By Taki S. Raton
Known for his 1969 novel, “The Spook Who Sat by the Door” and his independent screen adaptation of the same name in 1973, poet, novelist, and screenwriter Sam Greenlee passed away on Monday, May 19, 2014 in the early morning hours at his South Side home in Chicago. He was 83.
On Friday, June 6, 2014, Chicago’s DuSable Museum of African American History sponsored an evening of celebration in honor of his life and work
Following traditional and protocol opening ceremonies to include the pouring of libation, DuSable Museum director, Dr. Carol Adams bids welcome to the friends, family, and community of Bro. Sam Greenlee.
“We are the people of the day before yesterday and the day after tomorrow, she says. “And it is because of this fact that we understand that for us, there is only life and life comes in many forms.”
Dr. Adams explains that in these multiple spheres of life, she adds, are “those who have come before, those who are here now, and those who are coming forth.”
The museum director shares that this evening is a, “welcoming in honor and a recognition of Sam who is now of ancestor status, something of which to be very proud because you can’t get any more powerful than that.”
To this seated auditorium of more than 400 attendees, Adams posits that Greenlee through his many works, “was bold enough to tell our story, and tell our story in a way that we wanted to hear it.”
The museum director further describes that Greenlee’s brilliance and magnificent massive intellect, “still shines forth” through his poetry, novels, films and through memory of his multiple life arenas spanning the corridors of formal speaking engagements and to include interpersonal discussions in his home and on the block were a casual “wuz up” encounter would spiritedly – and rather quickly we might add – evolve into a cherished moment of intellectual and conscious raising exchange.
Greenlee would always have probing insights and seemingly infinite wisdom to share. Adams says of Sam in this regard that he was truly a “weapon of mass instruction.”
According to his life chronicle as prepared in the evening’s program by O’Modele Jeanette Rouselle, Greenlee wrote and published a proliferation of work.
Among them is the independent documentary film entitled “Infiltrating Hollywood: The Rise and Fall of the Spook Who Sat by the Door.”
This was an effort designed to evidence the making, popularity, and the sudden strange closing and disappearance of the film from area and national theater venues.
As in the novel, the film depicts a Black former CIA agent training Chicago gang members as insurgents to wage armed resistance against oppression.
As cited by Paul Vitello in the May 30, 2014 posting of the New York Times, following a very successful three-week run in the fall of 1973 in Chicago and in several other cities, the film mysteriously disappeared from movie theaters, presumably because of its subject matter. The distributor, United Artists, never offered an explanation.
After 1973, the film was seen occasionally in various art venues and university auditoriums. A remastered version was released on DVD in 2004.
In December 2012, the Library of Congress, in the Rouselle account, selected “The Spook Who Sat by the Door” for inclusion in the National Film Registry of Congress as, “a cinematic treasure which represents important cultural, artistic and historical achievement in filmmaking.”
Greenlee additionally published “Blues for an African Princess,” a collection of poems in 1971 and “Ammunition” in 1975 followed by the novel, “Djakarta Blues.” In 1990, Greenlee was named Illinois Poet Laureate and wrote the screenplay for the film entitled “Lisa Trotter” in 2010.
“It came to our attention that Sam passed on May 19, Malcolm’s birthday,” said listed program tributary Khari B. Jestingly from the podium, this speaker following Dr. Adams described Greenlee as a, “stubborn” man.
“He was going to make sure that he was going to make a statement walking out of here on Malcolm’s birthday. He did that on purpose,” an observation generating laughter and a resounding applause from the audience.
In addition to Adams, Khari, moderator Rami – and to include this writer – a listing of thirteen speakers were invited that evening to say a few words from the stage on behalf of Greenlee.
Singing stylist Georgia Johnson said that, “When I think of Sam Greenlee, I have to go down memory lane. I think I was ‘fifteenish’ and I remember Sam when they had an acting session at the Better Boys Foundation and I remember my first class. My instructor was none other than Sam Greenlee.”
Johnson adds that over the years, “I just grew to learn and to really know who Sam was and I met a lot of people in his circle. He use to open up his home as we got into the late 60’s and he would have these intense group sessions with all these actors, actresses, singers, musicians and poets.”
She recalls that, “I was just glad to be in that group and that’s how I met a lot of other people who would then follow Sam’s lead and have similar meetings of singers, actors, dancers, poets, and writers in their homes. It was just a great time to be exposed and groomed in and by this inspiring and inspirited creative Black Chicago culture.”
Chicago born actor, comedian, writer, and director, Robert Townsend appeared as a surprise guest paying tribute to Greenlee.
“One movie that affected my life forever was ‘The Spook Who Sat by the Door,” said Townsend. “When I saw the movie, I saw a film about revolution. I saw a film about Black people working together and I understood that we are smart and that we can do many things and that when we come together, we can make a difference.”
The Hollywood producer said of Sam that he was a, “true revolutionary” and that he possessed, “the most beautiful spirit that you ever wanted to meet. He was an authentic, grounded and a beautiful man that always gave so much of himself.”
Greenlee was born of second-generation immigrant parents escaping the segregation of the Deep South. His mother Desoree Alexander was a singer and dancer in the chorus line of Chicago’s Regal Theater and his father, Samuel Greenlee was a railroad man and union activist.
Chicago journalist and area WVON 1690AM – The Talk of Chicago radio talk show host Salim Muwakkil who was in attendance said that, “the term ‘authenticity’ is the first thing that comes to my mind when I think about Sam Greenlee.”
He adds that, “he was a brother who was rooted, attached, and appreciative of the street and the wisdom it confers. But he is also a classical intellectual in that he was addicted to the world of ideas and he infused that kind of enthusiasm into the people around him with which he had those select discussions, particularly concerning the status and state of affairs of the Black community.
His passing is an enormous lost. But at the same time, I think that he will inspire a whole lot of people once we begin to reflect upon his legacy.”
Chicago’s Kennedy-King adjunct instructor Tulani Jackson says that he remembers Greenlee’s, “great biting humor, but more importantly his insight as an elder.”
Highly nationally acclaimed area poet, writer, playwright and youth worker, Useni Eugene Perkins recalls that he has known Sam for about forty to forty-five years:
“I remember when he had the premier of “The Spook Who Sat by the Door” at the Maryland Theater on 63rd and Maryland right there off Cottage Grove and I did a review of the movie for the Black Express Newspaper. That film will always be a classic and just a great work of art.”
Greenlee’s daughter Natiki Montano from the podium said to the gathering that, “It brings me tremendous joy to see all of you here and the great commentary about your experiences with my dad, and I am learning so much more about him through you and I highly appreciate that.”
Montano further expressed that when she looks out over the audience, “I see people who are striving to make a difference; to do things in the community and to make a change in the world – one person at a time. And as such, I see, therefore, that my father, his life and his legacy are right here in this room.”
Moderator Rami discloses from the podium that there is an African proverb that says: “You will live as long as the last person on earth remembers your name.” He shares that how we leave this earth may vary.
“But in life, were you to be that model that outspoken voice; if you are there to be a leader, then move in the direction that leaves a legacy, a direction that impacts the future, a future anchored within the annals of history so that the history also moves forward with your name.”
And one the back page of the memorial celebration program quite reflective of Greenlee’s life is the reminder for us “to be a consistent servant of the people,” as it is written in Dr. Maulana Karenga’s 1984 work, the “Husia” – noting the quote on this page – that, “the wise are known by their wisdom. But the great are known by their good deeds.”