The Spook Who Sat by the Door by Sam Greenlee | Expanded Course in the History of Black Science Fiction

A year before the Broadway premiere of the Lorraine Hansberry play discussed here in previously, Les Blancs, British press Allison & Busby published Sam Greenlee’s novel The Spook Who Sat by the Door. Eventually Bantam published a paperback version in the U.S., but though that went into over a dozen printings and the book was later made into a movie, Spook has remained a so-called cult classic since its initial appearance on the literary scene. The “cult” to which its popularity is limited is apparently that of black people and those who support them in their struggles.

As I explained earlier, this series is an expansion of my Fantastic Stories of the Imagination article titled “A Crash Course in the History of Black Science Fiction.” (That essay is now hosted here and on my personal website.) At’s invitation I agreed to delve more deeply into each of the 42 titles on that list in turn. The original essay became a popular reference–apparently there wasn’t anything else like it available. The Carl Brandon Society’s website seems a good home for both the Crash Course and my subsequent expansions, so with the agreement of I’m republishing them here on a monthly basis.

The novel’s titular spook is the CIA’s first black spy. After rigorous training designed to cause him to fail out of the hiring pool, and a five-year stint making photocopies and giving guided tours of the facilities to congressmen, Dan Freeman returns to his hometown of Chicago. Deep undercover, he recruits black gangs to wage literal, bombs-and-grenades war on the white establishment. The war spreads, by the book’s end encompassing multiple cities, and its outcome is presented as ambiguously hopeful.

Now, with the crack cocaine epidemic just starting to recede in our rearview mirror, those of us still riding into the days to come don’t see training idealistic street gangs in guerilla warfare as a viable alternative to accepting the status quo. Now, with Greenlee in his grave for three years and counting as I write this, Spook looks more like the sort of Afrodiasporic alternate history my Twitter feed proposes in place of HBO’s Confederate and other shows based on the tired old what-if-the-South-won-the-Civil-War scenario.

Now, washed over by a couple of waves of feminism, it’s easy to critique the book’s sexism. The King Cobras gang members, who know Freeman as “Turk,” the police, the National Guard, Freeman’s fellow potential-operatives-in-training, are all unrelentingly male. Some relief comes from a few bit players: a pusher’s mother, a Senator’s secretary, and his wife. There are also two more important roles for women in the novel: Joy, Freeman’s on-again, off-again girlfriend; and the nameless prostitute he refers to as “the Dahomey queen.” The sex-worker warns him when the law picks up his trail. The girlfriend betrays him. But whether women help or hinder his narrative, the novel is Freeman’s story, beginning to end. And though nonstandard sexuality is ascribed to the prostitute, existence beyond the gender binary is never even hinted at.

However, that’s not to say that the bonds of masculinity go unexamined. As in Spook’s literary contemporary, Les Blancs, the protagonist is forced to choose between his brother’s life and a life of freedom. Though Hansberry’s Tshembe must kill his biological brother and the beloved enemy Greenlee’s Freeman chokes to death is merely his closest friend, the point in both cases is that sacrifice is necessary. “Did you think we were playing games?” Freeman asks the appalled Cobras who clear away the friend’s body. “Killing people we don’t know and don’t dig?” Sympathy, shared memories, common tastes: the usual foundations of comradeship fall by the wayside or are dropped there during the struggle for liberation. Masculine camaraderie is cherished, but brothers of any sort canít be allowed to stand in one another’s way.

And there are all sorts of brothers. A King Cobra high-up called Pretty Willie easily passes for white during a bank robbery. This visual impression of his race is probably correct, looking at it purely percentage-wise. But like a blue-eyed, blond, blush-cheeked second-grade classmate of mine, Pretty Willie denies his whiteness vehemently–and effectively. He argues that in the eyes of white supremacists he is a nigger, and that’s just fine by him. His definition of blackness is rooted in the opposition his mode of being excites in “crackers” eyes, and this definition works well enough for him and his fellow Cobras to do what must be done: shoot soldiers, kidnap officers, steal arms, demand freedom.

The day Greenlee sought to seize via his novel’s call to action has passed. So Spook is no longer science fiction, and though I treasure my tight-spined mass market paperback for multiple reasons–it’s inscribed and signed by the author, it contains one of my favorite ironic lines of all time (“In all his career as a professional Negro, Summerfield had never before encountered a white liberal who actually wanted an original opinion from a Negro concerning civil rights, for they all considered themselves experts on the subject.”)–it’s much more than an artifact of an historical moment. More than just a story of what could have happened. Because it’s that, true. But also, if you look at the making and preservation of the 1973 movie of the same name, it’s an example of how to go forward from where we find ourselves now.

