Tyne Daile Sumner deposited Surveillance, Sexuality, Subversion: A Digital Poetics of Langston Hughes and James Baldwin’s FBI Files on Humanities Commons 1 year, 11 months ago
This paper traces a critical thread between surveillance, modern American poetry, Digital Humanities, and queer activism in the 20th century. In doing this, the paper will examine the creation, metadata, digitisation, and reception of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s archive of dossiers on two well known gay African American poets: Langston Hughes and James Baldwin. Constantly on the lookout for any excuse to stifle African-American activism, the FBI was keen to conflate homosexuality, race and poetics by placing all three under the broad category of “perversity.” These acts of overt Bureau interjection into the ebb and flow of the modern American poetic landscape reveal the extent to which the FBI’s role as surveillance agency went well beyond the job assigned to it as enforcer of federal law and instead assumed the role of a guardian of morality and censor of literary writing. The files themselves also read like complex literary texts – encoded, blanked-out, and catalogued according to their own internal ontological method. They represent an organizational system that can be read alongside the ‘code breaking’ and close reading principles of high-modernist literary criticism as well as within the context of the FBI’s now well-know attempts to quash black queer activism in the early to middle decades of the twentieth century.