by Gloria Dulan-Wilson
This is a tough week for me – having lost two friends on the same day, immediately after having memorialized Malcolm X, our BLACK SHINING PRINCE – and roughly a little over a month since my own mother’s passing – Elombe Brath and Sam Greenlee’s transitions have made me feel especially sensitive. Each, in turn, have catapulted me down a sort of memory lane/rewind. I think I mentioned in an initial statement that I dropped my cell phone upon hearing of Sam Greenlee’s demise, and it literally went “dead” on me for two days. That silence has given me an opportunity to really do some reflecting about this wonderful, charismatic brother. So this, then, is a personal homage to Sam Greenlee:
I first “met” Sam Greenlee through his epoch making book – THE SPOOK WHO SAT BY THE DOOR. I picked the book up at the then Michaux Book Store in Harlem, which used to be at the corner of Adam Clayton Powell (7th Ave) and 125th Street, where the State Office Building currently stands. The book was, in fact, recommended to me by Dr. Michaux himself, who was, at the time, the go to person for Black books – he had all the Black books you ever, or never, heard of. He had read them all, and was conversant on the books, authors, issues, whatever. He was a delight for a book worm such as myself – who would literally spend almost all of my meagre salary on books (or fabrics). He had the entire collection of J.A. Rogers WORLD’S GREAT MEN OF COLOR; Frantz Fanon’s BLACK SKINS/WHITE MASKS; you name it, he had it! or he’d order it. It was Dr. Michaux who brought Sam’s book to my attention.
So when I say I “met” Sam Greenlee, it was via Dr. Michaux’s admiration for his work, that I became initially aware of this great brother. It was an exciting read, but at the time I thought it was a work of fiction – and I was more into historical information – so I enjoyed it, but kind of passed it off as not in the realm of possibilities.
The next time I became aware of Sam Greenlee was when the movie was released. Having already read the book, I wanted to see how close the movie was to it. Also, during the 60’s and 70’s, we were supporting any and all Black movies, regardless of their genre, because it was an opportunity to help our other Black brothers and sisters stay employed and “relevant” in the Hollyweird movie industries.
Having seen Ivan Dixon in “NOTHING BUT A MAN,” with Abbie Lincoln (Aminata Moseka), we definitely wanted to support his directorial efforts. And, I will definitely say that the movie version did not disappoint. We were keenly aware of the fact that this was about as close as it came to having a “blueprint for revolution” played out on the big screen. There were discussion groups around the movie, and whether those were real possibilities, or just a work of fiction and fantasy. This was during the waning years of The Black Power Movement, and many of the leaders, who were still trying to set up community based organizations, were beginning to buckle under the challenges of Black communities being deliberately flooded with drugs. THE SPOOK WHO SAT BY THE DOOR seemed to them a ray of hope. Instructive and constructive in its scope, many were determined to have their teams view it as such.
The fact is, however, that those plans never saw the light of day, and Black communities and organizations were subsequently eviscerated by a combination of drugs on the one hand, and gentrification on the other.
Fast forward to 1998, the 25th anniversary of the release of the movie – and the first time I actually met Sam Greenlee – through the good offices of my sister/friend/activist/artist Maxine McCrey Montano – who had known Sam for decades. She introduced us at Perks Fine Cuisine (our favorite Harlem Hangout Black in the day), as a “poet.” She thought it would be a “good thing for me to interview him for the New York Beacon,” which was the publication I wrote for at the time.
I almost turned down the opportunity to do so, because we had so many Black poets at the time, and unfortunately, Black newspapers were not paying for innovative, unsolicited articles. However, Sam was so comical and down to earth, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. Imagine my surprise when I found out that I was talking to The Sam Greenlee, author of THE SPOOK WHO SAT BY THE DOOR!! I initially didn’t believe it was really him. I had to pinch myself a couple of times to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. Then I silently thanked God for this wonderful opportunity.
Sam Greenlee was an easy going, plain spoken, not afraid of anything or anybody sort of brother. He was what most would have called “straight with no chaser.” He said what he had to say, and if you couldn’t handle it, he was making absolutely no apologies – he’s just smile and continue with his statement – he didn’t deny the fact that you might not like what he said, he just continued and you had to handle your personal reaction as though it was your own personal problem, not his. PERIOD!
I told him how thrilled I was when I first saw the movie, but was disappointed that the main character, Freeman, was “killed.” To which he responded that he was not necessarily “killed.” That there was originally a plan for a sequel to the movie, with the consideration for a possible TV series – however, all that was dashed when the CIA and FBI had the movie pulled and canned.
Though I knew it was in the realm of possibility, I wanted to make sure I heard him correctly, so I asked him: “Did you just say the CIA and FBI had your movie pulled?” To which he responded, “You damned right they did.” So of course my question as to why ( a dumb question, but you have to ask it), met with one of his intense answers: “Because it was a blueprint for Black insurgence. They were afraid that the Black liberation groups would use it to get reparations and stop victimization and spread of drugs.”
When I asked him on what basis had he originally written the book and movie, he explained that his experience in the USIA (United States Information Agency) for eight years, and was one of the only Black men in the agency at the time, he began to develop an awareness of the undercurrent of racism and discrimination during that time. It inspired him to write the book, but then he couldn’t get it published in the US, at a time when there was a proliferation of Black authors. He knew his book was being turned down systematically in the US because of the content.