Ivan Dixon directed the film version of Spook using a script Greenlee co-wrote. Many scenes were shot without permits, “guerilla style,” as Greenlee recalls in one interview. When Daley’s Chicago proved uncooperative, the mayor of Gary, Indiana stepped up and volunteered his city as a setting.

The movie’s production costs–around $850,000–were raised by donations from the black community. This was pre-internet crowdfunding. Single mothers on food stamps gave to the cause. Black doctors. One well-to-do white ally, too. Filming went on concurrent with fundraising, and at times meeting payroll was a tough proposition. But with the final $150,000 needed coming from United Artists in exchange for distribution rights, it looked like the path to legendary greatness was cleared. Ticket sales in the three weeks right after Spook’s release were high and climbing.

Then the movie disappeared.

Greenlee says he received at least one firsthand report of a theater manager threatened with either violence or legal action by self-identified FBI agents–these unspecified threats to be carried out unless the manager broke his contract and canceled Spook’s run. The manager in the anecdote, like dozens of others, held firm, though no one re-booked it. Prescient pirates made low-quality recordings of the film, which kept the memory of its audacity alive underground for decades after its commercial prints mysteriously vanished.

A negative of the film stored under a false name was recovered in 2004, basis for many of the full-length YouTube videos we watch free of charge today. In 2012, The Spook Who Sat by the Door was added to the National Film Registry because of its cultural and historical significance. Because of Spook’s visionary take on how activism could have shaped the world, and its roots in passion and community involvement suggestive of how to implement new activist visions, it deserves a place in our History of Black SF, too.


The Magical Adventures of Pretty Pearl by Virginia Hamilton | Expanded Course in the History of Black Science Fiction

As I explained previously, this series is an expansion of my Fantastic Stories of the Imagination article titled “A Crash Course in the History of Black Science Fiction.” (That essay is now hosted []here and on my personal website.) At’s invitation I agreed to delve more deeply into each of the 42 titles on that list in turn.

The original essay became a popular reference–apparently there wasn’t anything else like it available. The Carl Brandon Society’s website seems a good home for both the Crash Course and my subsequent expansions, so with the agreement of I’m republishing them here on a monthly basis.

This month’s subject, Virginia Hamilton’s The Magical Adventures of Pretty Pearl, is children’s novel about a child goddess come to Earth. From her heavenly home on top of Mount Highness in Kenya, Pretty Pearl journeys to America beside her brother John de Conquer. Their plan is to investigate the cruelties of chattel slavery. In the form of albatrosses they follow a slave ship to Georgia, but on landing they lie down in the red clay rather than jump right into interfering. Interference has a habit of backfiring, the grown-up god informs his little sister. But divine time runs differently than human time. They take a short, two-century nap, and soon after the Civil War ends they’re ready for action.

Interracial cruelties are by no means in the past even then. The two gods face Reconstruction’s dangers separately so Pretty Pearl can prove her full goddess-hood; she falls in with a community hiding away in the backwoods and joins them as they emerge to migrate north and west, re-entering the wider human sphere. Which at this point largely comprises the countryside.

There’s a school of thought that equates African-descended people with all things urban. Sure, we’re a people of cities, new and ancient–of both Memphises, arguably. Also, though, we’re not. Also we’re a people of farms, gardens, forests. The wild frontier. The hamlet and trading post. These ruralities are brought to loving life in Pretty Pearl. Ginseng hunters haunt shady groves, hidden lookouts send warning messages to their friends via fawn-and-twilight plumed passenger pigeons, and poplar leaves shield innocents from hate-filled would-be lynch mobs. I can literally relate, because while my mother’s side of the family is from New Orleans by way of Chicago, my father’s side is from sleepy little Vandalia, which consists of nothing but a cemetery, two churches, and a picnic shelter.

Hamilton’s own family history forms the hazy background into which the end of Pretty Pearl’s story blends. Bridging the gap between mythic and modern chronologies with our lives is a common tactic among those of us who belong to displaced and deracinated peoples. Where did we come from? Our origins, like Pretty Pearl’s, are mysteries.

