For the course, “Blacklisted: African American Writers and the Cold War Politics of Integration, Surveillance, Censorship and Publication,” led by Professors Shelly Eversley, Cathy Davidson and Allison Guess, students self-selected smaller groups centered around particular themes to present over the course of two weeks. Our group (Kashema Hutchinson, Amrit Justin Trewn and Tyler Morse) was comprised of those among us who’d been drawn to the “Editing, Censorship, Rebellion and Incarceration” theme — an expansive list of topics to which the readings we selected were in direct conversation.
For the first week, we wanted to lay a theoretical foundation for the proceeding weeks, especially as we considered what it meant to enter the FBI archive as a class.
– Simone Browne, Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness: Introduction (1-29), Racializing Surveillance (50-62)
– Katherine McKittrick: Freedom is a Secret
– Mary Helen Washington, The Other Blacklist: Introduction
Additionally, we requested that individuals spend some time during the week doing a deep dive into one writer’s FBI file, as archived by William J. Maxwell.
We hoped these texts would provide a framework as we approached together the experience of accessing information about people’s lives, which remained unseen to its subjects and was compiled to enact violences against them, and the ways in which this information and these violences shaped their lives and our understanding of them for years to come. What does it mean for us to have access to this information, and what truths and dominant lies can we pull from the official archive? How do these archives brand, and otherwise mark and leave historical traces on their subjects? What do their own markings, annotations and redactions tell us about where the information lies, and of illusions of access? What portrait do the files present (of both their subjects and the anonymous surevillors), and how might portrait methodology be used to subvert what the official archive writes into history’s ledger? How could methods such as unmapping, getting lost and un/doing temporal-spatial fixity be utilized in our thinking about surveillance and archives? What must be excavated, and what deserves to be buried — and what is the process?
In class, we each presented briefly on one of the texts. As part of her presentation, Kashema created this visual on Alice Childress’s file (to whom Mary Helen Washington dedicates a chapter in The Other Blacklist):
She wrote, “I composed this image of highlighted text from the FBI files on Alice Childress to get a view of how the agency saw her. I also included the portrait done by Alice Neel that depicts her communists ties with the hints of red and a photo of the playwright and activist. The three images together tell part of a story of a complex and committed woman dedicated to the equality of her people.”
After group discussion of the texts, and because the class was a bit small that day (flu reckoning and travel), rather than break out into small groups to discuss people’s individual experience with the files, we looked at them as one group. We pulled up particular files on the projector to consider them together, with Brown, McKittrick and Washington as our guides.
As a postscript, we also noted artists who have worked with the files themselves or the themes of the texts, a few of which are assembled here (alongside some relevant screenshots of the googlebook of Constructing the Black Masculine, by Maurice O. Wallace).
For the second week, we’d assigned Chester Himes’ incredible gay prison novel, Yesterday Will Make You Cry, the 1999 uncensored-version re-release of what was originally published as Cast the First Stone in 1952. Professor Davidson has written about this book’s history and plot, as well as about her suggested pedagogical method for entering the text, “entry tickets,” here. The group was instructed to write down one line from the book, along with one element of last week’s readings that stayed with them or that they could connect to Yesterday Will Make You Cry — even just a word or phrase. We went around the room and shared individual lines and responses, and this in and of itself began a wonderfully intimate read and discussion of the text.
Next, we gave two short presentations on the effect of censorship and the themes of the book. Kashema presented on what had been censored out of Himes’ original manuscript for the first publication, and produced this visual to break it down:
Tyler’s presentation tied the previous week’s texts to the themes of Himes’ work, inviting the works of McKittrick, Browne and Washington back into the room as we considered the ways in which the “dead eyes” (to borrow Himes’ phrase) of surveillance and censorship shape and produce the narratives to which we have access.
Having not spent time with Cast the First Stone, we also read this 1952-era Kirkus review of it to present a contrast:
“Something of the rough protest of It He Hollers Let Him Go (1945) in a loud-mouthed, highstrung transcript of prison where the loneliness of a womanless world leads to restive violence. #109130, Jim Monroe, covers his first five years of a twenty year sentence in a record of the days spent in ball and poker games, in attempts to foil the guards, and to fight down the impulse toward homosexuality which- for Jim- has a sobering, sullying aftertaste. It is the innocent friendship with Dido, young, unsteady, dependent and devoted, which costs Jim his commutation after a sex perversion charge is brought against them- but Dido repays Jim’s loyalty with his suicide through which he frees Jim for the world beyond… The anger here- and the compassion- gives this its impetus which may well he lost in the bluster of a raw vernacular. Caution.”
It describes a far cry from the novel we read.
Opening the class up to discussion, we attempted to map the books and the theoretical themes on the projector as people discussed Himes’ life and work. Here’s a glimpse of the unfinished (destabilized!) map to accompany the notes taken by Professor Guess throughout the class: