Although it was published a third of a century ago, Sam Greenlee’s The Spook Who Sat By the Door is still one of the most brilliant and relevant books I have ever read about race relations in America. (Via Kali Tal’s list of Militant Black Science Fiction). Mixing blaxploitation images with a sophisticated social critique, it’s an imaginative story, published in 1969, of underground guerilla warfare organized by black militants in American ghettols…
The Spook Who Sat By the Door tells the story of the significantly named) Dan Freeman, who uses his military and CIA training (he had been admitted to the CIA as a “token Negro”) to organize a militant black revolutionary underground movement.
What makes the book work is not just its brilliant and provocative premise–taking the Black Panther movement of the time one logical step further–but also its texture of observations about black life in America. The book’s brilliant ploy is to literalize the “double consciousness” that, as W.E.B. DuBois put it, is the necessary condition of life for African Americans. Having to put on one face for the outside, white world, while feeling far differently on the inside, is precisely the condition of the secret agent: who must perfect his “cover story,” live that false identity to the utmost, while at the same time having another identity, and another mission, hidded deep inside.
So Freeman puts on a performance for white people, donning the mask of the capable black man whom white liberals are proud to have as their friend, and whom they take as evidence that things are getting better in America (and that a black person can ‘make it’ like anyone else, as long as he/she has the initiative and values to succeed). All the while, he is seething inside, at the indignities of racism from which he knows that his bourgeois lifestyle doesn’t really exempt him.
Meanwhile, Freeman’s secret mission is to organize squads of well-trained and highly disciplined guerilla fighters, ready to move into action and liberate the ghettos of Chicago and other American cities.
The novel meticulously describes both all the steps in Freeman’s military training program, and all the strains of living a double identity, putting on a cover not just for white people, but for the black bourgeoisie as well: for all those who are willing to be compromised by white America for the sake of material gain.
Freeman struggles with the double dangers of losing his cool and blowing his cover, on the one hand, and becoming so absorbed by his cover story that he truly becomes it, on the other. Being a secret agent is not in the least romantic or cool: rather, its an inhuman and nearly impossible burden. The book works because it dramatizes this plight so bitterly and powerfully. It presents us with both the alienating burden of “double consciousness”, and the ways in which that burden can also become a source of critical insight. But nothing is easy; revolution is a grim affair, and critical insight comes with a heavy price.
How does the book stand up today, in 2003? In a time when the dominant ideology seems to be the claim that racism is over, and that we are all multicultural now, Greenlee’s vision is a bracing, necessary corrective. The Spook Who Sat By the Door critiques the bad faith of white liberalism quite incisively, while at the same time refuting the predominant conservative mood of blaming the victims of racism and oppression for their own victimization. (For an example of how a critique of white liberalism–that from one angle Greenlee would not disagree with–is used to legitimate racism, in the name of “personal responsibility,” see for instance the foul writings of Theodore Dalrymple). Greenlee’s book is a powerful work of social theory; as well as being another example of how the most radical visions and critiques often come in the form of disreputable, “pulp” literature.