Sam Greenlee Day to honor the Woodlawn-born author and activist who dedicated his life to black liberation

WOODLAWN — Sam Greenlee’s first novel was so radically noir that mainstream publishers didn’t want to touch it.

The Woodlawn native, a pioneering black American government agent, channeled his struggles with identity and oppression into his 1969 debut novel, “The Spook Who Sat by the Door.”

The semi-autobiographical book followed a black man in the CIA as he mastered espionage before using those skills to support a black revolutionary group. Many publishers in the United States and abroad rejected the novel before London-based Allison and Busby printed it in March 1969.

“People in the community loved it – it’s always been my dad’s audience,” said Greenlee’s daughter, Natiki Hope Pressley. “Outside of the community, it was controversial, and it was uncomfortable for [some] people.”

South Siders will celebrate the author and his incendiary novel with a “Sam Greenlee Day” in and around his hometown on Wednesday, which would have been his 92nd birthday. He died in 2014.

The festivities begin with a 9 a.m. proclamation reading in front of his longtime home, 6146 S. Kenwood Ave. in Woodlawn. Pressley will then host a meet from noon to 1 p.m. at the Da Book Joint, 330 E. 51st St. in Washington Park.

The day concludes with a conversation between Pressley and author Oneita Jackson from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Stony Island Arts Bank, 6760 S. Stony Island Ave. in South Shore.

Pressley will also sign copies of the second pressing of “The Spook Who Sat by the Door,” which was released June 28 and features an introduction she wrote.

“My father’s legacy was really about liberation, and his desire and passion for black freedom,” Pressley said. “My dad spent his whole life putting his heart and soul into caring for black people in America – all over the world, but especially in America.”

Credit: Provided
The cover of the second edition of “The Spook Who Sat by the Door,” which was published June 28 by Wayne State University Press in Detroit.

Greenlee was born on July 13, 1930, and may have been the first black person born at St. Luke’s Segregated Hospital, according to The Guardian.

Greenlee is a graduate of Englewood High School and has also served as an educator, guest speaker with local community organizations, youth mentor and radio host, Pressley said. He also wrote “Baghdad Blues” in 1976, a novel based on his experiences in Iraq during a 1958 coup.

“Everything my dad did was popular,” Pressley said. “He regularly walked around Woodlawn with his books in his bag, giving them away or selling them, depending on the day.”

“The Spook Who Sat by the Door”‘s exploration of black militancy and “freedom fights” made Greenlee a “threat” to local and national power structures, Pressley said.

Greenlee helped develop the novel into a 1973 film, which used “guerrilla-style filming” when the film crew struggled to get the licenses and permissions they needed, she said.

Although “The Spook Who Sat by the Door” is set in Chicago, co-producer Greenlee, director Ivan Dixon and cinematographer Michel Hugo filmed most of the film in Gary, Indiana.

Then-Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley refused to allow such a film to be produced in his city, but Dixon filmed some shots in Chicago anyway, according to KPBS. Jazz icon Herbie Hancock, a graduate of Hyde Park High School, composed the film’s score.

Effects ordered a pilot for a television series based on “The Spook Who Sat by the Door” in 2021, but did not move forward with it. That project is now being redeveloped, Pressley said.

“I fought with the idea of ​​putting it on TV — my dad probably wouldn’t agree,” Pressley said. “But there is a generation of people who may never pick up this book. If we could make it into something visual…in a format that they could receive, then they could be open to it.

Greenlee’s celebration on Wednesday and the ongoing work to create a new screen adaptation of her first novel reflect the power and relevance of her writing, more than five decades after its publication, Pressley said.

“This is an opportunity for us to collectively organize, to confront the challenges of racism in America,” she said. “There is a strategy – my father’s work offers that strategy.”

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Lola R. McClure