Sam Greenlee's satirical novel The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1969) criticizes the racist atmosphere of the United States by examining the life of a fictitious black CIA agent, Dan Freeman, who is recruited under the efforts of Senator Gilbert Hennington to integrate the Central Intelligence Agency. For five years Dan Freeman had been the best spook of all as he conned the entire CIA while “he sat by the door.” After absorbing a sufficient amount of knowledge, Freeman resigned to “make a greater contribution to his people by returning to Chicago and working among them.”
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. With this multifaceted character, Greenlee begins to examine the mask that has been worn by Blacks for generations to hide their true feelings. The author notes, as does Paul Laurence Dunbar in “We Wear the Mask,” that historically Blacks have veiled their emotions to meet white America's archetypes and expectations.
Freeman's persona escapes the boundaries of typical character definition as he openly supplies viewpoints and rationales on a wide range of topics—the Black man's pain, anger, fear, and frustrations. Freeman's multiple personalities leave him lonely: “his cover, his plans had forced him into himself and his loneliness ate at him like a cancer.” He understands the paradoxical existence of the black middle class to be a collection of token Blacks who have been allowed to succeed to validate “whitey's integration movement.” Greenlee's character represents the “New Negro” mentality; his is assertive, self-respecting, and fed up with racism.
Freeman reaches great heights on the mountain of social analysis as he demarcates the life of a Black man. The novel, first published in Europe and later in the United States, is an explosive exposition that divulges the emotions of the Negro of the 1960s, and continues to demand reaction from the African American of the 1990s.
Freeman's underlying goal in The Spook Who Sat by the Door is to facilitate social criticism. Greenlee is masterful in his presentation of characters and community. His honest yet satirical examination of a system created on lies, perpetuated by lies, and often destroyed or brought to terms with the hyprocrisy it advocates is still relevant in the struggle of the African American male. It is often by examining literature such as The Spook Who Sat by the Door that readers have an opportunity to analyze life's frustrations and fears.
Catherine Starks, Black Portraiture in American Fiction, 1971.