“I’ve been telling the government to kiss my ass for years,” says Sam Greenlee, author, film producer and special invited speaker at Detroit’s 5e Gallery this past Saturday.
When Greenlee wrote his powerful book The Spook Who Sat By The Door in 1969, he was telling the powers that be within the United States to do just that. As a veteran of the military and the United States Information Agency in the 1950s, he saw firsthand how the experience of US imperialism abroad related directly to the oppression of African Americans back at home.
“I wrote angry. Not only because of what I saw that they were doing here, but being in the foreign services I saw what they were doing and continuing to do globally,” says Greenlee. “The United States is the only nation in the world who is practicing 18th Century imperialism. And if it didn’t work in the 18th Century, how the fuck is it going to work now?”
Greenlee’s appearance at 5e Gallery was sponsored by the Black History 101 Mobile Museum, and is the first in a series of lectures to be held at the gallery in the upcoming months.
The Spook Who Sat By The Door focuses on the character of Dan Freeman, an African American man who joins the CIA after successfully completing their training program, coming into the system as a token member of the black community. After spending a modest amount of time with the agency, he returns to Chicago to hold a job as a social servant.
The position is a front, however, as his real mission is to train a small guerrilla army of black nationalist freedom fighters seeking to create a new nation within the US. The militant movement takes hold with the people and spreads through cities throughout the country, pushing for liberation beyond the progress made during the Civil Rights Movement.
Greenlee published the novel in 1969 and produced the film in 1973, a turbulent period for race relations in the US. The film exists as a powerful political time capsule, capturing the racial polarization within the US during the era, as well as an understanding of how some felt about the possibility of a revolutionary militant movement within the country.
During the era in which the book was produced, anti-imperialist movements in Algeria, Kenya and Vietnam were capturing the imagination of African American leaders in the United States who were in pursuit of greater freedoms. Greenlee’s novel was written with this global worldview, recognizing that anti-racism and anti-imperialism were synonymous.
Greenlee notes that this message resonates strongly today, as rising anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiments have grown powerful within the United States during the nation’s prolonged period of war with Iraq and Afghanistan. At the center of the peaceful resistance to the war is an anti-imperialist sentiment, the idea that the US should withdrawal its war machine resources from those countries and focus our attention on social shortcomings here at home.
“We’ve been told the greatest lie of the 21st Century, that the only opponents we have are fanatical Arab Muslims. Let me tell you something, I spent the better part of Korea in foreign service, and I can guarantee I observed racist imperialism on a grassroots level, and you do not have to be a Muslim extremist to oppose what I saw then and continuing to this day.”
Over the years, the book and film has gained a substantial following, particularly with many hip hop artists. Greenlee has seen the popularity of Spook rise over the years, but states that he was able to capture the attention of one audience in particular when the film was released.
“It was pretty much ignored when it first came out. Then it became a hit,” said Greenlee. “It didn’t get much attention from the media. It got more attention from the FBI.”