In her 1972 poem “I Laughed When I Wrote It,” Nikki Giovanni describes receiving a visit from two readers of her work. They note that her cultural stock is rising and tell her that they have some suggestions for how to use her newfound visibility. In short: less radicalism, more patriotism.
It would be a patriotic gesture if you’d quit saying
you love rap brown and if you’d maybe give us some
on what some of your friends are doing
Giovanni’s visitors are FBI agents, and her response is curt: “fuck you.” Later, when two undercover CIA agents come around with similar suggestions, she treats them to a “loud, stinky fart.”
In F.B. Eyes, the literary historian William Maxwell situates this joyfully irreverent poem within a long tradition of black literature marked by awareness of FBI scrutiny. The bureau under Hoover, he writes, was “perhaps the most dedicated and influential forgotten critic of African American literature.” Black writers had some sense of this; as a result, a “deep and characteristic vein” of black literature during Hoover’s tenure and beyond was produced in response to what the authors knew—or half-knew, or suspected—about FBI scrutiny of their life and work. Maxwell’s claim is overstated, I think, but this doesn’t make the patchwork story that emerges (albeit slowly, and needlessly encumbered by academic prose) any less fascinating.
Like so many sagas of Hoover’s FBI, this one has its roots in the preoccupations and manias of Hoover himself. The longtime bureau director had a paranoid vision of literature that was simultaneously reverential and disdainful. He took it as a given that the written word had the ability to sway the national consciousness. (Can the same be said of today’s NSA analysts?) But this respect stemmed, paradoxically, from scorn for both readers and writers, most all of whom he saw as easily swayed dupes. Modernist writers in particular, with their taste for novelty and sensation, were ideal “Communist thought-control relay stations.” For a writer to get an FBI file, he or she didn’t have to be plausibly suspected of anything criminal. All it took was writing something that Hoover thought smelled funny.
Black writers were doubly suspicious. Hoover had no doubt that blacks were dumber than whites, and so particularly susceptible to brainwashing by wily Communists promising them racial equality. Under his direction, FBI agents not only snooped on black writers’ lives, but also combed their works for proof of radical thinking. They read novels, poems, and journalism by black writers; attended plays by black playwrights; and sat in on black writing and art workshops. When A Raisin in the Sun opened in Philadelphia in 1959, an agent was sent to watch it. When the Black Arts anthology Black Fire was released in 1968, the bureau’s associate director wrote a review. When Harold Cruse lectured at the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School in Harlem in 1965, honing the arguments that would become The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, two agency moles sat in the audience taking notes. As if intuiting this fact, concerned citizens would often write to Hoover asking what they should think of, say, Langston Hughes or LeRoi Jones. Were they troublemakers?