Ann Petry Un-Surveilled: Strategy and Survival for Black Leftists During the Cold War

Charlene Obernauer

Professor Shelly Eversley and Professor Cathy Davidson

EGL 80300: Blacklisted

May 24, 2018

Ann Petry Un-Surveilled: Strategy and Survival for Black Leftists During the Cold War

            During the Cold War, surveillance was a way of life for leftists in the United States, but particularly for black leftists. Surveillance was so ubiquitous among leftist black communities that black leftists assumed they were being watched, often adjusting and censoring their own activism to protect themselves from persecution. Countless black leftist women were surveilled, if not arrested and put on trial. Ann Petry was no stranger to communist communities, nor to communist thought. She regularly wrote about communist ideology in her fiction and associated with prominent leftist leaders. However, Ann Petry was not subjected to surveillance like many of her comrades. Was Petry’s work not leftist enough to warrant surveillance? Was she not deeply embedded within leftist circles or was her eventual geographic isolation the cause of her exemption? Did she escape external surveillance because she successfully self-surveilled? No single factor can be held responsible for Petry escaping FBI surveillance, but she successfully evaded authorities while still producing politically profound, leftist literature. Ann Petry’s life and work was un-surveillance due to factors inside and outside of her control, including her gender, successful self-surveillance, and self-imposed isolation from her leftist black community.

            The FBI’s methodology of surveillance was neither scientific nor comprehensive, but black writers and intellectuals were more likely to be surveilled than non-black leftists. Disproportionate surveillance on black communities is an oft understated point among [white] leftist writers who analyze the Cold War era and repression of communist intellectual expression. In Mary Helen Washington’s The Other Blacklist, she writes about the invisibilizing of black writers’ struggles during the Cold War and the whitewashing of history within leftist Cold War writing. Washington critiques the Norton Anthology of African American Literature and its failure to address the struggles that black writers endured during the Red Scare to simply exist, let alone write work that would be uninfluenced by the censorship of the time period. Washington writes:

Consider that during this political moment in the 1950s black writers and intellectuals were being intimidated, arrested, interrogated, indicted, jailed, deported, and blacklisted. Yet the absence of any reference to the blacklist, the Cold War, the Popular Front, the assault on Paul Robeson, W.E.B. Du Bois’s arrest, the HUAC investigations, the silencing of Langston Hughes, the denial of passports to Robeson and Du Bois (among others), the labeling of every civil rights organization as subversive (including the NAACP), and FBI censorship both misses the richness (and messiness) of the literary and political debates of this period and consolidates a Cold War narrative that ultimately marginalized black literary history.

During the Red Scare, it was dangerous to be a communist, but to be black and red was almost certainly a recipe for surveillance and censorship, if not the revocation of passports and deportation.

            The impact of surveillance on the black, left communities where Petry resided was profound and led to many self-surveilling as a strategy for survival. William J. Maxwell asks in FBI Eyes whether or not black writers’ work “pre-responds” to FBI surveillance (222). The work and personal lives of many black leftist writers anticipated that their decisions, if not properly sanitized and self-censored, would bring about consequences from the FBI. They could either censor themselves, watch their work be censored, or worse. Maxwell writes:

Here is a truth of twentieth-century literature not universally recognized: the long haul of Afro-modernism was steered by literary intellectuals […] who were convinced that nonfictional government intelligence agents watched them like hawks. (Maxwell, 221)

In Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness, Simone Brown analyzes the surveillance of black people throughout society and over time. Brown highlights Frantz Fanon’s writing on the psychological impact of surveillance among different industries of workers. Fanon summarized that people surveilled have “nervous tensions, insomnia, fatigue, accidents, lightheadedness, and loss of control over reflexes” (16). The psychological impact of surveillance upon the black writer was significant. Writes Richard Wright in his essay, “I Choose Exile” of the difference between the U.S. and Paris and how he felt differently in the two cities, “I was already beginning to feel the mellow influence of a deeply humane culture” (Wright). Black leftists knew they were being watched, and if they made a wrong move, their lives could be destroyed. These facts of life for black left writers during the Cold War undoubtedly impacted their work, their emotional wellbeing, and their entire lives.

