The Spook Who Sat by the Door (novel)

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The Spook Who Sat by the Door
Front cover of the 2002 Lushena Books edition
Cover of the 2002 Lushena Books edition
Author Sam Greenlee
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Publisher London, UK: Allison & Busby; New York: USA: Richard W. Baron Publishing Co.
Publication date
March 1969
Media type Print
Pages 182
OCLC 491599651
LC Class PZ4.G8146 Sp PS3557.R396
Followed by Blues for an African Princess

The Spook Who Sat by the Door is a novel by Sam Greenlee, first published in March 1969 (in London, UK, by Allison & Busby and then in the US by Richard W. Baron Publishing Company, 1969). A film of the same name based on the novel was made in 1973.

Both the novel and the film dramatize the CIA's history of training persons and/or groups who later utilize their specialized intelligence training against the agency. The author Sam Greenlee was told in a chance meeting with Aubrey Lewis (1935–2001), one of the first Black FBI agents to have been recruited in 1962 by the FBI,[1] that The Spook Who Sat by the Door was required reading at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia.[2]

Plot summary[edit]

The story is set in the late 1960s and early 1970s in Chicago. The novel opens with Senator Hennington, a white liberal senator with a tight re-election campaign, looking for ways to win the Negro vote. His wife suggests the senator accuse the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of racial discrimination in its hiring because the agency has no black officers. Because of Senator Hennington's investigation and subsequent comfortable re-election, the CIA has been required for political reasons to recruit African Americans for training. Only Dan Freeman, secretly a black nationalist, successfully completes the training process. Freeman has both the highest grades and best athletic marks of his recruitment class. Stationed in Korea during the Korean War, Freeman is an expert in hand-to-hand combat, especially judo. Freeman also played football at Michigan State University.

Freeman becomes the first black man in the agency and is given a desk job—Top Secret Reproduction Center Sections Chief. He understands that he is the token black person in the CIA, and that the CIA defines his function as providing proof of the agency's supposed commitment to integration and progress. Freeman is often used as a model Negro, and when asked to appear or speak at various events, he tells exactly the story the audience wishes to hear. He has a complete distaste for the "snob-ridden" world of Washington DC and especially the city's black middle class. Therefore, after completing his training in guerrilla warfare techniques, weaponry, communications and subversion, Freeman puts in just enough time to avoid raising any suspicions about his motives before he resigns from the CIA and returns to work in the social services in Chicago.

Upon his return, Freeman makes contact with the Cobras, a gang that was previously immune to contact from social agencies. Immediately he begins recruiting young black men living in inner-city Chicago to become “Freedom Fighters” teaching them all of the guerrilla warfare tactics that he learned from the CIA. The Cobras' training includes a fight with the Comanches, a rival gang; the study and appreciation of black poetry, music, and revolutionary leaders; a bank robbery on 115th and Halstead; and the robbery of a National Guard Armory on Cottage Grove Avenue. They become a guerrilla group, with Freeman as the secret leader, and set out to ensure that black people truly live freely within the United States by partaking in both violent and non-violent actions throughout Chicago. The “Freedom Fighters” of Chicago begin spreading the word about their guerrilla warfare tactics across the United States; as Freeman says, “What we got now is a colony, what we want is a new nation.” As revolt and a war of liberation continues in the inner city of Chicago, the National Guard and the police desperately try to stop them.

Finding the gaps in the National Guard's "sloppily trained and ill-disciplined" unit, Freeman and the Freedom Fighters escalate their actions in Chicago. First, they blow up the mayor's office in the new city hall. Secondly, they paint a Negro alderman's car yellow and white. Thirdly, they take over radio stations and broadcast propaganda from "the Freedom Fighters, the Urban Underground of Black Chicago." Fourth, they kidnap Colonel "Bull" Evans, the commander of the National Guard unit, give him LSD, then release him.

After the Freedom Fighters start their sniper attacks, killing multiple National Guardsmen, Freeman is visited by three old friends. After speaking with two female friends, Freeman's final guest is his friend and Chicago police officer Dawson. Sergeant Dawson entered Freeman's apartment on a suspicion and his suspicion is verified when he finds Freedom Fighter propaganda. After an argument, Freeman attacks Dawson and kills him. He calls in his top Freedom Fighters to dispose of the body. As the book closes, Freeman orders "Condition Red" to initiate attack teams in twelve cities across America.


