Born in Chicago on July 13, 1930, Sam Greenlee has written poetry, fiction, plays and screenplays, and been a teacher, producer, director and actor. He traveled the world as a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army in the early fifties, then through a long career as an officer in the U.S. Information Agency where he has served in Iraq, Pakistan, Indonesia and Greece. These experiences have led to a unique literary vision which deals with race issues in a military and “spy” context, especially in his two novels The Spook Who Sat By the Door (1969), and Baghdad Blues (1976). Accepting a literary award for the former in 1999, he said, “I had no idea when I wrote the book on the island of Mykonos during the summer of 1966 that one day Black people would call it a classic.”
Spook tells the story of Dan Freeman, who tries to climb the CIA ladder after being recruited to work in an elite espionage program. Blocked and plagued by race, however, he drops out to train young Chicago blacks as Freedom Fighters to spread revolution throughout the U.S. “Oakland blew first, then Los Angeles, then, leapfrogging the continent, Harlem and South Philadelphia. After years of crying conspiracy, the witch hunters found, to their horror, there was a conspiracy afoot among the black masses.” In Chicago, the Freedom Fighters “moved easily and silently through the ghetto which offered them affection and support, their coloration finally protective.” Few books have dealt with race, civil rights, and black militancy in so focused and unusual a way, which Time magazine described as blending “James Bond parody with wit and rage.”
It is also a story of a Freeman’s relationship with a woman named Joy, who regarded his “militant idealism and total identification to his race first with amusement, then irritation and finally, growing concern.” With “no intention of becoming her black brother’s keeper,” she convinces Freeman he can best help Negroes as a Civil Rights lawyer, “join the legal staff of one of the established civil-rights bureaucracies,” “argue precedent-making cases before the Supreme Court.” But Freeman, after trying that route, says, “Baby, there ain’t no way I can work for those motherfuckers. They don’t give a damn about any niggers except themselves and they don’t really think of themselves as niggers.
“You ought to hear the way they talk about people like us. Like, white folks don’t really have much to do with the scene. It’s that lower-class niggers are too stupid, lazy, dirty and immoral. If they weren’t around…why, everything would be swinging for the swinging black bourgeois bureaucrats, their high-yellow wives, their spoiled brat kids, and their white liberal mistresses. Integration, shit! Their definition of integration is to have their kids the only niggers in a white private school….”
Again, an excoriation the black middle class. I included passages from Spook in my book Black Writing from Chicago, whose subtitle is “In the World, Not of It?” You can read my Introduction Here, paying particular attention to the idea that the controversy over how much Blacks should want to be part of “the World”—that is, a society which they have so largely made, but which so virulently shuts them out—boils down to attitudes about middle-classness. It’s a certain way up and out, but at what price? This argument, this complex dilemma, runs through the book like, as one critic put it, a “charged current.”
For a February 2005 forum at the Carter Woodson Library in celebration of OBAC (the influential Organization of Black American Culture), Greenlee read a prose poem written for the occasion. Called “Weary Warrior Blues,” it bemoans the disappearance of “warriors, revolutionaries devoted to a solution of the global pollution of Western Imperialism….” Almost four decades after Spook, Greenlee’s wit and rage seem undimmed as he casts a suspicious eye towards those who are “doing all right and without a fuss dropped back into the system they used to cuss.”
As a side note, I had done a lot of research for Black Writing from Chicago at the Woodson and went to its OBAC celebration, partly hoping I’d run into Sam Greenlee. A year before, I had sent him the excerpt from The Spook Who Sat By the Door that I wanted to put in Black Writing from Chicago. I heard nothing back. I had created the excerpt by rearranging passages and providing context and transitions using Sam’s words and my own. “Did you like what I did with Spook?” I asked him after his reading. “Oh, I loved it!” he said. I had brought along a copy of the permissions contract I had sent him. “Well, can I get you to sign this contract so I can put the excerpt in my book?” “No you can’t,” he said. “I won’t sign anything. That’s the white man’s way. You can put it in the book, but you and I will just have to shake on it right here.” And so we did. And so my publisher had to accept a most unusual permission process.
The Spook Who Sat by the Door was made into a film in 1973. Distributed by United Artists, with screenplay by Greenlee and Melvin Clay, it starred Laurence Cook and Paula Kelly, and featured music by Herbie Hancock. In addition to “Spook” being a racial slur against Blacks, the entire title refers to a practice in the early days of Affirmative Action. When a company hired a Black person, that person would be seated close to the office entrance, so that all could see that the company was “integrated.” See protagonist Dan Freeman’s expletive above.
♦ Read Leanita McClain and Barack Obama on Black middle-classness