June 22, 2017 – By Neil Cosgrove
During the 1950s and ‘60s FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was something of a folk hero for millions of Americans, a crime-fighting protector of the “American Way,” relentless in his pursuit of both internal and external threats. As a hyper-literate, gay African-American male who was characteristically blunt yet eloquent in his assessments of where Blacks stood in his country’s past and present, James Baldwin looked to Hoover like the embodiment of an internal threat.
Fifty years later, Hoover is a vaguely remembered historical embarrassment, a representative of the repressive fear of dissent and of the marginalized that formed him during and immediately following World War I. Baldwin’s reputation, on the other hand, is definitely ascending. He has captured the awareness and imagination of this moment’s young activists because of his scathing assessments of white fear, guilt and denial, the intersectionality inherent in his position as both black and gay, and the analytical astuteness of his lengthy yet perfectly constructed sentences.
The Oscar-nominated feature-length documentary I Am Not Your Negro, with its screenplay composed entirely of Baldwin’s words as spoken by the actor Samuel L. Jackson, was a surprising box-office hit in Pittsburgh this past winter, with runs in Pittsburgh Filmmakers theatres that lasted for weeks. At the weeknight showing I attended, a line formed outside the theater a half-hour before the box office opened, and the auditorium was standing-room-only when the film began.
Now, St. Louis-based academic William J. Maxwell has published a condensation of Baldwin’s 1,884-page FBI file, including about 100 documents, along with an introduction and explanatory notes that create useful contexts for those documents. James Baldwin: The FBI File was released in late spring and reveals much more about the mindset and methods of J. Edgar Hoover and his bureau than it does about the work and personality of Baldwin himself.
The book answers a reader’s most obvious question: why would our tax-funded Federal Bureau of Investigation expend so much money and manpower monitoring a frail, heavy-smoking and hard-drinking writer, eventually placing Baldwin on its Security Index as someone who would have to be placed in custody in case of a national emergency? Being both black and outspoken appeared to be reason number one. The bureau’s hounding of Martin Luther King, Jr. has been well-documented, but it also kept extensive files on other African-American writers, such as Raisin in the Sun author Lorraine Hansberry and poet Amiri Baraka.
Like many another person of color who came of age during the Great Depression and World War II, Baldwin had socialist leanings, although he was much too intellectually independent to ever be characterized as a Marxist ideologue. Perhaps of greater importance to Hoover was Baldwin’s publicly expressed animosity towards the bureau itself. He complained about its failures to solve the Birmingham church bombing and other cases of violence against the Civil Rights movement in the South. On several occasions he pointed out that the country’s 22 million African-Americans were no longer in a docile mood, and that he himself would not fight for the United States, especially when it came to “liberating” Cuba. He threatened but never produced a long-form critique of the bureau and referred to Hoover after his death as “history’s most highly paid (and most utterly useless) voyeur.”
Besides his penchant for self-promotion, Hoover was highly protective of the government agency he saw as his creation. And then there was the cross-dressing Hoover’s troubled relationship with homosexuality. He once wrote on an internal memo, “Isn’t Baldwin a well-known pervert,” even though, as Maxwell observes, Hoover himself was a partner in “the worst-hidden gay marriage in Washington.”
Working one’s way through the documents is an experience both fascinating and tedious. Tedious because FBI memos tend to be cumulative, incrementally adding information as it was gathered by the bureaucrats involved. Fascinating because the echo chamber of cold-war “threat” awareness is on full display. The bureau partly seemed interested in Baldwin because of his affiliations with people and organizations identified as dangerous to the country (that is, the white establishment part of the country) through a process of aggregated group-think. If some organization was once identified by the House Committee on Un-American Affairs as a “communist front,” then it would be so identified in subsequent FBI memos, no matter what iterations the group had since experienced. And if Hoover or one of his immediate underlings had decided a particular activity was “subversive,” then it would be so characterized in all future correspondence.
Such plodding repetition can be mind-numbing, especially since it represents a mentality that sees no need to reexamine the assumptions behind the labels or to reconsider whether the characterizations were accurate in the first place.
FBI files made public through Freedom of Information Act requests are reminders of how intellectually bereft and anti-democratic a stagnant law enforcement apparatus can be. In Baldwin’s case, we are also reminded of the durability of certain historical truths. Incidentally, Baldwin’s complete file, the nearly 1900 pages of it, is now available at the Internet Archive web site.
Neil Cosgrove is a member of the NewPeople Editorial Collective and the Merton Center board.