Saturday, July 26, 2014

Book Reviews: The Spook Who Sat by The Door

The Spook Who Sat By The Door
by Sam Greenlee
Sam Greenlee just passed away a few months ago. Sam Greenlee was an American writer who had a long career as both a military officer and overseas agent for the United States Information Agency, which worked worldwide to dispense propaganda and news favorable to U.S. interests. Greenlee witnessed (was involved in?) the 1958 Iraqi revolution. Greenlee was also a member of the Alpha Kappa Psi fraternity. He was among the first black employees for the USIA. He later apparently came to regret some of his work. Although the book "The Spook Who Sat by The Door" was not exactly autobiographical, as Greenlee was never a CIA agent, nor did he start any revolutions as far as we know, it definitely drew on and was inspired by his work experiences. The book's attacks on racism are far exceeded by a deeper disdain for black integrationists, in particular those who were petit bourgeois/middle class. Greenlee's writing drips with contempt for people who would rather go along to get along or mouth empty words about tolerance rather than stand up and take control over their own lives. The book's title is a double pun as spook is both a racial slur and a nickname for a spy. The phrase also refers to the corporate practice of hiring black people in visible positions so that a company can market itself as an equal opportunity employer. Often, however, such token hires are never afforded access to real power or promotion opportunities. The book's protagonist, Dan Freeman, is an Army veteran who takes advantage of an affirmative action program designed to produce the country's first black CIA agent.

The CIA created this program because a cynical liberal senator, concerned that his black support is dropping, verbally attacked the CIA in open committee hearings for not having any black agents.
The white General who runs the CIA is confident that no black recruit will pass the necessary physical, stress or intelligence tests. The recruits are, except for Freeman, middle class men whose primary interests are making the cover of Jet or Ebony magazine as the "first black CIA agent", making money, and chasing women, not necessarily in that order. They are generally soft, class obsessed and arrogant. They shun Freeman, who didn't go to the best school (he's a Michigan State grad) or join a fraternity. The white instructors are all hostile. Nevertheless when the dust settles, Freeman is the only man who passed. With one notable exception (his demolishing of a racist martial arts instructor), Freeman has built an aw shucks facade that is impervious to all but the most dedicated investigation. He finds that people generally see what they expect to see. And they don't expect much from him.

Freeman stays undercover. He becomes an apparently apolitical drone who's seemingly happy to spend his time copying materials and doing other simplistic demeaning work at the CIA before he leaves to work at a government funded outreach program for Chicago's disaffected youth. Most of the program employees don't care about the youth. For most people, working with underprivileged youth is something that is done to salve guilty consciences, pad resumes for future jobs, do Ph.D coursework or make money. But Freeman has other ideas. A former teen gang member himself, he reaches out to the Cobra gang. He has plans for them, plans of freedom and revolution for all black people in America. Freeman learned more than people thought he did in the CIA. Representing the two paths that Freeman could take are two women with whom he's close. There is Joy, his would be fiancee and self-made middle class striver who thinks that militants are dangerous and unrealistic. Joy wants to marry someone materially ambitious. There is a prostitute whom Freeman calls his Dahomey Queen. He exposes her to Afrocentric music and literature and tells her that she's beautiful despite her intensely West African facial features and skin tone. Although he doesn't share his real plans with either woman, Freeman finds that women can read him easier than he thinks. 

This is not a great book. Outside of Freeman, the characters are pretty flat. But it is quick reading. People who are very close to me were almost killed in the Detroit 1967 riot. So the description of the rioting in the book was if nothing else, intriguing. The lingo is dated. But the theme isn't. Anyone who has ever bit their tongue to keep a job they hate or undergone short term unpleasantness for long term goals will recognize Freeman's struggle. The book has a lot to say about how oppression warps human beings. As Freeman scoffs in a moment of openness (paraphrasing) "The oppression creates the conditions and then they use the conditions to justify the oppression!". That is a true statement and one which I will certainly use in the future.
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