            Ann Petry’s writing was well within the genre of social protest writing of the time period that, based even on the unclear standards of the FBI, she should have been surveilled. Her writing was leftist in content and left in approach. Petry directed her work at working class audiences as well as the highly educated literati. She wrote traditional books but also magazine articles to inspire different classes of readership. Petry was writing in good company with her published works to the masses in The People’s Voice. She wrote alongside prominent protest writers or known communists such as Paul Robeson, Lena Horne, and W.E.B. Du Bois and was also an editor of the magazine. As the Red Scare waged on and led to a crackdown on creative works, communists associated with the work of The Voice were fired (Mingolla), and others like Petry relocated. However, the paper’s impact and Petry’s role in creating a massive audience of politically engaged Harlem residents among different social classes was profound.

            However, during the Cold War Era, Petry’s gender impacted her acceptance into equal literary recognition along with better-known authors. Keith Clark writes in The Radical Fiction of Ann Petry that Petry was “routinely considered part of the ‘Richard Wright School of Protest’” (Clark, 3). Petry sold more than a million copies of her best-known book, The Street, within a year, becoming the first black woman writer to do so (“Petry, Ann”), and Richard Wright became the first black writer to be on the best seller list with Native Son (Menand). They were both significant and unique, and Petry no less so than Wright. Why did literary critics need to compare Petry’s and Wright’s work and even book sales? Petry’s work was compared with Wright’s as if her own accomplishments were not as valid and if the “Ann Petry School of Protest” could not be its own genre – a genre of black, feminist, leftist creative fiction. Keith Clark points to the issues with placing Petry’s work in literary comparison to other black male authors. He critically analyzes the philosophy that urged all black literary figures should “write in the name and style of literary patriarch Wright” (Clark, 4). Lumping Petry’s work in with Wright’s, Clark writes:

[has] particularly worrisome gender implications when the lone woman gains admittance because of her seeming ‘ability’ to write like one of the (black) boys, in the grim, racially combative protest register that Irving Howe would claim “black boys” were obligated to do. (Clark, 4)

If Petry’s own literary equals were inclined to see her as a follower of Wright instead of an independent woman paving her own way, the FBI was likely to see her in the same light and go after the men who were the protagonists, not the women who they (incorrectly) assumed followed them.

            Despite Ann Petry’s radical literary work, she was left off the FBI’s surveillance list. She may not have been the only leftist black woman writer absent from the list, but her omission was significant. Alex Lubin writes, in describing how Petry’s work related to leftist themes in literature that, “Writers such as Ann Petry […] used diverse literary styles and generic conventions to wage radical politics” (Lubin, 6). Petry made her own deeply political and deeply poetic contribution to political works, but still, she was not surveilled. Maxwell writes of “pivotal contributors to Afro-modernism” who were missing from any form of blacklist, such as “Jessie Fauset, Zora Neale Hurston, Nella Larsen […] Jean Toomer,” and Ann Petry. Maxwell indicates that neither Petry, nor many other black women writers “[were] ever monitored through a file at FBI national headquarters (the Hoover Bureau’s preoccupation with the case of G-Men v. black men may have spared most from the F.B. eye)” (Maxwell, 222). Her gender, Maxwell suggests, could have been one of the determining factors of her omission.