The author depicts several figures from African, American, and African American folklore, including the Fool-la-fafa, the Hodag, the Hide-behind, John de Conquer, John Henry. She tosses around chapters and incidents with a casual air belying the concentration needed to keep juggling her plot and characters’ in nice, manageable arcs. That casual air fits oral storytelling traditions to a T.

So does Hamilton’s dialogue. It’s natural. It flows in the patterns of the people. Pretty Pearl and John de Conquer speak African American Vernacular English before they ever arrive on American shores. Pearl spies on slaver gangs and tells her brother how they “grab holt” of their victims; John explains, “What you see be subtraction….subtract de life, you got no kind of freedom. Subtract de freedom, you got no life.” Divine elocution mimics that of the “lower classes” so as to elevate the immiserated past–or rather, to point out the fact of that past’s elevation, those ancestors’ transcendent power and wisdom. The diction of Maw Julanna and the backwoods community’s “chil’ren” is never rendered unintelligible with overabundant phoneticization. Instead, syntax and culture-specific references, (words like “dayclean” and so on) give us the context essential to hearing what’s said.

In contrast, Old Canoe and his fellow Real People, aka Cherokee, use the Standard English of Hamilton’s narration. “I speak the language of the whites, but,” Old Canoe cautions his audience, “I am not white, remember.” Not all difference is audible in everyday conversation. Sometimes it must be marked deliberately.

Is this really a book for children? A book about hiding out from murderers and mutilators and corrupt, race-based systems of punishment? A book about people wandering in the wilderness sans homes or possessions of any sort, dependent on the kindness of complete and total strangers?

Yes. Children need to know about these things. They need to know about the aches and wounds afflicting the giants’ shoulders they stand on. They need to understand that the world is full of dangers–dangers many of the people who came before them escaped.

Fantastical literature written for children often lures its readers on to look for its adult equivalent. And seeing ourselves early on the way Hamilton portrays black people–as magical beings at the centers of stories–trains us to expect to find ourselves in the speculative worlds and imagined futures we encounter later in life, performing miracles, saving the universe, living happily forever after. Pretty Pearl and other Afrodiasporic Middle Years and YA fantasy, SF, horror and so forth create an expectation in their audience that there’s going to be more. Which is extremely important work. That expectation gets us hungry for more of these kinds of tales, hunting for them, ready to write them ourselves if our hunt comes up emptyhanded or we run out.

At a recent party, another guest told me The Magical Adventures of Pretty Pearl is a hard book to find. Apparently, scarce cloth copies in top condition are priced over $100. My battered paperback is probably worth a lot less money. But it’s worth something else: for me this book has been an ever-expanding portal into a marvelous possible past. Through that portal I can see the roots of stories I want to hear and tell. As a reader (and maybe a writer, too) of black science fiction, how much would you pay to feast your eyes on that?


Les Blancs by Lorraine Hansberry | Expanded Course in the History of Black Science Fiction

As I explained, this series is an expansion of my Fantastic Stories of the Imagination article titled “A Crash Course in the History of Black Science Fiction.” (That essay is now hosted []here and on my personal website.) At’s invitation I agreed to delve more deeply into each of the 42 titles on that list in turn.

The original essay became a popular reference–apparently there wasn’t anything else like it available. The Carl Brandon Society’s website seems a good home for both the Crash Course and my subsequent expansions, so with the agreement of I’m republishing them here on a monthly basis.

This essay is about Les Blancs, Lorraine Hansberry’s last play.

First produced in 1970, a little over five years after the author died of cancer at the age of 34, Les Blancs never achieved the acclaim of Hansberry’s massively successful Broadway play A Raisin in the Sun, nor that of the Off-Broadway dramatic adaptation her widower Robert Nemiroff patched together from her notes and autobiographical writings, To Be Young, Gifted and Black. But though it remained unfinished at the time of her death, she considered it her most important work.

Les Blanc’s action takes place in an unnamed African country modeled on Ghana and Kenya, according to Hansberry’s biographers, and also somewhat on the Congo, according to me. (See, for instance, the reference in Act Two, Scene 2 to the Belgian King Leopold’s favorite method of mutilation, the cutting off of indigenes’ hands.) The “Kwi,” this country’s original inhabitants, are in the midst of being supplanted by English-speaking whites. The supplantation is carried out via multiple methods: a paternalistic Christian mission-cum-hospital, a white-run government supported by a white-run soldiery, and political interference with the threat of military intervention from the US. Like many SF and Fantasy authors before and after her, Hansberry is able to analyze real-life issues with lessened fear of triggering reprisals by situating them in a purely speculative location. Rather than invoking an alternate past as I do in Everfair or an extrapolated future as Nnedi Okorafor does in Who Fears Death, though, Hansberry creates a semi-imaginary present. (Now, of course, that present has passed.)

