The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Review | Dark Mirror: African Americans and the Federal Writers’ Project

Dark Mirror: African Americans and the Federal Writers’ Project. By J. J. Butts. Ohio State University Press, 2021. x + 185 pp. $64.95 (cloth); $29.95 (ebook).

Reviewed by David A. Davis, Mercer University

The Great Depression was an inflection point in U.S. political life. With the New Deal, the nation’s welfare state and governmental bureaucracy grew massively as the federal government mobilized to intervene in economic collapse by providing relief programs and creating thousands of jobs, including jobs for writers and artists. In Dark Mirror: African Americans and the Federal Writers' Project, J. J. Butts focuses on the role of African American writers in the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP). His book “explores the representation of American urban space and race” in works Black authors produced while employed by the project and in works they wrote afterward that comment on the FWP (3). He claims that, while the FWP was an exercise in state propaganda that celebrated cultural pluralism and social progress, the experience of Black writers indicates that its agenda was “often undercut by a focus on modernization as a cure for social inequity” (3). He also discusses intertexts Black writers produced, that is, “fiction and documentary writing that made use of FWP materials, concepts, and forms to challenge New Deal representations of modernization, race, culture, and national community” (4). He argues that while the FWP generated a revisionist vision of the United States that projected social harmony and equality through modernization, Black writers’ engagement with FWP “produced countermodern literary visions” that critiqued the government narrative (4).

The Federal Writers’ Project was a distinctive cultural phenomenon. From 1935 to 1943, the federal government directly employed more than six thousand writers, editors, and researchers through a branch of the Works Progress Administration. Writing on behalf of the government, the writers, organized into a bureaucratic system, were assigned to produce texts intended to generate a portrait of the United States that advanced a liberal political agenda to support the New Deal. The most ambitious component of the project was the American Guides Series, a series of travelogues and guidebooks that described America’s major cities, tourist destinations, and major highways to promote travel and tourism throughout the country. The FWP also produced ethnic studies, folklore collections, local histories, nature studies, and oral histories with people born in slavery, and the project yielded more than 1,000 books and pamphlets. Many of the most prominent American writers of the 1930s worked with the project, including Conrad Aiken, Saul Bellow, Robert Hayden, and Studs Terkel. The FWP involved America’s creative class in a deliberate program of government propaganda to promote a coherent vision of the United States as an egalitarian, progressive nation with a dynamic, prosperous future. Writers working on the project were expected to sublimate their personal opinions and attitudes to serve the program’s nationalistic objectives, which inevitably created tension between the writers and the project’s political agenda.

Dark Mirror focuses on the tension manifest in the work of Black writers involved with the project. Butts discusses works that William Attaway, Arna Bontemps, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay, and Richard Wright contributed as part of the project and works these writers published afterward that bear the influence of the project. He examines the crucial tension between Black writers’ work on behalf of the government to support the political agenda and their urge to criticize and protest the government’s involvement with segregation and entrenched poverty. Butts observes that FWP guidebooks depicted idyllic visions of modern communities based on federal housing developments, harmonious ethnic plurality, and dynamic modernist aesthetics, and he notes the irony that these same housing programs the guidebooks promoted eventually became signifiers for social decay and racial inequality. In a chapter on Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston, Butts describes folk narratives of African American life they wrote while working for the FWP, and he interrogates the contradictions between their depictions of Black ruralism and American urbanism. Wright, for example, wrote Twelve Million Black Voices: A Folk History for the FWP as a photodocumentary illustrated with photographs taken from the work of photographers with the Farm Security Administration. The book portrays the uneasy transition of rural Blacks from the South to cities in the North, where they were crowded into low-income neighborhoods. Wright’s text puts the progressive New Deal narrative at odds with Black experience of systemic poverty and segregation.

Butts also discusses two works developed by FWP writers during the program that were published after the program ended in 1943: New World A-Coming by Roi Ottley and They Seek a City by Arna Bontemps and Jack Conroy. These works use materials, including narrative sketches and interviews, generated by several writers working for the program, but they offer a more complex and more critical perspective on African American urban life than the propagandistic federal narratives published by the FWP. Finally, Butts analyzes the depiction of the Black urban experience in novels by two former FWP writers—The Street by Ann Petry and Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison—that reflect “deep-seated ambivalence in Black literature over modernization” by portraying the misery of African Americans in northern cities (159). Dark Mirror reveals the false promises of government intervention in social problems and the New Deal’s vision of a harmoniously pluralistic future in the reality of entrenched racism and ethnic antagonism that eroded the possibility of social progress.

With Dark Mirror, Butts seizes the opportunity to examine a distinct cohort of Black writers, using the FWP to establish a common experience and to analyze each writers individual response to the project’s agenda to depict the United States as a harmonious, progressive nation. In this sense, his book offers a much more cohesive analysis of Black modernism than the typical studies of the Harlem Renaissance or the New Negro Movement, which were less organized intellectual communities. He teases out the complexity African American writers faced as they worked for a political administration that maintained segregation while promoting progressive liberalism. He documents how Black writers negotiated overt workplace racism to produce their work, and he explains how the political stakes of segregation are depicted in both work produced for the FWP and writings published after the program ended.

The FWP is a rich vein to mine because of the cultural significance of the writers involved and the social magnitude of the New Deal. Butts’s book is highly suggestive and will help to outline future conversations about this group of writers and about Black urban experience during the Great Depression. Like many critics, he conflates the terms modern and progress in ways that suggest that modernization offers a linear trajectory toward social progress and greater freedom, but his own analysis of counter-modernization narratives indicates that modernization was, and is, an expansive and recursive process that is not always progressive. Understanding Black Americans’ engagement with expanding government bureaucracy during the New Deal illustrates historical sources of government skepticism and antagonism that persisted in the decades leading up to the civil rights movement, and Dark Mirror adds context and nuance to African American engagement with federal bureaucracy from the Freedmen’s Bureau in the 1860s to the present.

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