            Petry’s gender, as a leftist black woman, could certainly have been a cause of her exclusion from the blacklist – the white establishment had been underestimating and invisibilizing black women for centuries. Petry was within her own right, a trailblazer. She was a famous political writer whose work reached the great masses of America. However, as countless black feminists have theorized, racism and sexism in society makes black women invisible. In “Prototypes of Race and Gender: The Invisibility of Black Women,” Amanda K. Sesko and Monica Biernat’s research found that photos of black women were “least likely to be recognized” and that statements said by a black woman in a group discussion were “least likely to be correctly attributed” compared to black men and white men and women (Sesko, Biernat). Sesko and Biernat write:

One advantage is that black women may be less likely to be targets of discrimination than more prototypical members […] However, a disadvantage is that non-prototypical subordinate group members struggle to be visible and have their voices heard, and thus are more likely to be marginalized. (Sesko, Biernat)

Ann Petry’s case represents this exact dilemma: racist sexism meant that she was less likely to be a target of discrimination and therefore could continue her work, un-surveilled, but her work was less visible and received less recognition than it deserved.

            Ann Petry may have escaped surveillance, but not for a lack of radicalism in her literature: she explicitly engaged with the ideology of communism, often criticizing capitalism and capitalist values. In her novel, The Narrows – much lesser-known than The Street – Petry creates profound dialogue about capitalism and communism. In one scene between media executive Peter Bullock and photographer Jubine, best friend of the novel’s protagonist, Petry brilliantly showcases the class and cultural conflict between an executive and a worker – a free thinking communist and a corporate capitalist. Bullock offers Jubine a job, but Jubine laughs at Bullock’s cheap attempt to buy him. First, Jubine denies that Bullock would pay him more than he currently is earning, which Jubine brags is an exorbitant amount. When Bullock asks Jubine why, if he is so wealthy, he doesn’t embrace material indicators of success, Jubine laughs and retorts, “I am free. But you, dear Bullock, are a slave, to custom, to a house, to a car” (Petry, 45). Jubine challenges Bullock’s capitalism and materialism and refuses to be bought. Petry’s character flaunts his independence of body and mind from dominant capitalist ideology.

            Petry mocks capitalists’ frenetic fear of communism in an interaction with Bullock and his wife. Bullock’s wife, Lola, is in the living room reading a magazine that features one of Jubine’s “beautiful” shots, which sends Bullock off again (46). “He’s a goddamn Communist,” Bullock states, “[…] because he’s against wealth. Every chance he gets he takes a potshot at the wealthy” (47). In prior scenes, Jubine had never identified as a communist, but Petry writes this scene to showcase that during the Cold War period, anyone who displayed countercultural beliefs or who challenged cultural norms was demonized as a communist. Jubine is a man who makes beautiful art, who simply depicts the tragedies of life in ways that do not blame poor people for being poor or black people for being black. But to Bullock, he’s a communist – and that is a slur meant to offend. Bullock’s wife’s disagrees with her husband’s perspective on Jubine’s work and retorts that his pictures show poor people with dignity because the poor do have dignity. Bullock argues that this line of thinking is communism and that he won’t buy anymore of Jubine’s pictures (47). And then, Petry has Bullock change the subject and places him and Lola in their bedroom together. Bullock asks Lola, as they lay next to each other, who thought up the idea of kingsize beds. Without missing a beat, Lola teases, “Stalin thought it up – part of the Communist plot to hasten the downfall of the capitalist class” (50). Petry closes this chapter with Bullock’s wife getting the last word and by bringing the subject back to materialism. Petry dismisses the seriousness of conflicting perspectives on communism and capitalism with a joke.

            The idea that Stalin thought up a kingsize bed to make the bourgeois lazy is deliberately ridiculous, but Petry’s scene suggests that society’s demonization of opposing viewpoints — initiating entire government committees and task forces to investigate and interrogate communist sympathizers — is futile. One is not, Petry shows in these scenes, an avid communist because s/he sympathizes with the poor, just as one is not an avid capitalist because s/he has a kingsize bed. Lola and her husband, a married couple with opposing views on capitalism and communism, are able to join together in love and marriage despite their differences. In Petry’s scene between Lola and Bullock, Lola playfully jokes about communism, but this topic was not so funny at a time when people were jailed for having communist-adjacent ideals – and writers like Petry were being surveilled for writing about them. Petry has Lola make this point and make it in such a light manner – to her husband, in bed – to render a difficult subject easier to discuss at a time when government surveillance prevented such intellectual debate. A woman having a private conversation with her husband about such topics, in a sexist society, would be taken less seriously, and therefore Petry can get away with writing such a scene into her novel. Petry is carefully and strategically telling the country to let opposing views be debated freely and without consequence.

