther Party paper with a quart of solution ‘capable of duplicating a scent of the most foul smelling feces available.’”

Such witless vandalism seems puny when measured against the FBI’s more elaborate, indeed baroque harassment of black citizens. Nevertheless, the episode provides a useful metaphor for the subject of Maxwell’s study: the bureau’s obsessive-compulsive attempt to find some stink in—or, failing that, apply it to—African Americans’ efforts to assert their artistic and political independence for most of the past century. At times, this campaign was crude and confrontational. Federal agents confiscated W. E. B. Du Bois’s and Paul Robeson’s passports; FBI assistant director William C. Sullivan wrote an anonymous poison-pen letter, in faux black-speak, urging Martin Luther King Jr. to commit suicide before accepting his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize.

As with the most intriguing stories of intrigue, there are layers beneath layers, contexts within contexts emerging throughout this chronicle of the bureau’s hostility toward black progressivism—or, as Maxwell terms it, “Afro-modernism.” An associate professor of English and African American studies at Washington University, Maxwell reinvents the familiar saga of the FBI’s investigation and harassment of minorities less as a one-sided boondoggle than as a complex, often mutually perverse transaction between warring sensibilities. F.B. Eyes suggests, among other things, that in its zealous (and unfounded) pursuit of government subversion in black writers from Claude McKay and Langston Hughes to Lorraine Hansberry and James Baldwin, the FBI, under J. Edgar Hoover’s leadership, took African American literature far more seriously than Edmund Wilson, Gore Vidal, and many other significant white professional book readers of the same era ever did.

Take a peek at Maxwell’s appendix: It furnishes a who’s who of prominent black writers whose FBI files he obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. Some, such as Arna Bontemps, Jean Toomer, and Toni Cade Bambara, have no records, while others, such as Robert “Iceberg Slim” Beck, Alain Locke, and Addison Gayle Jr., may have had files that were subsequently destroyed or have gone missing. Then you have a list of ascending numbers, including Georgia Douglas Johnson’s fairly modest file (six pages) and those of Alice Childress (twenty-seven), Chester Himes (ninety-five), Sterling Brown (104), and George S. Schuyler (169), all the way to those of Richard Wright (244), Hughes (553), Amiri Baraka (“approx. 700–800”), Hansberry (1,020), and Baldwin (a jaw-dropping 1,884). Consider that nowhere in the more than 1,300 pages of social, political, and literary opinion in Vidal’s United States: Essays 1952–1992 is there a single piece about an African American writer (or politician, or activist, or historical personage of any kind whatsoever), and you begin to wonder whether Hoover’s FBI was, by comparison, paying black artists a backhanded compliment by evincing such ravenous interest in their work and extracurricular political pursuits. Malign intent trumps benign neglect, at least in Maxwell’s argument.

Vidal, by the way, is quoted early in F.B. Eyes retelling rumors he heard growing up in Depression-era Washington, DC, that Hoover was “mulatto” and that he “came from a family that had ‘passed.’” Maxwell opens the door to other, similar speculations as a means of asking whether the racial animus of America’s number-one G-man was somehow related to a denial of his own alleged genetic makeup. “Short of a posthumous DNA test,” Maxwell concedes, we’ll never know whether “Hoover should thus be added to the list of eminent African American public servants.” But because his book is more an exercise in literary theory than sociopolitical history, Maxwell is content to let unsubstantiated folklore filter through the narrative, the better to enhance the whiff of irony emanating from Hoover’s Javert-like pursuit of treasonous intent in Afro-modernism.

F.B. Eyes dates this pursuit to 1919, when Hoover first started working at the bureau. Later that same year, a twenty-six-page “narrative” titled “Radicalism and Sedition among the Negroes as Reflected in Their Publications” was published by the federal government. Denounced at the time by the African American magazine The Messenger as “vicious, reactionary and race prejudiced,” the pamphlet represents, for Maxwell, “the American state’s earliest acknowledgment of the Harlem Renaissance” and “a seminal document of African Americanist criticism produced from any quarter.” The signal contributions of this document, by Maxwell’s lights, include its identification of Claude McKay’s fire-breathing sonnet from that same year, “If We Must Die,” as emblematic of the “New Negro militancy,” an allusion to the wave of protests arising from black American participation in World War I and the “Red Summer” of 1919, a conflagration of deadly race riots in major American cities.

