Sam Greenlee

From the July-August 2014 issue of News & Letters

The late Sam Greenlee (1930 – 2014) is best known today for his classic 1969 novel The Spook Who Sat by the Door. This story of Freeman, the first Black CIA agent, who returns to his Chicago neighborhood to organize a revolutionary army of young Freedom Fighters, has survived as an underground classic. The 1973 film of it, directed by actor Ivan Dixon, was pulled from theaters due to government pressure, but it too has survived through grassroots word of mouth.

In his own life, Greenlee had worked in the U.S. Information Agency, traveling the world. In his posts from Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Greece he witnessed the prejudice and elitism that infected the representatives of imperialism. His second novel, Baghdad Blues (1976) was based on his experience of the 1958 revolution in Iraq. His worldview was rooted in the understanding that human beings weren’t things to be manipulated from above, but hungered for freedom.

Sam Greenlee lived that insight as his truth. He could have risen in bourgeois politics. He had the gifts and the credentials. Instead, he chose to live in the neighborhood where he grew up, and with its people: “I spent the best part of a decade in post-colonial countries. I was rubbing shoulders with actual soldiers of that revolution, which was global. And we were part of it. What a lot of people don’t want to recognize is how much we inspired Africans and Asians with our Civil Rights Movement.”

—Tim Finnegan

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