            Later in the novel, Petry again uses Jubine and Bullock to discuss issues of censorship and wealth in a capitalist, racist society. After Link Williams and Camilla Treadway Sheffield’s affair becomes public knowledge, the Treadway family tries to use their money to create a false story that Link (who is a middle class black man) raped Camilla (who is a rich white heiress) – a story that Camilla also sold to disbelieving police officers with a false report (320-321). “When the rich folks can’t fix the cops, they do the next best thing, they keep the details of the mess out of the public print. You’re the public print in this town, Bullock,” Bullock’s friend warns him over beers (355).  Bullock is conflicted with journalistic integrity and his need to keep the Treadway’s advertising dollars in order to keep his paper alive. However, integrity fails him because “he couldn’t afford to lose” the money while continuing with his bourgeois lifestyle; Bullock “personally pulled the story” to cover up Camilla’s crime of drinking and driving and critically injuring a child (357). Petry writes Bullock as a conflicted figure – he is neither good nor evil, racist nor ally; but perhaps representative of active, though naïve and somewhat unwilling, participant in a corrupt, racist, capitalist system.

            Petry’s independent and “brilliant” Jubine, the so-called communist, emerges triumphant and publicizes pictures that prove Camilla’s guilt and Link’s innocence. Though Jubine tries to convince Bullock to do the right thing, Bullock – the “public print” of the town – refuses to print Jubine’s truth-telling photos. And Jubine gets his revenge – he gets his last word like Lola did earlier. Jubine’s photograph of the incident, of Camilla’s crash, is publicized in a New York City paper. The photographs show faces of horrified working class people and a grotesquely injured child, with Camilla’s stunned rich white face and blue eyes reflecting her horror into the camera lens (363-365). Petry writes:

The street was filled with factory workers going home – Poles, Italians, Negroes formed a mob around the car. The vagueness of her manner, her halting speech, the mink coat, the delicate shoes, the manicured hands, the big diamond were like a personal insult to these people. (Petry, 364)

In this scene, Petry showcases the working class’ disdain towards the ruling class. Camilla’s wealth and privilege is a “personal insult” to this multi-racial cadre of working class people. The story becomes that of a rich white woman framing a black man for rape while she is caught committing manslaughter by masses of working class people. And Jubine is there to take the picture. Bullock thinks to himself, “Jubine had tried the case, handed in a verdict, with his goddamn pictures” (365). And Petry has done the same. She proves the subversive power of Jubine’s art to impact public opinion, but also to impact real cases and real people’s lives. Petry’s fictional Jubine is part-Petry, impacting public opinion with her writing the same way that Jubine does with his photographs.

            Despite the obvious left-leaning approach of Petry’s writing and her work’s profound impact, she self-surveilled her work. It’s impossible to know what Petry’s work would have become had it been removed from the historical time period and reality of being a political black woman artist during the Cold War. One can only assume, like other black leftist writers during the period, she self-surveilled because she had to in order to avoid government repression. Simone Brown writes of the impact of surveillance among those being surveilled architecturally within a Panopticon, within slave ships, and other metaphorical “structures” of surveillance (Brown, 33), such as that which Petry would have been subjected to. Brown argues that transatlantic slavery preceded contemporary surveillance, and that the path of racialized surveillance is long and extends far back into history, impacting contemporary society.  “Surveillance is nothing new to black folks. It is the fact of antiblackness,” she writes (10). Petry must have been impacted by this surveillance culture and self-surveilled as a result.

