The Spook Who Sat By The Door

By Hamish Robertson

This year has seen an extraordinary upswing in revelations about the kinds of violence that are seemingly endemic in American society. In particular, the persistence of an often deadly mixture of readily accessible weapons and prevailing racism, has seen several very high profile killings of unarmed African Americans usually, but not exclusively, young African American men (this is not to ignore the experiences of other groups such as the disabled). The Black Lives Matter movement makes it clear that these events are part of a larger pattern and reflective of other structural issues in American society, including how various systems, such as the judiciary, police and prisons, operate in a prejudicial manner. What seems difficult to understand is, half a century after the civil rights movement gained momentum, that many of these issues seem as bad as or even worse today.

We know these issues have a long, complex and often ugly history and yet we are still asked to see them as singular and unique, which of course they are for each affected individual and their families. But perhaps it is time to revisit the aims and gains of the civil rights era and to reflect on what has not been achieved and what has occurred which should have by now. After endless antiracism, EEO and diversity courses, there is a distinct flavour to much of what we see on the evening news and that is the repetitiveness of the pattern of individual tragedies. This is not the first time that African Americans, and others, have pointed directly at the problems with American society. The endemic problems associated with race and its regulation were addressed in very direct terms by the African American writer Sam Greenlee nearly 50 years ago when this particular tangent on the American Dream was just taking shape.

Sam Greenlee died only two years ago aged 83. His most famous book was The Spook Who Sat By The Door (1968) which was eventually made into a film in 1973. It was largely ignored by the movie industry for 30 years and is now a ‘cult classic’. Greenlee was an extremely interesting man is his own right who travelled widely in the late 1950’s and 1960’s. He condensed many of his domestic and international experiences in the book, which focused on one African American man’s efforts to start a revolution in the United States. And this proposition gives us a reason to read the man’s work and to re-visit the issues he raised at that particular time and place.

The Spook Who Sat By The Door was part satire, with multiple targets, and part a call-to-arms for a better world for African Americans in which they didn’t have to keep trying to become white to get what they wanted, needed or were entitled to. His scathing analysis of mainstream American society was summed up in the priceless phrase “Whitey’s chromeplated shit pile”. He talks about race and racism, coercion and co-option and the sheer magnitude of the role played by various forms of violence in American society – with and without weapons. It can be enjoyed for its anger, its bluntness and his withering view of people who went along to get along, often selling out the very things they claimed to believe in and the communities they claimed to represent. It was a hugely interesting take on things of its time and so many issues that clearly do not appear to have been resolved decades later.

Written against the background of the 1960’s civil rights movement, including the Chicago riots, and his own personal experience of American ‘race relations’, he had a number of targets. In fairness it would have been hard to say enough about the hypocrisy of every group he saw presenting their self-interest as the public good without a much longer and perhaps very different book. And as a result it has in some ways a series of caricatures as characters, voicing the common narratives of the time through these individuals but, even so, his targets still seem highly relevant today. While he positioned the book in relation to the particularly American versions of race and racism, many of his themes were about the universals of power without accountability and the imposition of one groups’ empty stereotypes as societal reality, with the enduring consequences this processes have for everyone.

The central character, Dan Freeman (!), leads a double, even triple, life in which he quietly builds his revolutionary strategy while acting the ‘acceptable’ black man to whites, but also to other middle-class blacks who have bought into “Whitey’s chromeplated shit pile”, now dissociating themselves from their broader community through the merits of social class, education and income (count the ironies, this is real sociology!). Irony exists too in that Freeman gets Chicago councilmen to support weapons training for his ‘at risk’ youth group because, according to white racist conservatives, weapons training teaches discipline! Of course, the training is part of Freeman’s plan to teach his trainee revolutionaries how to start and maintain a revolt in the knowledge that Freeman himself might not survive once the white establishment joins the dots.

It was a manual for a revolution of sorts at the time because it catalogued a long series of continuing injustices of both thought and deed in American society. In the context of recent events in the United States, and elsewhere, it seems as timely now as the day it was published. His concerns were genuine, his targets real and his focus on violence and contempt as the pivotal realities of racist societies seem as relevant now as they were then. Time then, I propose, to read and remember Sam Greenlee and The Spook Who Sat By The Door as a memoriam to the author and to a revolution that hasn’t happened – yet!

Categories: Rethinking The World

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