In Jason Overstreet's debut mystery, The Striver's Row Spy, the FBI's first African-American agent has a secret agenda. Sidney Temple's assignment is to move to Harlem, New York, in order to infiltrate “dangerously radical” Marcus Garvey's inner circle and report any incriminating activity to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. But Sidney is secretly working to thwart the FBI's investigation while aiding black leader W.E.B. Du Bois. As Sidney and his spirited wife, Loretta, rise in Harlem Renaissance society, his mission becomes far more dangerous than he ever imagined. We asked Overstreet a few questions about his new novel.
This is your debut novel, and it’s such a unique view into Harlem Renaissance-era New York, as well as the beginnings of the FBI. What inspired you to write this book?
A film entitled The Lives of Others, which won the Academy Award for best foreign film, inspired me. I wanted my novel to feel like that film felt in terms of pace and suspense. I loved the intimacy of the story and how it presented a spy who had feelings about his subjects. Everything wasn’t simply black and white to him, you know, good guy versus bad. It was complex, and he was conflicted with his assignment, the politics involved. I began trying to imagine a man of color being assigned to spy for a government entity. I looked up who the first African-American FBI agent was and found the name James Wormley Jones. He had been assigned to spy on Marcus Garvey. I imagined a man who might take such a job for a different reason than Jones. I imagined a man who was a W.E.B. Du Bois loyalist, as Garvey and Du Bois were rivals. And that’s when Sidney Temple was born.
I imagine that this novel took a lot of research about topics ranging from 1920s New York to the history of the FBI and its surveillance of Garvey and Du Bois. What was the most surprising thing you discovered in your research?
I was surprised to learn that Marcus Garvey was dead serious about finding a way to return all African Americans to Africa. It wasn’t some pipe dream. I was also surprised to learn how young J. Edgar Hoover was when he was first put in charge of the FBI’s General Intelligence Division. He was only 24.
After spying on Du Bois and Garvey, Hoover used the FBI to monitor Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and groups such as the Black Panther Party. How do you think the monitoring of citizens has continued today?
I really couldn’t say. I’d like to think they’ve evolved, at least past thinking of every black leader as a communist threat.
How do you think Sidney Temple, a—secretly—ardent supporter of W.E.B. Du Bois, would feel about the current climate of race relations in America?
I think he would be so proud that Barack Obama was elected the first African-American President. And I believe he would feel that we’re on the right track and have made tremendous strides. But I think he’d be bothered by the mass incarceration of black men and the seemingly systematic and routine way they are targeted by many police officers. But in terms of voting rights, housing rights and integration as a whole, he’d be ecstatic. He’d be so happy to simply have the right to raise his voice anywhere in the country without the fear of being lynched, as was often the case during the 1920s in the South.
What do you admire most about Sidney Temple?
I admire his idealistic nature, tenacity, love of family and his hopeful spirit.
What was the most difficult aspect of writing this novel?
Doing loads of research and making sure that each character’s voice was not only unique, but was befitting the time period. It was also a fun challenge to write fiction around lots of actual history. The book is full of true events. I also tried to talk about racism without hitting people over the head with it. There is a fine line if you really want to make your point.
Have you always been a fan of espionage or did learning about the history of the Bureau get you interested?
Did any authors or musicians from the Harlem Renaissance inspire you while writing this novel?
The African-American poet Claude McKay inspired me. He traveled a lot, spent time in the Soviet Union, London, Morocco. He was willing to do anything to keep his writing dream alive, doing various odd jobs, etcetera, all while encountering extreme racism. He was brave and unwilling to settle for being treated as a second-class citizen. He could seamlessly mingle with upscale whites, and genuinely befriended many prominent ones, all the while trying to prove his worth as a colored writer against insurmountable odds. But no matter how much rejection he encountered, he seemed to hold on to his charismatic and positive personality. He was a true artist.
What’s next for you? Will we be seeing more of Sidney Temple and Loretta?
The sequel to The Strivers’ Row Spy is almost complete.
Author photo by Wendy D.