            Petry was famously private and did what was necessary to avoid unnecessary prying into her personal life, but such privacy and self-surveillance likely had consequences on Petry’s life and wellbeing. Elisabeth Petry’s biography of her mother, At Home Inside: A Daughter’s Tribute to Ann Petry, dedicates a whole third of the book to her mother’s “Keeping Secrets.”  These secrets – this surveillance society — had a significant impact on Petry, as surveillance tends to psychologically impact those being surveilled. “I have never felt I lived up to 1/100th of the potential I had,” Petry writes in a letter to her daughter, regretting that she did not write more in the later years of her life (E. Petry, 2). Ann Petry did not “wholly understand” why she left her writing career “by the side of the road” but she writes in her journals that it “could be partly due to constant interruption […] And a kind of chipping away of self-confidence” (E. Petry, 130). Petry produced essential literature that addressed issues of equity, racial justice, corporatization, capitalism, and communism; but she did not see herself and her writing that way. The self-surveillance she practiced in her work could have resulted in her dissatisfaction with her professional life that made her feel less inspired to write and less proud of what she actually accomplished.

            When many of Petry’s friends were being surveilled and the repression of communist activities intensified in 1947, Petry made a strategic life decision, again indicating her self-surveilling of her own life: she moved from the hustle of New York City to the quiet suburbs of Connecticut. She was no stranger to the suburbs and had spent the majority of her formative years in the sleepy Northeastern town of Old Saybrook. She decided to return to her birthplace as the FBI got closer and closer to her inner circle with their surveillance and suppression operations. Petry’s career was soaring; The Street gained her commercial success and fame. Elisabeth Petry writes that her mother left New York when her success “began to interfere with her writing” (E. Petry, 65). Petry became famous and was under the public eye where it would be hard to hide from authorities if she continued her New York City leftist lifestyle. She left, like many other subversives did during this time, and adjusted her life to the political context she was living within.

            The FBI could have followed her, of course, but the Agency did not have an unlimited pot of money with which to spy on writers in the suburbs of America. They would have had to station at least two full-time agents in Old Saybrook, Connecticut just for Petry. Old Saybrook is relatively isolated from other large cities and would have required a full surveillance team of at least two, if not three salaried staff members – an unreasonable reaction to a writer that the FBI did not seem to perceive as much of a threat in the first place. It’s possible that Petry could have formed some kind of radical commune in Old Saybrook and would use this secluded abode to plan an armed revolution, but of course, she did not. She was a married mother in a community where “known” leftists were not populating. The FBI evaluated risk versus reward and figured that surveilling her wasn’t worth the expense, especially for a figure who they did not seem to perceive – much due to the FBI’s own sexism and sexism embedded within the literary world itself – as a threat or great influence on black leftist communities.

            Despite the FBI’s literary repression during the period, the Agency was not concerned with leftist literature because they believed literature alone could ignite a revolution, but they were more concerned about the combination of literature and public activism that could cause a threat to the state. William J. Maxwell writes of what he calls the “Total Literary Awareness” campaign of the FBI, which “sought prococious knowledge of all published threats to the state,” but more particularly, threats to the FBI’s reputation (Maxwell). Absent public activism, Petry, isolated in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, was not categorized by the FBI as the kind of threat that would warrant a full surveillance operation. She was a mother, a wife, a pharmacist, and a writer living in the sleepy suburbs and writing about race and politics. She was self-surveilling her work and wasn’t out in the streets igniting protests or making impassioned speeches about the politics of the day to destabilize the state. Petry’s work, though clearly engaging with leftist themes and theories, was not directly tied to organizing communities and was written by a woman who the FBI – and, arguably, much of the world – underestimated, and therefore did not meet the threshold for surveillance.

