Blog Post

Black Listing Then and Now?: Similarities and Continuities

Black Listing Then and Now?: Similarities and Continuities

On February 6, 2018 “Black Listed” held its second class. We began the class with what is now becoming a usual fashion: we welcomed each other, grabbed a few snacks and directed ourselves to the assigned text. For this week, students were to have read William J. Maxwell's “Total Literary Awareness.” As the class opened, we took a pedagogical tip from the room. Each student would select a sentence or short passage from the assigned text and offer up what and/or how the sentence or passage made them think or feel. Collectively we witnessed, and respectfully listened to, each other’s personal reflections.

As we circled around the room, listening to each other’s reflections and provocations, I could not help but thinking about what “Black Listed” might have to do with the present moment. Indeed, the category of a “Black identity extremist” (BIE) has surfaced--not only in the press--but also it is emerging in the lives of black people. In fact, The Wall Street Journal had just published a piece by David J. Garrow, titled “Democrats and FBI Abuses” in which Garrow argues, “…anyone eager to embrace the belief that today’s FBI is a rigorously professional and politically unbiased agency is overlooking the facts.” Similarly, David Love, writing in the Atlanta Black Star, asserts, “The BIE designation has created concern in the Black community that the FBI is launching a new COINTELPRO program targeting Black activists who have committed no crimes, with more arrests and prosecutions of those involved in racial justice movements to follow.” You can read the rest of Love’s piece here. Even several months ago, on October 19, 2017, Shanelle Matthews and Malkia Cyril pinned a piece for The Washington Post, titled “We say black lives matter. The FBI says that makes us a security threat.” All this said, we must urgently ask ourselves: what is the relationship between the black listing of African American writers in the 1950s, the BIE category created to criminalize 21st century Black activists, and perhaps most importantly, we should ask, what does this tell us about the ongoing obsession with scrutinizing those deemed “too Black” (politically) by dominant institutions?


Published in 2015 by Duke University Press, Dr. Simone Browne's groundbreaking book, Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness, uses archival evidence to examine and locate blackness—as a condition—as a crucial site through which surveillance is practiced, reported and creatively resisted. Browne puts into context transatlantic slavery, biometric technologies, branding, airports and creative texts to help readers understand the long history of surveillance’s relationship to Black people. Browne's research is important because it reveals how the survaillence of black life is an ongoing project. But it is Browne's theory of "dark sousveillance" that should provide us not only with hope, but also a road map to potentially follow. You can read the Introduction to Dark Matters here.


Putting the above reflection into conversation with the class’ reading assignment, Professor Shelly Eversley poignantly asked, “How much has ‘total literary awareness’ changed the African American literary canon?” and “How does censorship and surveillance shape or obscure African American history?”


We leave these questions to your thought and debate.



Further reading:

Browne, Simone. 2012. ‘Everybody’s got a little light under the sun’: Black Luminosity and the Visual Culture of Surveillance. Cultural Studies

Browne, Simone. "Dark Sousveillance Race, Surveillance and Resistance." Lecture, Dark Sousveillance Race, Surveillance and Resistance, CUNY, Graduate Center, New York. March 21, 2014. 

Garcia-Rojas, Claudia. "The Surveillance of Blackness: From the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade to Contemporary Surveillance Technologies." Truthout.

‘Race and Surveillance’ in the Routledge Handbook of Surveillance Studies, "a collection of over forty essays from the leading names in surveillance studies" edited by Kirstie Ball, Kevin Haggerty and David Lyon.

Khan-Cullors, Patrisse, and Asha Bandele. When they call you a terrorist: a Black Lives Matter memoir. New York: St. Martins Press, 2018.



I wiah I could take this class! Thank you, Allison, for these important links. I'm looking forward to following along and learning from Black Listed.