Also, she offers us two personifications of a spiritual force. This is not simply a case of imbuing her realistic human characters with archetypal qualities. In the prologue, and at the end of Act One, and again in the second half of Act Two, Scene 3, Hansberry renders the essence of African independence as a dancing woman bearing a spear. Because she’s a supernatural phenomenon this woman is visible only to the protagonist and to us, the audience. Later (the whole of Act Two, Scene 6), the author renders this spirit as male, a “poet-warrior” named Ngago who exhorts his people to take violent action. These extramundane scenes show that Hansberry valued the fantastic highly enough to explicitly depict it.

Hansberry’s friend and collaborator Nemiroff says that much of her inspiration for writing Les Blancs rose out of watching a production of Jean Genet’s Absurdist “clown show” Les NËgres. Reacting to the racism Genet both exhibited and lampooned and to the Frenchman’s ignorance of a continent often romanticized by Europeans, Hansberry began work soon after that evening on her oppositionally-titled play.

But Les Blancs’ inspiration was also in the time’s disturbed and smoky air. During the early 1960s, the years in which Hansberry hammered the play out, the flood of African anti-colonialism was in full spate. Alongside members of the U.S.’s civil rights movement marching for equality, African nations fought and burned for self-rule. Hansberry, politically aware as she was, paid attention to the parallels. She felt the ties spanning the Atlantic and linking together the destinies of kindred peoples. She knew these links were genetic, cultural, and spiritual–real on many levels. She conjured up her two embodiments of freedomís essence because of that truth.

In just the five years between Hansberry’s untimely death and the play’s first public appearance, the pan-African political situation she referenced shifted: battles and legislative drives were won and lost, additional assassinations committed. Things have changed even more radically since. A work in progress that traveled with Hansberry on trips to the hospital towards the end of her life, Les Blancs could well have continued being reshaped to reflect emerging reality. It could also, like China MiÈville’s Iron Council, have employed the techniques of imaginative fiction to show the future’s ineffableness. If Hansberry had lived.

Here’s a brief synopsis of Les Blancs as we know it: In Act One, two men arrive at a Christian mission’s rural African hospital. They are a white U.S. journalist called Charlie (for most blacks that’s a racially charged name), and Tshembe, a black native who has returned from life abroad to attend his fatherís funeral. The two men interact with each other and various others–Tshembe’s brothers, the hospital staff, the local military commander–against a backdrop of guerilla violence. Tshembe receives but rejects a mystical call to arms, refusing to revenge his older brotherís betrayal of the liberation movement. In Act Two the violence intensifies. Tshembe accepts the call he earlier rejected and kills his traitor brother. But other deaths occur as well, and the final scene ends on his cry of anguish. There is no third act.

How would a longer-lived Hansberry have resolved her hero’s dilemma?

Originally, Hansberry’s notes reveal, Tshembe was Candace, a woman. Answering the dancing female spirit’s call to arms, killing the brother–in fact, the action of the whole story would have unspooled differently with a woman as its protagonist. What if–maybe in response to feminism’s building second wave–Hansberry had returned to her first conception?

Until we figure out how to access alternate timelines we’ll never know.

I came to this play through the guidance of Andrea Hairston, a fabulous author of award-winning fantasy and science fiction novels who is also a theater professor at Smith College. She helped me see its fantastic elements by making me conscious of habitual prose consumers’ tendency to discount such things as mere matters of dramatic convention.

Because of this introduction I have the privilege of identifying with Hansberry’s relationship to Les Blancs. My debut novel Everfair also takes place in an imaginary African country–but its imaginariness is historical rather than the result of a geopolitical mash-up. I can visit Everfair’s physical locations, though I never have. In writing it I relied, as Hansberry did, on remote research. So I can easily picture her in the throes of authorship, fretting over her play’s details, implications, and vectors, the branching consequences of carefully thought out decisions on what to represent, and who, and how…just as I’ve done. Just as numerous other African-descended creators of speculative works have done. And I can picture her happy now to know that we return via her words to her unnamed chimerical land; I can envision her smiling her gorgeous smile on learning from our comments and discussions what we’ve discovered there.