The novel continues to be a very important work reflecting upon the harsh realities of African Americans living in the United States in the face of racism, violence and oppression. Greenlee's novel is, in a sense, a manual on how to be a successful revolutionary by beating the system at its own game.[3] Greenlee demonstrates through his character Dan Freeman, how important cooperation is among oppressed peoples in the fight for equality and freedom .[4] Greenlee, years after the release of his book and the film, reflects upon the various messages of his work: “One of the things I was saying with that book is that gangs could become the protector of the community rather than predators”.[4] He goes on to say, “…the purpose of the film was to encourage blacks to create an action plan to ‘survive in the belly of the beast’ rather than always reacting as victims of a racist society”.[4] By working intimately with Ivan Dixon, Greenlee’s powerful book was transferred to the big screen without losing its strong revolutionary messages. Yet, the film and the book were both received with great hesitation and resistance by certain sectors of society.

Historical context[edit]

The political atmosphere in the United States during the time of the book's publication was particularly contentious as civil rights, women’s rights, and gay rights movements became visible in the public sphere. It has been suggested that the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), whose symbol was a seven-headed cobra, were influenced in their choice of name by Greenlee's use in the novel of the word "symbiology", derived from the biological term "symbiosis" that describes disparate organisms living together in a mutually beneficial relationship.[5][6]

The original book jacket carries quotes by Dick Gregory (" important, original, nitty-gritty book"), Len Deighton ("...will cause many readers great annoyance - and what more can a writer ask than that?") and Stephen Vizinczey ("in the manner of the best thrillers, the hero's life is always in danger and there are women about who undress with passion but might give him away. Still, there is more at stake than the hero's life or the reader's entertainment - this first-class thriller is also a genuine novel which is not only exciting but moving as it unfolds the black man's dream, the white man's nightmare").[7]


The title refers to a practice in the early days of affirmative action, when the first Black person hired by a company or agency would be seated close to the office entrance, so that all who came and went could see that the company was racially mixed. The word "Spook" has a dual meaning: it has been used as a racial slur against Blacks, as well as a slang term for a spy.[8]


  • Greenlee, Sam. The Spook Who Sat by the Door (first edition London: Allison & Busby, March 1969; first U.S. edition Richard W. Baron Publishing Co., 1969). Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1990.

Further reading[edit]

  • Adams, Sam, “The Spook Who Sat by the Door”. Philadelphia City Paper, July 1, 2004.
  • Beale, Lewis. “‘Spook’ unearths a radical time capsule of a movie; Pulled from theaters but now on DVD, the 1973 film imagines a black political revolution in the blaxploitation era”, Los Angeles Times, February 28, 2004.
  • Canby, Vincent. “Using the CIA: Ex-Agent Is Spook Who Sat By The Door.” The New York Times, September 22, 1973.
  • Joiner, Lottie L. “After 30 years, a Controversial Film Re-Emerges”, The Crisis, November/December 2003: 41.
  • Peavy, Charles D. “Four Black Revolutionary Novels, 1899-1970”, Journal of Black Studies 1 (December 1970): 219-223.
  • Alex Chadwick, “Profile: Importance of the movie The Spook Who Sat by the Door on the release of a 30th anniversary DVD”, NPR All Things Considered, Washington D.C. March 2, 2004.


  1. ^ Richard Goldstein, "Aubrey Lewis, 66, Athlete Who Was an F.B.I. Pioneer", The New York Times, December 13, 2001.
  2. ^ Gregg Reese, "Radical novelist Sam Greenlee dies at 83", Our Weekly (Los Angeles), May 22, 2014.
  3. ^ Peavy, Charles D., “Four Black Revolutionary Novels, 1899-1970”, Journal of Black Studies 1 (December 1970), p. 222.
  4. ^ a b c Joiner, Lottie L. “After 30 years, a Controversial Film Re-Emerges”, The Crisis, November/December 2003, p. 41.
  5. ^ Newton, Michael. "Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA)", Encyclopedia of Robberies, Heists, and Capers. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2002. American History Online (accessed November 5, 2012).
  6. ^ Al Ellenberg, Introduction to Abduction: Fiction Before Fact (Grove Press, 1974).
  7. ^ Allison & Busby hardback edition, London, 1969.
  8. ^ Wanda Macon, "The Spook Who Sat by the Door", Oxford Companion to African American Literature.

External links[edit]