Black writers, thinkers, and artists found themselves on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s watch list for radicalism and sedition as early as 1919. Secret Selves explores how twentieth-century African American writers, namely Claude McKay, Richard Wright, Lorraine Hansberry, Alice Childress, Ishmael Reed, and Gloria Naylor responded to a surveillance state that monitored their lives and works for radicalism and sedition. By recrafting the African American künstlerroman—a genre that birthed the African American literary tradition—these writers embedded codes into their works that concealed personal details from Bureau agents and simultaneously articulated a new narrative: that to be black and to be an artist was to live a precarious life under surveillance. Excavating and applying evidence from these writers’ FBI files and personal archives, Secret Selves exposes how such coded articulations of the self distinctly altered the African American literary tradition. Ultimately, this dissertation argues that many attributes inherent to the African American literary tradition—the insistence on putting one’s self on the page, the celebration of the written word, literary self-consciousness, and the admiration of the author-character that unites the community—are a result of surveillance.

Degree Date

Spring 5-18-2019

Document Type


Degree Name





Steven Weisenburger

Second Advisor

Darryl Dickson-Carr

Third Advisor

Jayson Sae-Saue

Fourth Advisor

William Maxwell

Subject Area


Number of Pages




Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 4.0 License

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