Sam Greenlee

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Samuel Eldred Greenlee, Jr. (July 13, 1930 – May 19, 2014)[1] was an African-American writer, best known for his controversial novel The Spook Who Sat by the Door, which was first published in London by Allison & Busby[2] in March 1969 (having been rejected by dozens of mainstream publishers),[3] and went on to be chosen as The Sunday Times Book of the Year.[4] The novel was subsequently made into the 1973 movie of the same name, directed by Ivan Dixon and co-produced and written by Greenlee,[5] that is now considered a "cult classic".[3]

Life and work[edit]

Born in Chicago,[3] Greenlee attended the University of Wisconsin (BS, political science, 1952) and the University of Chicago (1954-7). He was a member of Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity (Beta Omicron 1950). He served in the US Army (1952-4), earning the rank of first lieutenant, and subsequently worked for the United States Information Agency, serving in Iraq (in 1958 he was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal for bravery during the Baghdad revolution), Pakistan, Indonesia, and Greece between 1957 and 1965.[6] Leaving the United States foreign service after eight years, he stayed on in Greece. He undertook further study (1963-4) at the University of Thessaloniki, and lived for three years on the island of Mykonos, where he began to write his first novel. That was eventually published in 1969 as The Spook Who Sat by the Door, the story of a black man who is recruited as a CIA agent and having mastered the skills of a spy then uses them to lead a black guerrilla movement in the US.[7][8]

Greenlee co-wrote (with Mel Clay) the screenplay for the 1973 film The Spook Who Sat by the Door, which he also co-produced with director Ivan Dixon and which is considered "one of the more memorable and impassioned films that came out around the beginning of the notoriously polarizing blaxploitation era."[9] In 2011, an independent documentary entitled Infiltrating Hollywood: The Rise and Fall of the Spook Who Sat by the Door was filmed by Christine Acham and Clifford Ward, about the making and reception of the Spook film,[10] in which Greenlee spoke out about the suppression of the film soon after its release.[11][12] 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,[13] Greenlee was told that The Spook Who Sat by the Door was required reading at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia.[14]

Other works by Greenlee include Baghdad Blues, a 1976 novel based on his experiences traveling in Iraq in the 1950s and witnessing the 1958 Iraqi revolution,[15] Blues for an African Princess, a 1971 collection of poems, and Ammunition (poetry, 1975). In 1990 Greenlee won the Illinois poet laureate award.[16] He also wrote short stories, plays (although he found no producer for any of them),[7] and the screenplay for a film short called Lisa Trotter (2010), a story adapted from Aristophanes' Lysistrata.[17]


On May 19, 2014, Greenlee died in Chicago at the age of 83.[18] On June 6, 2014, Chicago's DuSable Museum of African American History sponsored an evening of celebration in his honor, attended by his daughter Natiki Montano.[19]


  • Blues for an African Princess, Chicago: Third World Press, 1971.
  • Ammunition!: Poetry and Other Raps (introduction Andrew Salkey), London: Bogle-L'Ouverture, 1975.
  • Be-Bop Man/Be-Bop Woman, 1968-1993: Poetry and Other Raps, Cambrea Heights, NY: Natiki, 1995.
Short stories
  • "Yes, We Can Sing", Negro Digest, 15.2 (December 1965), pp. 65–69.
  • "The Sign", Negro Digest, 15.4 (February 1966), pp. 61–66.
  • "Summer Sunday", Negro Digest, 15.11 (September 1966), 60-61.
  • "Autumn Leaves", in Negro Digest 16.3 (January 1967), pp. 69–73.
  • "The D.C. Blues", Negro Digest, 18.8 (June 1969), 86-92.
  • "Sonny's Seasons", Black World, 19.12 (October 1970), pp. 58–63.
  • "Sonny's Not Blue", in Woodie King (ed.), Black Short Story Anthology, New York: Signet, 1972, p. 91-96.
  • "Blues for Little Prez", in Black World, 22.10 (August 1973), pp. 54–62. Reprinted in Sascha Feinstein and David Rife (eds), The Jazz Fiction Anthology, Indiana University Press, 2009, pp. 205–13.


  1. ^ Margaret Busby, "Sam Greenlee obituary", The Guardian, June 2, 2014.
  2. ^ Allison & Busby page at George Padmore Institute website.
  3. ^ a b c Matt Schudel, "Sam Greenlee, whose movie 'The Spook Who Sat by the Door' became a cult classic, dies", The Washington Post, May 21, 2014.
  4. ^ Chris Routledge, "Sam Greenlee Biography - Novel Became Cult Favorite, Enjoyed Brief Revival, Selected writings",
  5. ^ "Sam Greenlee (1930–2014)", IMDb (Internet Movie Database).
  6. ^ Adam Meyer, "Sam Greenlee", in Emmanuel S. Nelson (ed.), Contemporary African American Novelists: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999.
  7. ^ a b Rosalind Cummings, "Local Lit: the relaxed rage of Sam Greenlee", Chicago Reader, April 14, 1994.
  8. ^ DeWayne Wickham, "Sam Greenlee's Book Is Still Making a Statement", ChickenBones: A Journal for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes, September 25, 2003.
  9. ^ Neil Drumming, "The filmmaker who gave birth to blaxploitation: Sam Greenlee’s complicated racial legacy", Salon, May 20, 2014.
  10. ^ "Infiltrating Hollywood: The Rise and Fall of the Spook Who Sat by the Door", IMDb.
  11. ^ Nina Metz, "Sam Greenlee, author of 'Spook Who Sat By the Door,' dead at 83", Chicago Tribune, May 19, 2014.
  12. ^ Tambay A. Obenson, "RIP Sam Greenlee - Author Of 'The Spook Who Sat By The Door' Dies At 83 (Listen To His Words Of Wisdom)", Indiewire, May 19, 2014.
  13. ^ Richard Goldstein, "Aubrey Lewis, 66, Athlete Who Was an F.B.I. Pioneer", The New York Times, December 13, 2001.
  14. ^ Gregg Reese, "Radical novelist Sam Greenlee dies at 83", Our Weekly (Los Angeles), May 22, 2014.
  15. ^ "Novelist Sam Greenlee Dies in Chicago", ABC News, May 20, 2014.
  16. ^ "Black History Mobile Museum 101 and Author Sam Greenlee", Xavier University, January 15, 2010.
  17. ^ Lisa Trotter page at IMDb.
  18. ^ "Writer, Filmmaker Sam Greenlee Dies". Ebony. May 19, 2014. 
  19. ^ Taki S. Raton, "Chicago’s DuSable Museum celebrates life of writer and filmmaker Sam Greenlee", Milwaukee Community Journal, June 19, 2014.

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