Sam Greenlee’s debut novel, The Spook Who Sat by the Door, drew up the blueprint for Black nationalization
Former propaganda officer wrote a novel serving as an insurrectionist blueprint for uprooting oppressive governments from the inside out.
by Cherryl Aldave
Sam Greenlee, author of The Spook Who Sat by the Door, passed away at the age of eighty-three on Monday, May 19, 2014. The following interview was originally published online as “The Revolution” in 2011.
Over forty years later, Sam Greenlee’s debut novel still kicks ass. The tome often dubbed “the first Black nationalist novel” was birthed in 1968 in the middle of a quasi writers’ workshop/smoke session between Greenlee and writers Jim Creighton and Mel Clay.
“We were sipping Greek cognac and smoking a joint,” recalls Greenlee, “and I told Mel the idea of this book called The Nigger Who Sat by the Door, and he said, ‘Man…you got to do this! It’s timely and has to be done now.’ ” Being that Greek weed is good—and I mean really good—Greenlee completed the manuscript in just four months on the Greek island of Mykonos. The book, ultimately titled The Spook Who Sat by the Door, was hailed as an insurrectionist blueprint for uprooting oppressive governments from the inside out.
Spook is loosely based on Greenlee’s job as one. Not the spy kind though. In the 1950s, America ushered in a plethora of Black firsts, dually achieved through African Americans’ formidable efforts to fracture the American caste system as well as through more spurious reasons. To avoid lawsuits from claims of racist hiring practices, civil rights–era businesses often employed African Americans to prop near entryways in a preemptive move meant to thwart discrimination claims. They were, in effect, spooks—one of many derogatory terms used by mid-century Whites to refer to African Americans—who sat by the door.
Greenlee’s own “prop” job was as one of the first African American officers in the United States Information Agency; he served as a cog in the wartime propaganda machine under the leadership of Edward R. Murrow. Between 1957 and 1965, Greenlee held assignments in Iraq, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Greece.
Tired of a being a token liar for hire, Greenlee left the USIA in 1965, settling in Greece, where his weekly writers’ meetings would result in the creation of the spookiest spook of all. Spook’s protagonist made Whites so nervous that no American publisher would touch it. The novel was finally published in 1969 on the U.K. imprint Allison & Busby, with Greenlee and Clay later collaborating on its screenplay.
In 1969, the United States saw riots destroying cities from coast to coast. Against this backdrop of Black rage and white bombs exploding on America’s streets, Spook’s central character Dan Freeman was charming, calculating, and cool as a Lester Young solo, flipping tables on the Man’s establishment without so much as mussing a hair on his Afroed head. Freeman felt the energy African Americans put into rioting should have been utilized in a more organized manner. Spook lays out what might have happened if it had.
Since its publication, Spook has sold over a million copies in six languages. The film was released in 1973 but disappeared after three weeks; soon after, it resurfaced on bootleg tapes screened in underground cinemas and living rooms around the world. In 2004, the film was rereleased on DVD.
Currently, Sam Greenlee is a youthful eighty-one years old. He keeps fit and stays sharp by using two-pedal motion to get around his beloved Chicago, Illinois, and writing for four hours a day.
Sam, what was your job with the USIA?
I was a propagandist. I sold the United States like toothpaste. [We] used all forms of media—journalistic releases, pamphlets, magazines…poets, playwrights, orchestras, jazz musicians…to put a good face on American culture. In both Iran and Iraq, the USIA [produced] propaganda for the Iraqis and the Iranians to support the king in Iraq and the shah in Iran.
How much of Spook was inspired by insurrections you encountered in Indonesia, Greece, Iraq, et cetera?
All of them. If I hadn’t been out there among revolutionaries, I never could have written the book. I was rubbing shoulders with people who had gotten nose to nose with the White folks and kicked their ass. And [I watched] them desperately trying to rebuild nations that had been systematically destroyed by their colonial masters. And they’re still struggling.
How did jazz influence your writing?
My all-time favorite jazz musician was Lester Young. If you listen to his work, you’ll understand my own work. It’s laid back, understated…but it hits you over the head when you least expect it. At one time, I wanted to be a jazz musician. Somewhere along the line after I became a writer, I said, “I am a jazz musician.” My notes are words. Some of Spook’s biggest fans are jazz musicians, because of all the jazz references in the book. Herbie Hancock wrote the score for Spook. And he did it for scale. He didn’t draw the kind of money he was worth. There was a personal connection. He grew up in the same neighborhood I did, and I went to high school with his older sister.
When Barack Obama announced his bid for the presidency in 2008, I thought, “Could this be Dan Freeman in the flesh?”
I was hoping that’s what he is, but I think what you see is what you get—a good little colored boy who’s gotten into the presidency by being unthreatening. I’ve given up on him in terms of foreign policy. He’s got to do the kind of things Lyndon Johnson did to get the Civil Rights Act through, and he’s not doing it. He’s still running for office. Somebody needs to [tell him], “Look, man, you’re the president. It’s time for you to kick some ass.”
The last chapter of Spook leaves readers hanging. Why?
