Code Switch
12:01 pm
Thu May 22, 2014

Remembering Sam Greenlee Through His Most Famous Book

When it was published 45 years go, Sam Greenlee's novel The Spook Who Sat By the Door got a lot of media play. The book centered on a conspiracy theory — a popular trope of fiction at the time — not so surprising, as government-sanctioned spies had been surveying black activists for years, thanks to J Edgar Hoover's COINTELPRO program. But in this book, the conspirators were black, and bent on correcting a system they saw as racist and corrupt.

Greenlee died on Monday after a few years of declining health, and as word gets out, appreciations are rolling in — for Greenlee's astute, sometimes acerbic personality, for his love of community (both for his Chicago home town and black America in general), and for writing a book that became a favorite at a turbulent, uncertain time.

Part thriller, part satire and part social commentary, The Spook Who Sat By The Door begins when Gil Hennington, a powerful US Senator, decides the black vote is his answer to winning a tight election. To boost the flagging interest of his black constituents, Herrington needs a race issue. Most of the big ones had been done already, so he decides to point out that the CIA is completely lacking in black agents.

The Racial Equivalent Of A Double-Entendre

Hennington himself has a token black staff member, Carter Summerfield, who is ordered to find a black man suitable to pioneer as the Agency's first black spook.

The book's title is the racial equivalent of a double-entendre: "spook" is a slang street term some black folks used among themselves decades ago. Today it's used ironically, if it's used at all. But in the world of espionage, "spook" is also slang for spy, perhaps an allusion to a field agent's ghostly presence. Greenlee was being sardonic when he created a character that was a spook twice over.

In writing Spook, Greenlee drew on his own background. He had a career in the US Foreign Service, and was posted to trouble spots like Pakistan, Greece and Iraq from the 1950s through the mid-'60s.

We don't know what Greenlee's experience was, but we can guess: his protagonist, agent Dan Freeman, takes all the insults and injuries that usually accompany integrating an organization with no interest in being integrated. He consistently outperformed his white peers, and after five years, he quit. Then he took his Agency expertise underground to form a private black militia. Many of his troops were made of society's unreclaimables — gang members, criminals and high school troublemakers whose street smarts would be useful in the war he was planning to wage.

The book's breathless back cover was enough to intrigue black readers and raise goose bumps on the arms of white ones:

"Your city is in the sight of a weapon so powerful you can't escape its best, a weapon loaded with 300 years' worth of hate (and) hostile neglect," the publisher's synopsis begins.

"The weapona united Black America. This is the story of what could happen when the weapon strikesit could happen before you finish the book!"

Readers brave or curious enough to dive in after that discovered a tale of purposeful deception, where the mildest "professional Negroes" — grudgingly given access to previously all-white venues — are actually the architects of a civil rebellion that will make Nat Turner's 1831 rebellion look like a frat party.

Greenlee spends a lot of the book's time using Freeman to probe the double-consciousness W.E.B. DuBois outlined so elegantly. The rest of it he uses to tartly satirize liberal whites and what Freeman labeled "professional Negroes" — the race consultants whites hired when they needed black insight.

Early on in Spook, Senator Hennington's Negro consultant, Carter Summerfield was worried about his inability to please his boss:

Summerfield had sought desperately to discover what it was the senator wanted to hear in order that he might say it, and was amazed to find that the senator seemed annoyed when his own comments were returned, only slightly paraphrased. In all his career as a professional Negro, Summerfield had never before encountered a white liberal who actually wanted an original opinion from a Negro concerning civil rights, for they all considered themselves experts on the subject. Summerfield found it impossible to believe Senator Hennington any different from the others.

The book was like Greenlee: tough, smart and no-nonsense. When Spook became an independent film in 1973, Greenlee had to make it next door in Indiana — the themes of racial strife he planned to film did not please then-mayor Richard Daley. Despite a lack of permits, Greenlee and his colleagues managed to shoot a few covert scenes for the film in Chicago, where the book takes place. (He told one interviewer he and his crew paid for their tickets and went through the turnstile of the El. "We just came in with a hand-held camera and shot it," he said, simply.)

A Film's Mysterious Disappearance

Then, very shortly after the film finally opened in theaters around the country, it disappeared. A documentary on the making of the movie, Infiltrating Hollywood: The Rise and Fall of the Spook Who Sat by the Door, examines the film's fate:

Greenlee, with typical bluntness, said in a 2012 Chicago radio interview there was no way he could write Spook today if he was asked to. "The idea that street gangs that are now dope-dealing thugs would start a revolution is a historical absurdity," he scoffed. "Now when I wrote [Spook], the gangs had political consciousness."

He was older and more frail, but still fierce, right to the end.

Sam Greenlee died in his beloved Chicago on Monday night, of natural causes. He was 83 years old. Chicago's DuSable Museum, a premier black history museum that was one of Greenlee's favorite places, will hold a memorial ceremony for him on June 6.

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