Best known for his novels The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1969) and Baghdad Blues (1976), Sam Greenlee is a controversial writer and political activist. His work has always faced opposition because of its confrontational style and troubling imagery, but it has also attracted a large audience of activists, rebels, and radicals. Greenlee makes commercial publishers nervous; in fact The Spook Who Sat by the Door was first published in England when if failed to find an American publisher, but it went on to sell over one million copies and was printed in six languages. A film adaptation of the novel—about a black CIA operative who decides to use his training to organize race riots—was withdrawn without explanation after a promising opening at the box office in 1973. His 1976 novel Baghdad Blues, set in Iraq in 1958, the year of the Ba'athist takeover of the country, is based on his own experiences and has acquired a new audience since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Black Issues Book Review listed Greenlee's two novels as among the bestselling books by a black author in that year. Greenlee is also a poet, a journalist, and since 1988 a radio talk show host in his home town of Chicago.
Sam Greenlee was born on July 13, 1930, in Chicago and was educated in public schools before attending the University of Wisconsin, Madison, graduating in 1952 with a bachelor's degree in political science. After graduation he joined the United States Army, serving for two years as a first lieutenant, then studied international relations at the University of Chicago between 1954 and 1957. Greenlee claims that he was politically active from an early age, participating in his first sit-in at the age of 15. But his early career with the United States Information Agency put him at the heart of the government propaganda machine, placing artists and writers on assignments to promote American culture overseas. Greenlee became one of the first black foreign service officers, holding assignments in Iraq, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Greece between 1957 and 1965. He finally left the service after becoming disillusioned about his role as a government propagandist. He told Echo magazine: "Essentially I was an overseas public relations representative for the United States. Our job was to sell the best image of the United States overseas—basically I lied a lot."
Novel Became Cult Favorite
After leaving the U.S. Information Agency, Greenlee lived for a while on the Greek island of Mykonos in the Aegean Sea and wrote The Spook Who Sat by the Door in four months during his stay there. The novel centers on a black CIA operative hired by the agency to demonstrate its multiracial outlook. Tiring of doing menial office tasks and showing white visitors around the facility, agent Dan Freeman quits his job and uses his training and experience as a spy to set up a black revolutionary protest movement in Chicago. Greenlee himself lived on Chicago's South Side, the backdrop to some of the most destructive rioting of the 1960s. In 1968 his novel provided a frightening reminder of the events of that year. More threateningly, the novel actually depicted the revolutionaries as capable of winning. It was submitted to 40 publishers before finally being accepted by Allison and Busby in London.
Spook soon became a cult favorite, selling well in black and radical bookshops around the United States. It is regarded as the first black-nationalist novel and is credited with inspiring the "blaxploitation" movie genre of the 1970s. Most importantly it attacked the real-life rioters for making no attempt to channel their anger and energy into anything more significant than violence and destruction; in the character of Dan Freeman, Greenlee created a true revolutionary leader, which made him far more dangerous to the white establishment than a mere rioter. The novel suggests that the outcome of the rioting might have been very different had the real-life rioters been led by someone as well organized and rational as Dan Freeman.
In presenting black protest groups with techniques that might be used for the violent overthrow of white-run organizations and government, Greelee's novel was always going to be controversial. But the novel made Greenlee's life harder in unexpected ways. His telephone was apparently tapped, his mail intercepted, and he began to suspect that the FBI was working to damage his career and silence him. Perhaps because of this Greenlee has earned a reputation for bitterness and a tendency to view his relative lack of mainstream success as part of a conspiracy against him. There is no denying the political power of the novel and its potential to frighten powerful whites. That power is emphasized by a story Greenlee told Echo. Befriending an ex-FBI agent Aubrey Lewis in a bar near the San Francisco airport, Greenlee was flattered to hear that not only had Lewis read Spook, but it was "required reading in the FBI academy."
More trouble followed when Ivan Dixon attempted to get permission to film an adaptation of Spook in Chicago. The city authorities tried to stop the film being made, refusing to allow the filmmakers access to Chicago streets and making it difficult for them to hire personnel and acquire the large numbers of firearms demanded by Greenlee's script. In the end the film was shot in Gary, Indiana, aided by that city's black mayor, Richard Hatcher, though one or two clandestine shots of Chicago did make it into the final cut. After a long struggle to raise money to make the film, it was eventually released by United Artists in September 1973, only to be withdrawn after a few weeks despite a good start at the box office. It was re-released in 2004 and toured film festivals around the United States to great acclaim.
