Novelist Sam Greenlee Dies at 83

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“A free  Black mind is a weapon of mass destruction.” That was the message on Sam Greenlee’s voice mail and in many respects, the mantra of his prolific  life.

Sam Greenlee, outspoken writer and native Chicagoan passed away Monday at the age of 83. He is best known for penning the 1969 novel “The Spook Who Sat by the Door” and the subsequent 1973 film of the same name.

The underground classic centers on a CIA agent who quits his position , moves back to Chicago and turns a street gang into a Black revolutionist army. The story also dramatizes an historical phenomena called “blowback” in which a CIA trained group later uses that  specialized training against the agency.

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In many ways the term “Spook ” is a triple entendre. Spook is a derogatory term used against Blacks, similar to the n-word in effect, in addition to being a slang word for “spy”. To his co-workers, the main character is merely a “spook” sitting by the door to make the organization appear diverse from the outside. In actuality, he is a spy, absorbing specialized knowledge that he will soon use to conspire against the American government.

The third implication of the word is more subtle. “Spook” can also mean ghost, and in many ways this movie speaks to the spectre of  Black insurrection that has haunted white society since the days of African slavery.

Greenlee’s novel is based in part on his own experience as a rare Black man working  for the Foreign Service during the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, stationed in Iraq, Pakistan and Greece.

After rejection from 40 US publishers, his novel was published in the UK by Allison and Busby. It was ultimately translated into 6 languages, received the Sunday Times Book of the Year aware, and was considered among early reviewers the fictional accompaniment to Franz Fanon’s 1961 “The Wretched Earth”.

Perhaps White movie execs underestimated the subversive power of Black writers, or maybe “The Spook” camouflaged itself in a parade of B-list Blackploitation flix. However it happened, “The Spook Who Sat By the Door”, quite possibly the most revolutionary film of its time was greenlit and shown in movie theaters nationwide.

For about a week.

Soon after its release, the FBI worked expeditiously to remove the film from all theaters out of fear that the revolutionary message would incite urban rebellions across the nation. In the late eighties, bootleg VHS copies began to emerge, but until the 2004 DVD release, copies of the film were hard to come by.  (For as long as I can remember, we had a copy of the book and movie in the house)

Greenlee sat for many interviews in his later years, including one for the documentary “Infiltrating Hollywood: The Rise and Fall of the Spook Who Sat By the Door,” which chronicled the story of the film’s making and subsequent disappearance.

Throughout his life he remained conscious, outspoken, and unapologetically brilliant. However, he paid the price for his artistic freedom. His literary and film career were pretty much stymied after “The Spook Who Sat By The Door” . He spent the rest of his life much like his main character, an underground hero.

Welcome to America.

In the wake of Greenlee’s passing, I pause to think about the artists we celebrate and those we ignore. Our celebrity culture lionizes artists who produce vacuous work, void of any significant message. Sure, movies may be funny and the music may have a fantastic beat, but where is the substance?

It’s not that there aren’t more meaningful artists creating work, it’s that the publicity machine refuses to recognize artists who challenge the status quo. Wealth and fame in Hollywood are given in exchange for docility.

Greenlee is notable not just for his brilliant work, but for willingly sacrificing his rightful place in the American literary and film cannon, in order to express his truth. In doing so, he left us with one of the most powerful novels and films of our time.

Ayesha

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