Local Lit: the relaxed rage of Sam Greenlee | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Local Lit: the relaxed rage of Sam Greenlee 

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Sam Greenlee is relaxed. He sits lotus style on a rainbow-striped blanket, rolling cigarettes and talking in reflective, short streams about the rage that fueled his 1969 underground classic The Spook Who Sat by the Door.

"I planted the seed and I'll live to see it grow," says Greenlee. The seed was a portrait of a black CIA agent who trains a Chicago street gang to orchestrate a Mau Mau-style war on whitey. Its growth was stunted, Greenlee has long contended, by a campaign to keep the 1973 film version of the book out of theaters. "They haven't discouraged me," says Greenlee, 63. "I'm old but I'm not tired. I'm satisfied with my career, I've done the right thing."

Growing up in the 30s and 40s in west Woodlawn, Greenlee lived an "idyllic" childhood filled with Sunday school, Boy Scouts, and the rural, southern values of his parents. He went to Englewood High and earned a track scholarship to the University of Wisconsin in 1948. He began a graduate degree in international relations at the University of Chicago. "I went to two white, brainwashing institutions. But I'm the black dog that didn't fall for Pavlov's scam," he says with a chuckle.

Greenlee joined the foreign service in 1957. "I wanted to see the world," he says, stroking his silver beard. "Baghdad was my first post; they were having a revolution. I was in Pakistan and Greece while both countries were having a coup. What I've lived is far more exciting than anything I could make up."

After eight years, he left the foreign service but stayed on the Greek island of Mykonos, where he began writing his first novel. "I never could write while I was surrounded by those people," he says of his colleagues. "I was so enraged when I came home every night. I was watching them undermine whole cultures. The U.S. is the biggest threat to world peace there is."

Greenlee worked on his book, basing it on his experiences as an information officer in the foreign service and a deputy director of a Chicago social service agency. His main character is the first to integrate the CIA. "I was never in the CIA but I was surrounded by them. It was easy to find out what they do. The first thing a white man does when confronted by a black man is brag. They have a need to feel mighty. I would just sit and listen."

Greenlee worked simultaneously on the book and the screenplay. After being rejected by 38 American publishing houses, The Spook Who Sat by the Door was published in 1969 by Allison & Busby in London, where it became a best-seller. Then Bantam picked it up. With just four minor reviews, the brief, simply written book became a favorite of black radicals and students embroiled in the civil rights movement. Fifteen editions have been printed, including Italian, Dutch, Japanese, Spanish, and Swedish. "I'm the best-selling underground author I know of," says Greenlee. "It sold with no promotion, it was straight word of mouth."

The back cover of the paperback reads: "Your city is in the sight of a weapon . . . loaded with 300 years' worth of hate and hostile neglect. The weapon--a united Black America. This is the story of what could happen when the weapon strikes. . . . It could happen before you finish the book!"

"White people ignored the book," says Greenlee. "But they jumped all over the film." In 1970 Greenlee began shooting the film with $6,500 from black investors. "We decided to wing it. We raised money as we shot. I didn't know on Thursday if we'd make payroll on Friday."

The Spook Who Sat by the Door, starring actual Chicago street hustlers, was released on Labor Day weekend 1973 by United Artists. The film, with its militant message, unnerved mainstream America along with some members of the civil rights movement who balked at its violence. "It disappeared from the market," says Greenlee coolly. "In effect it was banned."

According to Greenlee ten years of tapped phones, intercepted mail, and IRS auditing followed. His salvation was the college circuit. When that dried up he began writing plays. "Every guerrilla has an escape route and mine was going to be the black theater," he says. But none of his plays have ever been produced. "There's no room for me in black theater. What you have now are the safest, tamest Negroes walking. They're not going to do anything to rock the boat, they have their grants. They're bribing them to produce safe crap."

Greenlee did publish another novel, Baghdad Blues (1970), and two books of poetry, Blues for an African Princess (1971) and Ammunition (1975). Next month he plans to journey to a small farming village in the Andalusia region of Spain to write a "massive" autobiographical work and complete Babylon Blues, a novel.

"I fought a good fight and I'm still winning," he says. The book is "beginning to find a new audience with youngbloods," he says smiling. "In my angriest moments, I think I should have done it instead of written it."

Sam Greenlee will read poetry from his unpublished collection Be-Bop Man, Be-Bop Woman at a farewell party on Tuesday, April 19, at Dejoie's Bistro, 230 W. Kinzie, at 8 PM. Cover is $3, $5 after 8 PM.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Cynthia Howe.

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