Despite their violent plotlines, both the novel and the film of Spook come down on the side of freedom rather than race hatred. A reviewer in The Christian Century noted that "the film makes it clear that the revolution arose not out of hatred toward whites, but out of love for the black people and their liberation." This is in keeping with Greenlee's own literary stance, favoring diversity rather than domination or conflict. He told Echo of his dismay when he discovered that his creative writing tutor at the University of Wisconsin was "addicted to Hemingway and Faulkner," because for Greenlee writing and literature should be inclusive and diverse.
At a Glance …
Born Samuel Greenlee on July 13, 1930, in Chicago, IL; married Nienke Greenlee (divorced); children: one daughter. Education: University of Wisconsin, BS, political science, 1952; University of Chicago, studied international relations, 1954-57. Military service: United States Army, 1952-54.
Career: United States Information Agency, Washington, DC, served in Iraq, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Greece, 1957-65; Leadership Council for Metropolitan Communities, Chicago deputy director, 1965-69; WVON-AM radio, talk show host, 1988–; Columbia College, screenwriting tutor, 1990–.
Awards: United States Information Agency, meritorious service award for bravery during the 1958 Baghdad revolution; Sunday Times (London) Book of the Year award, for The Spook Who Sat by the Door, 1969; Ragdale Foundation fellowship, 1989; Illinois Arts Council fellowship, 1990; Illinois Poet Laureate award, 1990.
Addresses: Office— c/o WVON 1450 AM, 3350 South Kedzie, Chicago IL, 60623.
Enjoyed Brief Revival
Despite his brushes with the authorities, Greenlee continued to write, producing two books of poetry, including Blues for an African Princess (1971), and in 1976 his second novel, Baghdad Blues. Based on his experiences in Iraq during the Ba'athist takeover in 1958, when Saddam Hussein's party came to power, the novel did not have the immediate impact of his first. But it nevertheless offers some insights into that period in Iraq's history. Although it did little at the time to revive Greenlee's fortunes as a writer, the political climate of the early twenty-first century helped make his novels relevant for a new generation. Both Spook and Baghdad Blues speak of political struggle, oppression, and opposition.
Although he has not published a novel-length prose work since the 1970s, Greenlee has published stories, poems, and articles in small magazines and journals, as well as stage plays and screenplays; he has stuck to the routine of writing for four hours a day that he established early in his career and completed a third novel, Djakarta Blues, in 2002. Greenlee spent much of the 1980s living in Spain and West Africa, but in 1988 he became a talk show host on Chicago's WVON-AM radio station; in 1990 he won the Illinois Poet Laureate Award. Since 1990 he has also taught screenwriting at Columbia College in Chicago, read his poetry at recitals, and since the re-release of the film The Spook Who Sat by the Door in 2004, has introduced the film at many festivals and one-off showings.
The Spook Who Sat by the Door, Baron, 1969.
Baghdad Blues, Bantam, 1976.
Blues for an African Princess, Third World Press, 1971.
Ammunition!: Poetry and Other Raps, Bogle L'Ouverture, 1975.
The Times (London), Saturday March 1, 1969, p. 20.
The Christian Century, October 3, 1973.
Echo: A Student Magazine of Columbia College, Chicago, Winter 2002.
Black Issues Book Review, May-June, 2003.
"How the Riots Might Have Turned Out," Chicken Bones: A Journal for Literary and Artistic African American Themes (first published in The Christian Century, October 3, 1973), www.nathanielturner.com/spookbythedoor.htm (October 26, 2004).
"Sam Greenlee," Biography resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (November 1, 2004).
"Sam Greenlee's Book Is Still Making a Statement," Chicken Bones: A Journal for Literary and Artistic African American Themes, www.nathanielturner.com/spookbythedoor2.htm (October 26, 2004).
Interview with Sam Greenlee on the DVD edition of The Spook Who Sat by the Door, Monarch Home Video, January 2004.
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