THE EDITOR’S DILEMMA
In a speech delivered to the National Negro Congress in October 1937, the renowned writer and poet Sterling Brown, national editor of the Negro Affairs division of the Federal Writers’ Project from 1936 to 1939, relayed the many obstacles facing black authors: “The Negro writer is faced by a limited audience: his own group, for various reasons, reads few books and buys less; and white America, in the main, is hardly an audience ready for truthful representation of Negro life. The Negro writer has the job of revising certain stereotypes of Negro life and character, whose growth extends from the beginning of the American novel in Cooper to the latest best seller, ‘Gone With the Wind.’”1 While this outlook reflects Brown’s own pessimism, it was shaped, at least in part, by his experience with the FWP’S Negro Affairs, FWP director Henry Alsberg appointed Brown to this position in the spring of 1936, recognizing him as a guardian of black history. Overseeing the racial content of the FWP’S major undertaking, the American Guide Series, Brown committed himself to the eradication of stereotypes and the extraction of African American history from the margins.
As the development of the American Guide Series was the primary focus within the FWP, its national directors believed that the positive depiction of all minority groups—particularly African Americans—was an important goal for state and national officials. Yet, even at the project’s inception, Brown was immediately conscious of potential roadblocks, and as he became more deeply entrenched in the FWP bureaucracy, he faced entanglements with state writers, directors, and white racial attitudes that hindered his ultimate goals for revision. At the beginning of Brown’s directorship, questions immediately surfaced: Would white America accept black his-