Sam Greenlee

(b. 1930)

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(b. 1930), poet, fiction writer, novelist, essayist, screenwriter, producer, director, actor, and teacher.

Sam Greenlee has employed the Black literary tradition to produce such masterpieces as The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1969) and Baghdad Blues (1976). Greenlee was born on 13 July 1930 in the heart of Chicago, Illinois. As a young man he attended the University of Wisconsin, where he received his BS in 1952. Greenlee further studied at the University of Chicago (1954–1957) and the University of Thessaloniki, Greece (1963–1964). His career started as a United States Information Agency Foreign Service Officer in Iraq, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Greece. His military service included time in the U.S. Army Infantry from 1952 to 1954. Greenlee received the London Sunday Times book of the year award in 1969 for The Spook Who Sat by the Door, and the Meritorious Service Award from the United States Information Agency. He currently resides in Chicago, Illinois.

In The Spook Who Sat by the Door, Greenlee presents a satirical novel that criticizes the racist atmosphere of the United States by examining the life of a fictitious black CIA agent, Dan Freeman. It is evident that Greenlee creates his images from his experience in the military and United States Information Agency.

References to Freeman as a “spook” in both the title and the novel possess a sense of duality or double consciousness: spook is used as a racial insult directed toward Blacks, in addition to being a slang term for spies. Greenlee uses this duality to establish a connection between Freeman's character and the African American experience during the turbulent 1960s, which parallels Greenlee's service time. With this multifaceted character, Greenlee begins to examine the mask that has been worn by African Americans for generations to hide their true feelings.

Greenlee is also known for such works as Blues for an African Princess (1971), a collection of poems. His novel Baghdad Blues (1976) and Ammunition: Poetry and Other Raps (1975) both deal with African Americans’ pain, anger, and fear, particularly that of those who are caught up in the racism and oppression of government agencies.

Greenlee's contributions to the literary tradition in African American literature have caused his readers to examine closely the racial awareness or unawareness within agencies and institutions that are designed to serve all Americans. His presentation of African Americans’ duality and paradoxical existence in a racist society is still providing scholars with text to investigate the themes of racism. Greenlee is masterful in his presentation of characters and community; his work is saturated with the African American literary tradition.

Walter Burrell, “Rappin’ with Sam Greenlee,” Black World 20.9 (1971): 42–47.Catherine Starks, Black Portraiture in American Fiction, 1971.

— Wanda Macon

Subjects: Literature.

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