50 years ago, in 1965, the Voting Rights Act was signed. This also happens to be the year that Watts went up flames.
The Watts uprising in California left 1000 people injured and 34 people dead, and it led to more than 3900 arrests because of years of police brutality. In 2014, in cities across the United States–from Ferguson and St. Louis to Chicago and New York–there was unrest as people organized to protest police brutality and a justice system that repeatedly refused to indict police officers that killed unarmed black men (black women, too, have not been immune to murder at the hands of police).
Sam Greenlee’s 1969 novel The Spook Who Sat By the Door captured the spirit of the many revolts in the 1960s, leveling a harsh critique of America’s failure to deliver on its democratic ideals and promises to black folk. The revolt in Chicago that explodes at the end of Greenlee’s novel and catches fire in cities across America mirrored the racial disturbances in major cities in 1964, 1965, and 1967, and the uprisings in more than 100 cities across the country when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee in 1968. It also mirrors Ferguson, Missouri, after Michael Brown was murdered. The Spook is a unique novel because it is more than a response to the contradictions of American democracy. It is calculated art, void of blindness or naiveté, offering an effective example of discourse of black protest for the future.
Greenlee’s novel does more than aptly capture the explosion of black anger over continuing oppression despite victories of the civil rights movement—it provides an action plan. The art of Greenlee’s protagonist Dan Freeman embodied the aesthetic Black Arts and politics of the era. Freeman, a black man whose identity is clear, constantly strategizes to overthrow America’s power structure (writers such as Ishmael Reed, Chester Himes, John A. Williams and James Baldwin displayed similar anger) in a quiet systematic fashion on the surface, while training young revolutionaries for war against the government. The Spook was published the same year as John A. Williams’ Sons of Darkness, Sons of Light, and Edwin Corley’s Siege, but what sets Greenlee’s novel apart is how he expands previous notions of protest while embracing a Black Aesthetic ideology that called for revolution after exhausting notions of peaceful solutions. The Spook is steeped in both Black Arts Movement and the Black Power Movement notions of self-definition and black community. Greenlee’s art and aesthetic sensibilities emanate from the local responses of cities like Watts and his own city, Chicago.
Greenlee’s novel received a lukewarm reception from some critics, some of whom were unimpressed with its overall literary quality and others who were unimpressed with Greenlee’s handbook on how to become a successful revolutionary by beating the system at its own game. However, some reviewers actually liked the novel. Those embracing it thought that Greenlee successfully balanced militant fervor and his anger with a satirical portrait of the foolishness of whites, which marked a deep departure from black authors appealing to whites. Despite the mixed critical response, the novel exploded on the underground scene, especially among grassroots activists, and in black communities across the country. From this sector, the book drew rave reviews and a very positive reception.
It was so popular, in fact, that a film adaptation emerged a few years later. Greenlee was part of producing this film, which also carried the title of the novel. (It too was a grassroots effort). The film was equally popular, drawing sold-out audiences in independent movie houses across the country. However, the dangerous message of the film and the book seemed to limit mainstream distribution of the film, despite the overwhelming demand for it. In the mid-1980s, when I was a sophomore at the University of Rochester, a fellow student, William Lee, managed to get a copy of the film to screen for our weekly Coffee House group. It blew us away! The film and novel’s appeal during the late 1970s and at our Coffee House gathering stemmed from its call for impatient but revolutionary action that involved strategically taking justice, rather than waiting or hoping for justice to be served. It followed the edicts of its era, the Black Arts Movement (BAM), that called for art with an openly political impetus.
What is undeniable is that both the novel and film were a huge hit in the Black community—especially on the grassroots level. It touched a nerve. So much so that Mr. Greenlee paid a price for his truthful art that perhaps exposed too much.
In a 2008 interview that I conducted with Mr. Greenlee, he explained to me that the advice of the grandfather character in Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man was a driving force for his own novel. According to Greenlee:
“[The grandfather explains] how to survive in the context of racist white America [living with one’s head in the lion’s mouth]. I took the concept one step further. You don’t just try to survive. You kiss ass to kick ass. Every one of our great revolutionaries kissed ass to kick ass. The novel is not intended to be a refutation of Ellison but to move the grandfather’s comments to a different level. The novel [The Spook Who Sat By the Door] is also a response to standing and fighting instead of being the nigger boy running . . . You hit them [enemies] on the flanks and the rear then when they coalesce you run and disappear.”
The Spook Who Sat By the Door was a BAM anthem, rising to the Black Power calls to challenge and repudiate the values, morals, and ethics of the white majority. Greenlee’s form of masking, along with his adherence to BAM ideals, allowed him to produce art tied to the black community that fostered social change. The art or aesthetics in The Spook concurs with the BAM mantra of creating a revolution in all realms: streets, intellect, and culture. Thus the ideology driving the novel has synergy with Black life and cultural traditions like blues and jazz. Greenlee culls from Ellison’s collection of jazz and blues men found in Invisible Man, then folds them into the singular persona of his protagonist Dan Freeman, making him a blues/jazz figure who is fully aware of the different registers or tensions he must play simultaneously over and around.
Greenlee explained to me that he created Dan Freeman to fill a void he believed existed in black literature at the time: “All the protagonists like Ellison’s invisible protagonist want to be seen as equal to whites. Dan Freeman does not care whether they see him as equal. He considers them to be inferior. He thinks they are fools and uses them as fools.” Indeed, his protagonist never ponders any diametric opposition to the black community or his true identity because it is the community that inspires him to act.
Near the end of my interview with Greenlee, I pushed him to compare his novel to Ellison’s and other black novelists. He cut me off and said:
“Look, The Spook is a departure from traditional black protest fiction. He [Dan Freemen] is not concerned with being seen as equal. He will accept the racist status quo to do this; that is what differentiates him from the protagonist in The Man Who Cried I Am and Bigger Thomas [Native Son]. The novel is not intended to be a refutation of Ellison but to move the grandfather’s comments to a different level. I have seen people destroyed because they did not say ‘no.’ The only two choices we have is to run or fight.”
Perhaps more strident and strategic in his attack against white liberalism than Ellison, Greenlee, like the youth protesting in the 1960s and right now, has less faith in a truly democratic, post-racial society. His fiction depicts the truth about a government filled with contradictions, injustice and failed democracy—similar issues plaguing society in the present moment.
Greenlee chose not to arm his protagonist with mere vernacular protest—the power of language. Instead, he keeps Dan silent, speaking mostly through action: a multifaceted fight with his mind, hands, and, at times, a gun. Greenlee holds up Dan as the new model of protest. What Greenlee advocates for in the post-1960s era are new revolutionaries. People who, like Dan Freeman, can be silent, but orchestrate the tensions of the music of the revolt, conducting the action from within and in the streets that makes it a reality.
In this way, Greenlee achieved a unique and perhaps under-appreciated literary jazz expression that offered readers a new perspective of revolution. Today, 50 years after Watts and six months after Ferguson, The Spook Who Sat By the Door is worthy of reexamination by contemporary readers.
Thabiti Lewis is associate professor of English and Critical Culture
Gender and Race at Washington State University Vancouver. He is the
author of Ballers of the New School: Race and Sports in America and editor of Conversations with Toni Cade Bambara. He writes about mid-twentieth century American literature and popular culture.