Saturday, January 7, 2012

Sam Greenlee’s debut novel drew up the blueprint for Black nationalization

From The Revolution by Cherryl Aldave:

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.


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