I left it dangling in the last chapter because the last chapter had to be written by the community. They didn’t do it because the bourgeois leadership sold out. The bourgeoisie is no longer offering leadership and sustenance for the masses. Integration produced segregation on a class basis within the Black community. All of [Dr. Martin Luther] King’s followers are wealthy. Jesse [Jackson] must be working on his third or fourth million. I’m sorry they gave up, but I don’t resent their wealth, because they earned it. They put their lives on the line. I’ve decided to stay the course.
I’ve been to three fine universities. I’ve been around the world. I speak several languages, but I’m still a street nigga who grew up on Sixty-Third Street. I sold dope for a while. I sold coke for a while, but I had to quit because I saw what it was doing to my people. When I was nursing my brother through a terminal illness, and he couldn’t get the disability funds he deserved, my primary means of support was selling the best marijuana in town. The first thing I said in the movie is [that] the guerrilla has to live off the land. And I live off the land. Ordinary Black people support me. Bougie niggas don’t do nothing except stab me in the back.
What was it like on the set of Spook?
It was exhilarating. Two thirds of the crew was White. They were working for scale. Experienced people who could have commanded a lot more money, but they believed we had a right to say what we said. Do you know who was the editor of the film? Michael Kahn [editor of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Fatal Attraction, Schindler’s List, etc.]. This was topflight talent.
What happened in the aftermath of the first viewing of the film?
When the movie premiered in [Chicago’s] Woods Theater, the owner of the theater got a call from city hall saying if he didn’t take that film out of there—he owned six theaters—they were going to investigate all of his theaters and he might lose his license. So he took a scene out of the film—the scene where we blow up the mayor’s office. I went down there and told him, “Man, if you don’t put that scene back in there, I’m coming down there with the Blackstone Rangers and take that film…” He put it back in. It almost broke [their] box office. It was the second-highest-grossing film [next] to a James Bond film they had ever had.
Where else was it shown?
There were a few screenings around the country…New York, Philadelphia… It’s been around but mostly on the underground. We got reports indicating that the FBI visited exhibitors to try to convince them this film was subversive. Some theaters showed it for three weeks, then that was it.
Subversive? What else did they do to try and stop the film’s showing?
Well, there was mail that started being intercepted. Radical Black groups in London sent correspondence that, in COINTELPRO-like fashion, never arrived. My phone was bugged. It was an obvious tap. Like they wanted me to know they were listening. And there was a character assassination plan going around. They never could get it together though.
On one hand, they were saying I was a womanizer, and a homosexual on the other—only fifty percent of which is true. [Director Ivan] Dixon couldn’t work for about two years, and when he did get work, it was as a director in television. He never directed another feature film. Lawrence Cook, who did a dynamite job as [Dan Freeman], never got a comparable role in his career.
Dan Freeman was a former gang member. Why do you think gang members make great freedom fighters?
Because thugs make revolutions. The bourgeois don’t make revolution—they co-opt the revolution. Doesn’t matter if you’re talking about the French, Soviet, or fascist revolution. These were all people’s movements. Once the poor start the revolution, the bourgeois, who have better organization and resources, take over. Stalin was bourgeois, Lenin was bourgeois. Che was bourgeois, Castro was bourgeois—neither one of them ever missed a meal. But to his credit, Che sided with the masses, and so does Castro, but they weren’t of the masses.
Since you’re from Chicago, did you know the Black Panthers’ tragic icon Fred Hampton?
I met him once. I know his son, Fred Jr., a lot better. Fred came by the OBAC [Organization of Black American Culture] Writers Workshop and read some poetry one night. That was the only contact I had with him. I recall at the time that COINTELPRO tried to [position] the gangs in opposition to the Panthers, in particular the Black Stone Rangers. So all he did was sit down with them and said, “Nah, man…we aren’t in conflict, and we ought to be working together.” And during the ’68 aftermath of King’s assassination, the Panthers, the [Black Gangster] Disciples, the Rangers, and other gangs went out in the streets and kept it cool [on the South Side of Chicago]. [Rioters] burnt down the West Side, and they still haven’t recovered. So Fred was a major force, which is precisely why he was killed.
The community accepted the Panthers, because among other things, they started the free health clinic and a breakfast program for poor kids. So all of the propaganda trying to turn the community against them failed. Another thing about gangs, when it comes to revolution, they’re impossible to infiltrate. You can’t just have some Fed show up one day and be like, “Hey, how can I join this gang?”
You have a new work, Lisa Trotter—a modern-day Lysistrata—a choreopoem written for the stage about housing-project ladies withholding sex from men to end gang violence. Are you still trying to get funding for it?
Yes. I was invited down to Winston-Salem for the [National] Black Theatre Festival. They gave me a Living Legend award, and not one Black theater has ever produced one of my plays. When I was there, I passed out thirteen copies of Lisa Trotter. I got one response, which was a rejection. The only play I produced, I raised the money and played the lead, in a theater that I rented.
It was South Side Blues, a compilation of my poetry [performed] in the same way as [Ntozake Shange’s] For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf was performed. It was a success. You know, I’m not a bad actor. One time, this [playwright] was going to do a reading and said, “Sam, can you act?” I said, “How you think I lasted for eight years in the foreign service? Hell yeah, I can act!”
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