            Ann Petry, like many leftist writers during the Cold War, was a conflicted figure who carefully created a life for herself marked by inspirational innovation and a keen sense of how to survive. Petry locked the doors to the public and threw away the key, but isolated so that she could do her work without being violated by the repression and surveillance experienced by other leftists. Ironically, absent the community that sparked much of her inspiration, absent the freedom to write as she wanted, her work was impacted. She wrote less, much to her own dissatisfaction, but she was a survivor. Petry didn’t abandon the struggle, she adjusted to it. Her story is not one of silencing, but one of strategy, one of success: she created brilliant leftist literature in a time period when literature like hers was being silenced. Her fans will never know what she would have been like had she been truly un-surveilled, had her voice been the expression of her truest thoughts and critiques, her unmasked hopes and dreams. But one cannot distance an artist from the time period in which they lived – from the context that produces the very art that is admired. Petry’s writing was underrated throughout the 1940s and 50s and remains underrated today, subjected to the same biases that rendered artists like Richard Wright the standard-bearer. However, Petry bore the fruit of black feminist creative fiction for decades to come – Petry set a new standard and spawned her own strategy of survival and production in a surveillance state. Her work lives on through those who tell her story, celebrate her successes, and honor her as the humble writer and fighter that she was.




Works Cited

Clark, Keith. The Radical Fiction of Ann Petry. Louisiana State University Press. 2013. Print.

Lupin, Alex. Revising the Blueprint: Ann Petry and the Literary Left. University Press of Mississippi. 2007. Print.

Mingolla, David. “A New Kind of Newspaper: Adam Clayton Powell Jr and the People’s Voice.” Wesleyan. Chum 338 Blogs. Web. 17, May 2018.

Maxwell, William. J. FB Eyes. How Edgar J. Hoover’s Ghostreaders Framed African American Literature. Princeton, NJ. Princeton University Press, 2015.

Maxwell, William J. “Total Literary Awareness: How the FBI Pre-Read African American Writing.” The American Reader. Web. 20, Feb. 2018.

Menand, Louis. “The Hammer and the Nail.” The New Yorker. 20, Jul. 1992. Web. 18, May 2018.

Petry, Ann. The Narrows. Northwestern University Press, 2017.

Elisabeth Petry. At Home Inside: A Daughter’s Tribute to Ann Petry. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2009.

Sesko, Amanda K., and Monica Biernat. “Prototypes of Race and Gender: The invisibility of Black women.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, vol. 2, iss. 2, 22 Oct. 2009.

Wright, Richard. “I Choose Exhile.” A Revolution of the Mind. 19, April 2012. Web. 20, April, 2018.


3 responses to “Ann Petry Un-Surveilled: Strategy and Survival for Black Leftists During the Cold War”

  1. I really appreciate your insightful research here on Ann Petry, especially how it helps to humanize her.  It is poignant to hear her self-effacing voice in the letters you found that she had sent to her daughter (that she felt she had used 1/100th of her potential….).   I am also struck by your Maxwell quote that the long haul of Afro-modernism in 20th century literature…was steered by artists who knew that “government intelligence agents watched them like hawks.”     
      Your piece also raises the possibility that Petry nevertheless wrote exactly how she wished to write, that she already saw through the veil of that absurdity of censorship in her time, and wrote with style about it.  As you note, she broaches radical and controversial topics about communism and capitalism (in the scenes you share with Bullock, Lola, and Jubine in The Narrows) but she does so with subtlety and humor.   
    If she sidestepped the worst of surveillance, adjusting to the “political context of her time,” ultimately it may also have been that self-surveillance fortuitously coincided with the other great need that you suggest she had:  the need for personal privacy in order to do her work. 

  2. Charlene, I love the way your investigation into why Petery was not on the FBI watch list recognizes the existing scholarship on teh subject, while it also challenges/extends  that sholarship through your close readings of The Narrows.  I love it, especially becuase you suggest Petry published an important critique of surveillance right under the  Watcher’s eyes.