Since it had been over twenty years since I had read the book, or heard about the movie, my recollection of it was sketchy at best – I just remembered that I loved the fact that the hero, Freeman, showed vividly how to use white’s racist assumptions against them; and how play low-key, and keep your own counsel, in order to learn their secrets; and, in turn, teach what you know to those brothers and sisters who didn’t have the opportunity to learn first hand, was exemplary.
It gave new meaning to “each one reach one; each one teach one.” Something that, by that time, few, if any of us, were even remotely practicing. He liked the fact that I got the essence of the book and the fact that, whether we were working together for “revolutionary purposes,” or for just the expansion of knowledge, our working together as a well oiled team is the key to success. And that is what frightened the CIA and FBI more than anything else – the possibility of unity among Blacks, that would then be translated into international (African) unity (especially at the time he wrote the book) — where Africans and African Americans were beginning to work together.
For the uninitiated, who has neither seen the movie or read the book, I’m including a caption from the Oxford Companion to African American Literature: “In The Spook Who Sat by the Door, Greenlee presents a satirical novel that criticizes the racist atmosphere of the United States by examining the life of a fictitious black CIA agent, Dan Freeman. It is evident that Greenlee creates his images from his experience in the military and United States Information Agency.
References to Freeman as a ““spook”” in both the title and the novel possess a sense of duality or double consciousness: spook is used as a racial insult directed toward Blacks, in addition to being a slang term for spies. Greenlee uses this duality to establish a connection between Freeman’s character and the African American experience during the turbulent 1960s, which parallels Greenlee’s service time. With this multifaceted character, Greenlee begins to examine the mask that has been worn by African Americans for generations to hide their true feelings. Read more…
When I said Sam would speak his mind and let the chips fall where they may, it was never more evident than when he spoke of his angst in trying to get the movie completed. His anger at Jesse Jackson for not having “greenlighted” the backing of the movie was palpable, and problematical for me, because I considered (consider) Jesse Jackson a hero. He reluctantly admitted that he considered “early” Jesse a hero, but “sell out” Jesse, “I can’t stand him.” Couple that with the fact that his movie was pulled from all the theatres at the same time throughout the US, and it was only because a hand full of boot-leggers actually copied the movie on handheld videos that they were even seen at all after that time up until 2000, had made him somewhat bitter.
Of course I pointed out that during the 70’s we were all being watched by the CIA and FBI, and many of our actions were more of a defense/self-preservation nature, than against each other. That cast in that light, Jesse himself may have been caught between a rock and a hard place in making the decision to not back him at that time.
Apparently he liked what I said, because he gifted me with an autographed copy of the book – which I still cherish to this day. It was the beginning of a long friendship. Though I can’t say I saw him on a regular basis, whenever he was in New York, he would give me a call to let me know where he would be speaking. If I could make it, I would – if not, we’d spend at least twenty minutes on the phone catching up.
During one of our many conversations, I asked him how people received the movie now that it had been re-released and was now in the public domain and on Youtube – and he laughed: “They can show this movie over and over to these kids today – they wouldn’t act on any of this because they’re too comfortable. They have their designer jeans, their PlayStations, and the only time many of them know they’re Black is if they accidentally look in the mirror. Nobody’s afraid of Black people these days, except other Black people. Back in the 70’s when we were real, we were Black and we knew it, they (whites) definitely felt they were in danger of Black dissidents putting this into action.”
When asked if he was finally getting paid serious royalties for his movie, he responded, “Nah! Just the book sales – but I have to practically hand distribute them myself. Our people don’t read anymore!” The movie can be seen on YouTube in its entirety – either with or without the various interviews with Sam that have taken place since it was re-released in the year 2000, nearly forty years after it was taken off the market.
Though he had recently done a series of lectures, he also is quite candid about being forced to go on welfare for a while, because he was denied the opportunity of teaching, or being gainfully employed in any of the many areas of his specialty – a fact he feels can be attributed to the FBI profiling him as being a potential dissident.
The last time I saw Sam was at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, NY where they were honoring his work and showing the movie for the student body. As always, Sam hit the ground running – with several things on his agenda, including hanging out in “what’s left of the jazz clubs in Harlem. They just keep disappearing.” That was the Fall of 2012.
They’ve called the movie a “cult classic” which generally means that it’s now being dismissed as being anything serious, and is only followed by a certain genre of people. I find it offputting, when in point of fact there is so much of intrinsic value in both the book and movie that are more than relative today. His other works include include Baghdad Blues about the 1958 Iraqui revolution and his experiences traveling in Iraq in the 1950s; and Blues for an African Princess – a collection of poems, and Ammunition. He also wrote the screenplay for a film short called Lisa Trotter (2010).
Sam had been named Poet Laureate of Chicago in 1990, a wonderful honor bestowed upon him for his years of work encapturing the heart, spirit and aspirations of Black people. Always one to have his eye on the relevant and impactful subtleties of life, it’s of no small importance that he chose to make his transition on Malcolm X’s birthday. No doubt he, Elombe and brother Malcolm are having quite a conversation right about this time. Wouldn’t it be great to have a “Spook” sit in on that conversation, and bring back to us still wandering around in confusion, the wisdom those three could impart??!!
My condolences and congratulations to his family and friends on Chicago and the world over. Sam Greenlee is truly one of our treasures.
Stay Blessed &
bullet Columnist Gloria Dulan-Wilson Is a veteran New York City Journalist. Her experiences, perspective & sense of history are an invaluable combination. “check out my blog:” www.gloria-dulan-wilson.blogspot.com