The Guilty Pleasures of the F.B.I: Lorraine Hansberry and James Baldwin
by Aija Oksman
Ever since the early-twentieth century, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) considered writers (novelists and journalists alike) to have occupied a unique position from which they could influence readers and thus potentially spread subversive ideas. Writers became some of the most targeted individuals in the FBI’s war against propaganda, especially after J. Edgar Hoover became the Director. Hoover’s appointment re-aligned the Bureau’s modus operandi in multitude of ways but especially in how and why Black writers were being investigated, intimidated, and their works infiltrated – which are the considerations most pertinent to this paper and the author’s on-going overall research. Agents would be assigned to ghostread and provide reports to the Director and relevant field agencies in order to analyze whether the writings would include any potentially subversive propaganda, such as subliminal Communist Party messages or inciting unrest regarding the Race Question.
Despite orders from the Director, however, to find condemnable content within the writings of Black authors, the agents would often find recommendable attributes – and thus they expressed their pleasure in reading/witnessing Black texts. Nonetheless, they were expected to provide reports and investigate the subjects as per the Bureau’s (more likely, the Director’s) standards, which is why alongside reviews and reports there are recommendations and warnings as to whether or not to approach these subjects – for fear of embarrassment for the Bureau due to the popularity (deemed notoriety by the reporting agents) of these writers.
Therefore, through a short overview of the history of the FBI’s (and its longtime Director’s) delusive interference with, interpretation of, and fascination with Black literature, this article will examine two authors, Lorraine Hansberry and James Baldwin, whose texts impressed the ghost-reading agents so much, they included positive reviews of these texts in the FBI files of the two authors.
Hoover, the FBI, and being Black and subversive in America
Edgar Hoover served as the director of The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) from 1924 to his death at the peak of the Black Arts movement in 1972. He exhibited suspicion and scrutiny for Black America since the early days of his career, starting while he was the head of the Radical Division. For example, the division produced a 1919 report titled “‘Radicalism and Sedition among the Negroes as Reflected in Their Publications’ [which] cemented […] Hoover’s newly minted anticommunism to the FBI’s [already] established Negrophobia.” (Maxwell 2015: 225) Communism became another way to rationalize racism and to institutionalize the way the government and the Bureau approached Black struggles and the affiliated individuals. Tim Weiner, author of Enemies: The History of the FBI, recalls Hoover’s biography as a man who
had been born in nineteenth-century Washington, D.C., a southern city that stayed segregated throughout most of the twentieth century. In his world, [African-Americans] knew their place: they were servants, valets, and shoeshine boys. […] He presided over an Anglo-Saxon America, and he aimed to preserve and defend it. (Maxwell 2015: 198)
The majority of existing FBI files on Black writers were opened in the 1940s, their number exponentially increasing after World War II. The (by now released) pages on a multitude of writers extend to the hundreds, in some cases even thousands, with numerous pages redacted and/or blackened out. To name but a few prominent writers, James Baldwin’s file is 1,884 pages long, Lorraine Hansberry’s 1,052, Claudia Jones’s 882, Louise Thompson Patterson’s 921, and Richard Wright’s only 244. Shirley Graham Du Bois’s file extended even beyond her famous husband’s – Shirley’s 1,068 pages to W.E.B’s 756 pages. Such disparity between male and female authors’ the file sizes, especially a husband-and-wife pair, was not the norm but an exception and would merit much more research beyond the scope of this article. There are potentially still files on Black authors not yet released under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) – such as the file of Eslanda Goode Robeson, whose file was requested in 2019 and which the archivist confirmed to exceed 2,500 pages. (Email to author on July 1, 2019)
Most of these pages in the authors’ files contain trivia and are trivial: news clippings, repetitive long summary reports, and back-and-forths between the director and various field offices of the Bureau. However, each served a purpose: to build a case against the individual as a threat to the nation and American values. William J. Maxwell, author of F.B. Eyes: How J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI Framed African American Literature, explains how most FBI files are a
mixed bag of memos, letters, and [magazine] clippings […] more than [they are] espionage reports and the less interesting paperwork of a massive police bureaucracy. It also included outbursts of literary critical prose […] (Email to author on July 1, 2019)
In other words, the FBI files on authors read in large parts as disjointed pages, almost like scrapbooks, similar to those made by obsessed celebrity fans. The main objective was to establish, either by proof or by interpretive action, how potentially subversive the writers production was and what action would need to be taken in order to avoid such texts reaching audiences. Sometimes these actions meant interjecting publishing, minstrelling reviews by pretending to be a member of Black community or correspondence in order to intimidate the writer, including adding the writers to security indexes and/or establishing surveillance in order to capture the writer in salacious company, such as attending Communist Party meetings. But sometimes, the agent assigned to ghostread a text (be it a play, book or article) would find themselves in agreement with the objective of the text, commending its literary merit and/or promptly denying it carried propaganda. These are what I label their guilty pleasures.
