October 9, 2013

FB Eyes

American Identities: Episode #6

Everywhere I look, Lord
I see FB eyes
Said every place I look, Lord
I find FB eyes
I'm getting sick and tired of gover'ment spies.

- Richard Wright, excerpt from "The FB Eye Blues" (1949)

When is literature a counterintelligence tool? When is it a means of protest or subversion? Under longtime FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, the written word was recognized as all of these and more, especially in relation to African-American writing.

For decades, African-American writers were under constant FBI surveillance and scrutiny. From the Harlem Renaissance through the Black Power movement, the FBI obsessively read and analyzed black writing, and black writers, who understood that they were being watched, created new works of literature in response.

This bizarre, intertwined relationship culminated in the 1960s, when FBI agents began imitating African-American authors in order to create fraudulent, subversive publications. William J. Maxwell, associate professor of English, documents this unique literary history in his forthcoming book, FB Eyes: How J. Edgar Hoover's Ghostreaders Framed African-American Literature.

 

image From the FBi file of w.e.b. du bois; audio internet archive: cooper-moore; freesound: gjos, tams_kp, temawas; free music archive: poddington bear.