McKay, the first black writer to have an FBI dossier (his file begins in 1921, according to the appendix), led a long and illustrious parade of African American authors whose work was scrutinized by what Maxwell terms, in his subtitle and throughout his text, “ghostreaders”—or, if you prefer, a federally sanctioned literary tribunal charged with spying on the collective Afro-modernist mind.

The forty-plus-year game of cat and mouse that ensued between the bureau and black literature led both into some very weird areas. Some are long familiar to students of black letters and federal “intelligence”—for example, the “digests” of recorded wiretaps of Baldwin’s phones. Others are as eccentric, and revealing, as the stink-bomb assault on the Panthers’ newspaper offices. Chief among this latter group are documents displaying what Maxwell describes as the “high and low state ministrelsy” practiced by federal agents to simulate and, in some cases, exaggerate black-militant speech. An underground paper, “cutely titled” Blackboard, was entirely fabricated by federal agents and falsely attributed to black students at Southern Illinois University.

The precedents for such mischief were set by two Hoover lieutenants in particular: the southern-born Robert Adger Bowen, whose efforts to write bureau-sanctioned works of fiction with black dialect made him both respectful and envious of the Afro-modernists he was monitoring; and the aforementioned Sullivan, “a voracious race-reader” who found an outlet for his thwarted literary ambitions in composing the “suicide letter” to King in the patois of a violently aggrieved black man.

Maxwell’s outrage at such wretched excesses is qualified by his grudging admiration for the ghostreaders’ close and at times even sympathetic interpretations of their quarries’ works. An unnamed Philadelphia G-man, assigned in 1959 to probe a preview performance of Hansberry’s family drama A Raisin in the Sun for evidence of communist influence, instead submitted what survives in Hansberry’s dossier as a “perceptive and even-tempered four-page review” of the play, emphasizing its thematic concerns with “negro aspirations.”

How did the subjects of the bureau’s scrutiny respond? Directly, fatalistically, and resourcefully, for the most part. Richard Wright, less known for his poetry than for his visionary works of fiction (Native Son) and memoir (Black Boy), wrote a blues ballad, “The FB Eye Blues,” that gives Maxwell’s book its title (“Woke up this morning / FB eye under my bed / Said I woke up this morning / FB eye under my bed / Told me all I dreamed last night, every word I said”). Though Wright’s experiences with federal agents, even after he’d expatriated himself to Paris in 1947, proved less and less funny, his poem remains a template for a subgenre of African American literature that engages, even plays with, government surveillance. Langston Hughes, who started attracting FBI attendees to his poetry readings in the ’40s, after he’d stepped up his antisegregationist writings, used his syndicated newspaper columns featuring the Harlem everyman Jesse B. Simple to hammer away at bureau-influenced white paranoia.

Maxwell mentions whole sections deleted from the original draft of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man that deal satirically and surrealistically with the possibilities of working as a double agent on either side of the FBI–Afro-modernist cold war. (Ellison’s own FBI file weighs in at roughly fifty pages.) Novels by Chester Himes (A Case of Rape), William Gardner Smith (The Stone Face), and John A. Williams (The Man Who Cried I Am) engage more directly, if just as sardonically, with cloak-and-dagger depredations of black artists, though Wright’s unpublished contribution to this subgenre, a roman à clef of black Americans in Paris titled Island of Hallucination, which he completed a year before his untimely death in 1960, seems most intriguing of all.

One is left at the end of F.B. Eyes feeling as divided as the dubious legacy kicked up by the sordid activities it chronicles. (It doesn’t help that the reader has to crawl through thick, swirling waves of academic jargon and is mugged along the way by words such as ambiguated and characterological.) On the one hand, the book’s fresh perspective on the FBI’s fitful tango with both its targets and its own intentions gives twenty-first-century artists potentially more daring variations, in the NSA age, on the arch replies of Wright, Ellison, Hughes, et al., to the spies. But that prospect can never neutralize the queasy, infuriating sense of so much officially sanctioned energy-squandering on generations of writers who wanted little more than to be taken more seriously than their ancestors. The arrogance and racism of Hoover and his ghostreaders clearly outweighed whatever conscientious attention they gave to African American writers. The lurid and revealing testimony collected in F.B. Eyes calls to mind the sage counsel offered by John le Carré’s fictitious traitor in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: Secret services, he explains, are “the only real measure of a nation’s political health, the only real expression of the subconscious.”

Gene Seymour has published articles about jazz, film, and other necessary distractions in the Los Angeles Times, The Nation, and on CNN.com. He lives in Philadelphia and is working on a collection of essays.