The guilty pleasures of the FBI did not merely mean positive reviews or adulatory commentary. It is more the attitude of a reporting agent which can be deciphered through their use of language, such as instead of calling the writers they are reporting on “subjects” they are referred to as “authors”. Curiously, more often we see women writers referred to as “subjects” in their files, rather than as “authors,” which can be considered reflective of the misogyny within the Bureau. As detailed by Natalie Robins, author of Alien Ink: The FBI’s War on Freedom of Expression, noted how “women, no matter how powerful or helpful to the FBI, just didn’t count as much.” (Robins 1992: 121) This perception has been echoed by a professor of Black Studies and the FBI, who once told me there isn’t much material on female Black writers because the women were not as interesting to the FBI and therefore there was not much there to investigate – a consideration which is automatically refuted when the FBI files of the women are perused. Such a perception makes the files of most investigated women (such as Lorraine Hansberry, Shirley Graham Du Bois, Claudia Jones) that much more compelling, considering how the perspective of the investigation into the lives and careers of these women was focused on establishing their Communist affiliations as much as it was focused on their attitudes and activism for Civil Rights and women’s rights that was threatening the white patriarchal status quo.
The FBI Reviews Lorraine Hansberry and James Baldwin
William Sullivan, once the director of the FBI’s domestic intelligence division, related in later years how
[Hoover] had a great long list of hates [but mostly he] hated ideologies more than individuals, pressure groups more than people; above all, Hoover hated threats to the stability of the American political system, and anyone who might personify that danger was an enemy for life. (Weiner 2012: 199)
One such personification was Lorraine Hansberry, who first came to the FBI’s attention due to her attendance at the Montevideo Peace Conference in 1952, which triggered her massive file that continued until her death in 1965. Thus, being established as a radical by the FBI, Hoover sent an agent to review her new play, A Raisin in the Sun, prior to its release on Broadway in March 1959. As Imani Perry, who wrote the recent biography Looking for Lorraine recalls, at “only twenty-eight years old, [Hansberry] was already […] an imposing presence and powerful intellect [and] the theater world was forced to reckon with her,” (Perry 2018: 98) as was the FBI. As part of the developing containment culture, Hoover directed his agent to determine whether Lorraine’s play was communist in content, hoping to find grounds to censor the play, block its path, and blemish the reputation of the playwright. Also, because “case files existed on several individuals connected with the production […]”, the play faced a trial by affiliation. (F.B. Eyes Digital Archive “Lorraine Hansberry”: 10)
The FBI’s ghostreader would have been acutely aware of what the director wanted the review to encompass. Therefore, it is a carefully crafted review that aimed to appease the Director despite its rather adulatory tone. In the review, the agent sticks to the facts and details, and is genuine and appears to be free of prejudice, even commenting on the audience’s positive reactions to the performance. The review also provides an interpretation of the characters’ development worthy of an academic essay. The ghostreader of the review immediately confirms that the “play contains no comments of any nature about Communism as such but deals essentially with negro aspirations [namely] the problems inherent in their efforts to advance themselves […]”. (F.B. Eyes Digital Archive “Lorraine Hansberry”: 2) Furthermore, it is evident from the length (5 pages) and tone of the review that the ghostreader enjoyed the play. (F.B. Eyes Digital Archive “Lorraine Hansberry”: 3) Mostly, the ghostreader remains impartial in his report, describing the play as it is, why it seems to be appreciated by audiences, white and black alike, and where “relatively few appeared to dwell on the propaganda messages.” (F.B. Eyes Digital Archive “Lorraine Hansberry”: 4)
As the play became wildly popular, the Bureau’s tactics of investigation and interference became more apprehensive. Ultimately, they were forced to concede to not interview or approach Hansberry directly as
the subject and her play […] received considerable notoriety almost daily in the [New York] press [and] it [wa]s felt that an interview […] would be inadvisable […] since the possibility exist[ed] that the Bureau could be placed in an embarrassing position if it came known to the press that the Bureau was investigating the subject and/or the play. (F.B. Eyes Digital Archive “Lorraine Hansberry”: 30)
Not only were agents deterred from approaching Hansberry, they also found attempts to interview James Baldwin could similarly lead to considerable embarrassment for the Bureau.
