I first heard of The Spook Who Sat By The Door by Sam Greenlee in the source note of an academic journal article by George Ciccariello-Maher called Brechtian Hip Hop. The note provided a plot overview and stated that this text, about a black spy trained by the U.S. comes to recruit a number of gang members in Chicago to begin and spread a domestic insurgency, was formerly mandatory reading for CIA operatives in the 1970s. Given the zeitgeist, a few years after The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorder had published The Kerner Report, which delineated concerns over rioting and Communism, such a work being produced seems apropos. On first learning of such a narrative, which is a variant of Happy’s story in my book Unraveling, I was somewhat bummed – yet also pleased to be able to learn from such a narrative. A few clicks later it was being delivered to me. A few more and I learned that the book was also made into a movie, which after reading the book and having watched it is, for the most part, felicitous to the original.
Dan Freeman is the “spook” of the book – a play on the words meaning black person and spy. We learn through conversations midway through the book that he was in a Chicago street gang, the Cobras, as a young man and that while in college he was an advocate for a variant of Black Nationalism. He sits by the door as following an opportunistic senator’s push to integrate the C.I.A., he is the only one that is able to pass the rigorous testing regimen and is put into a position of great visibility so that visiting Congressmen and Senators can see the token black person hired for a non-sanitation or food preparation related job.
During the several years Freeman works for the C.I.A., he is described as having a dual life. One where he is a “good negro” that does all work beyond expectations at his job in Washington D.C. and the other a “hipster negro” that only exists once he slips in tail in New York. This is themes of masks and the social construction of identity is one of the main themes of the book. Freeman is always “putting people on” in order to meet the expectations that white people have so as to obtain social or political acceptance.
Dan leaves Washington D.C. in order to take a job as a social worker. Counterbalancing his behavior in this role as an “Uncle Tom,” one wholly deferential to the existent structure of white supremacist, liberal power, he also begins to organizing the Cobra’s into a militant, revolutionary organization. The comments that come out of Greenlee’s liberal characters at the dinner parties and community outreach foundation meetings Freeman attends and the divide between what he thinks and says are quite amusing. Freeman states how he feels more comfortable than the whites as they are actually less racist than the black middle class – which he sees as constantly struggling to be “more white” in their values, attitudes and behaviors than white people.
This disdain for the black bourgeoisie/middle class is another recurring theme of the book. Freeman’s psychological criticisms are akin to those voiced by Harold Cruse, as well as a number of other non-integrationist traditions. According to Freeman’s worldview, the “social worker” is less a means of helping empower communities and more a means of helping vent frustration over the conditions of the political economy away from rioting and toward more passive, less private-property damaging outlets.
In Freeman’s initial planning stages for domestic insurgency he is reluctant to try to recruit any members of the the black middle class to his cause. Following the beginning of the widespread civil disorders, they are described as one of the most outspoken groups delegitimizing the violence due to the fact that they are losing their “token” jobs over it.
Dan Freeman’s struggle to convert his childhood friend Dawson to his cause, who he sees as a potential asset due to his color and high rank in the police department, shows the irreconcilability of their two positions. While Dan sees freedom as the ejection of white political power and economic control from black communities, Dawson accommodates to it and has no trouble playing the jailor.
The novel as a whole, thankfully, never gets caught up in long, didactic passages as a number of ideologically motivated texts are often want to do. The Cobras transition from street hoodlums to disciplined cadre members leading five man teams to attack and harass the armed guard lacks any sort of crypto-catechism in conversational form, a la Ayn Rand, and the interpersonal struggles of Dan Freeman keeps him from being a one-dimensional character.