Wednesday, May 12, 2021

30. The Spook Who Sat by the Door by Sam Greenlee

I had wanted to read this book for quite a while, it being a combination of pulp action/blacksploitation and political/racial critique (though separating those two is kind of artificial, I hope you get what I mean).  I found a very nice Wayne State University Press trade paperback reprint in a free book box in Berkeley and had to grab it even though what I really cherish is one of the original paperbacks.  I do own an original paperback of his other book Baghdad Blues and I have read it, but it must have been before I was doing the 50 books challenge, because I have no record of it here.

The actual book did not let me down.  At points, especially the first two-thirds, I was almost exhilarated with reading pleasure.  It is a fantastic combination of pulp immediacy, espionage fantasy and "radical" black politics (only in the context of this racist world does wanting not to be treated like shit and reacting to violence with violence considered radical).  In the beginning, Dan Freeman is the one "ghetto" black person hired by the CIA as part of a new recruitment program to integrate "negroes", a result of pressure from a liberal white senator pandering to get the black vote.  The whole thing is a sham and the other candidates who all come from the educated class of black people are disappointed as they are slowly eliminated from the program.  Freeman knows the game and plays it to the hilt, quietly not being noticed yet dominating in everything to the point that the CIA is forced to hire him.  It's really delicious, as he is undercover both to the CIA and the other African-Americans in the program (who dismiss him entirely).  The book is just scathing to this latter group.  Greenlee clearly hated the new black bourgeoisie, who he sees all as Uncle Toms, striving to scrape the teeny bit of scraps given to them by white America.  The whiteys who run the CIA are just seen as utterly stupid and blind in their racism.

Once in the CIA, he is parked as a lowly copier of documents with a fancy title, but he takes advantage always playing the game of the good, striving negro while absorbing as much intel and skill as he can.  He eventually gets promoted to being assistant to a high-ranking general.  I won't go too much more into the storyline beyond that his next move is to return to Chicago, get a job at a white run and funded community outreach program where he starts to recruit among the gang members of the inner city to quietly build his revolution.

There is a lot packed into this book.  In the end, I can't say I loved it and that is simply because the subject matter is so profoundly sad and infuriating.  By the end, Greenlee veers away from the pulpishness into a full-blown in your face immersion into an ongoing summer riot that leads into the actual revolution.  There are fun moments in the revolution, as they get various acts of revenge on bufoonish white leaders, but underneath it all is real rage and it is kind of painful to read.  

What is instructive today in the wake of the resurgence of race as a primary issue in America and the world is both how much things have changed since the late 60s and yet how little.  The extremities of the racial divide in the U.S. have improved, there is no denying, in the last 50-60 years.  Economic opportunity, equality in all walks of life have gotten better compared to what is portrayed here.  The fundamental dynamic, though, seems about the same.  Black people are still seen as somehow inferior and any attempt by them to change that is still attacked with the same arguments as in this book, though now couched in safer language.  The hypocrisy of the white liberals is also still very much prevalent, though I would hope some of the new thinking around allyship is actually taking root in the various movements for change.

I hope this book is standard reading for any curriculum on the civil rights and race relations in America.  This is the real deal.

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