The FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover-era surveillance of so-called dissidents—a motley assembly of Soviet sympathizers, anti-war activists and civil rights leaders—has been well documented since the 1970s. But [Claude] McKay was the first, though hardly the last, of one Hoover-tracked subculture that has received less attention: black writers, including some of the most celebrated names in American letters. In the heart of the 20th century, beginning decades before the FBI’s campaign against Martin Luther King Jr., the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and, later, the Black Panthers, dozens of allegedly subversive African-American poets, novelists, essayists and playwrights were distinct targets of the agency, whose surveillance of this group was thorough, far-reaching and sometimes ruthless.
The extensive scope of this surveillance is only now coming into focus, thanks to the U.S. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Building on the detective work of prior researchers who discovered files on the likes of James Baldwin, Langston Hughes and Richard Wright […]
Alarmingly, the disclosed files reveal that the FBI prepared preventive arrests of most of the names dropped above, and altogether more than half of the black authors stalked in its archive. Twenty-seven of 51, accused of communism and related extremisms, were caught in the invisible dragnet of the agency’s “Custodial Detention” index and its successors—hot lists of pre-captives “whose presence at liberty in this country in time of war or national emergency,” Hoover resolved in 1939, “would be dangerous to the public peace and the safety of the United States Government.”