Despite the prominence of James Baldwin in activism and literary scenes, and the intense scrutiny the FBI extolled upon him, the FBI never directly interrogated him. A report in Baldwin’s file, dated December 18, 1963, notes that “the subject’s outspoken stand in the civil rights issue, his current prominence as an author, and the inflammatory nature of his writings, show him to be [a] dangerous individual […]”. (F.B. Eyes Digital Archive “James Baldwin”: 36) The same report confirms the subject is not to be interviewed, “because […] his position as a prominent Negro author and his personal involvement in the current civil rights struggle […] indicate […] that an attempt to interview him could prove highly embarrassing […]”. (F.B. Eyes Digital Archive “James Baldwin”: 36) The FBI therefore refrained from taking such action. Hoover would nonetheless request regular updates and had his agents continue their investigations. Baldwin was also known to make inflammatory statements directly against Hoover, the Bureau, as well as the whole U.S. government and its leading figures. A memorandum dated May 29, 1963, notes Baldwin as having stated:
Mr. Hoover is not a law giver, nor is there any reason to suppose him to be a particularly profound student of human nature […] it is appalling that in this capacity he not only opposed the trend of history among civilized nations but uses his enormous power and prestige to corroborate the blindest and basest instincts of the retaliatory mob. (FBI Vault “James Baldwin”: 5)
Despite such seemingly mutual animosity between the Bureau and Baldwin, the author still won admirers for his works among FBI agents. An agent, tasked to review and report on Baldwin’s book Another Country (1962), wrote that the novel “contains literary merit and may be of value to students of psychology and social behavior. There is no basis for investigation.” (Maxwell 2017: 152) To bolster his blurb-worthy statement, the report is preceded by laudatory reviews from newspapers. Additionally, the novel was also deemed to have a redeeming social importance as per the 1957 Roth vs. United States ruling, and the Justice Department considered it to be “too well written to be obscene.” (Maxwell 2017: 146) Ultimately, Hoover and the Bureau considered Baldwin to be “fundamentally wrongheaded but too fluently expressive to ignore,” as it was Baldwin’s eloquence and ferocity that was growing his popularity faster than the Bureau could keep up. (Maxwell 2017: 141)
The ultimate aim of the FBI’s literary patrolling was to scout out “threats to the health of the state [and especially] the FBI’s reputation […]”, (Maxwell 2017: 174) and instead there are moments in the FBI files of authors, such as the here explored Lorraine Hansberry’s and James Baldwin’s, that are worthy of literary scholarship. These guilty pleasure reviews by the agents make these files that much more compelling. Lorraine Hansberry was threatening to the status quo that Hoover had sworn to uphold, and the unabashedly antagonistic outspokenness and writing baited James Baldwin to be “never forgotten or forgiven by the Bureau” and its director. (Maxwell 2017: 115)
About the Author
Aija Oksman is a PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh, an undergraduate tutor in English and Scottish literature as well as a book reviews editor with U.S. Studies Online. Aija’s academic background is minority and marginalized literatures and writers with her current main research focused on the counterliterary relationships between women writers and government bureaus such as the FBI where her work contributes to the history/scholarship of censorship and censorship law. Aija is also working on a project on modes self-representation as a form of radical activism.
Get in touch:
 “Poring over novels, stories, essays, poems, and plays as well as political commentary ad intercepted correspondence, the FBI acted as a kind of half-buried readers’ bureau with aboveground making of black art. The “G” in the Bureau’s iconic “G-man,” […] stood not just for “government,” but also for what I call “ghostreading,” a duplicitous interpretive enterprise that, like ghostwriting, might be grasped through its effects if not always caught in the act.” (Maxwell 5)
 Also known as the General Intelligence Division. In 1908, President Roosevelt had urged Attorney General (AG) Charles Bonaparte to organize a new, autonomous investigative service that would be directly answerable to the AG.
 Who himself was notorious for Black writing minstrelsy to a degree that ultimately got him fired from the Bureau in 1971 – in an act of counterliterary, Sullivan wrote a letter to Martin Luther King Jr., imposing as a displeased Black civil rights proponent displeased with King’s activities and advising King that “there is but one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation.” (quoted in Maxwell 2)
“James Baldwin,” “F.B. Eyes Digital Archive: FBI Files on African American Authors and Literary Institutions Obtained Through the U.S. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA),” Part 8. http://omeka.wustl.edu/omeka/exhibits/show/fbeyes/baldwin
“James Baldwin.” FBI Records: The Vault. https://vault.fbi.gov/james-baldwin
“Lorraine Hansberry,” “F.B. Eyes Digital Archive: FBI Files on African American Authors and Literary Institutions Obtained Through the U.S. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA),” Part 4. http://omeka.wustl.edu/omeka/exhibits/show/fbeyes/hansberry
Maxwell, William J. F.B. Eyes: How J. Edgar Hoover’s Ghostreaders Framed African American Literature. (Princeton University Press: 2015)
Maxwell, William J. James Baldwin: The FBI File. (Arcade: 2017)
Maxwell, William J. “Email to article’s author.” Jul 1, 2019.
Robins, Natalie. Alien Ink: The FBI’s War on Freedom of Expression. (William Morrow and Company: 1992)
Weiner, Tim. Enemies: The History of the FBI. (Allen Lane: 2012)