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The Spook Who Sat by the Door tells the story of Dan Freeman, an intelligent and naturally athletic man from the ghetto who becomes the first black CIA agent, then resigns and returns home to Chicago to work with what would now be called at risk youth. To his white bosses and funders, he appears to be tame and eager to please; meanwhile, he is actually training street gangs to become a revolutionary insurgency, which launches during race riots near the end of the book. As a middle class white male, born the month the book was published, Im not in the target audience for this book; but it was listed in Sacred Fire The Qbr 100 Essential Black Books, and Id never heard of it and it sounded interesting. As a work of art, the book suffers some of the same flaws as such other ideological novels as Ayn Rands Atlas Shrugged. The writing entirely lacks nuance; the villains are cardboard cutouts. In Spook, every time a white character has a chance to say something obtuse, racist, and patronizing, he does. With one exception, black characters who have a view about race and racism that differs from Freemans are made to look pathetic as well. Meanwhile, the hero is a virtual superman, brighter, more skilled, stronger, and a better lover than any of his opponents or rivals. Thats not necessarily uncommon in the thriller genre, but it does work against any claim the book makes to depict the world as it is. At the same time, the bitter satire against whites (both overtly racist white supremacists and white liberals) and the scathing depictions of bourgeois blacks are hard to forget.As a historical artifact, the book is very much of its time and place. Its casual sexism is appalling. There are few female characters. Joy, the upwardly mobile young love of Freeman, is presented as shallow, unfaithful to her husband, and generally unworthy of respect; and yet Freeman sleeps her with on an ongoing basis. The other major female character is a sex worker - all sex workers in this book are routinely called whores - who Freeman hires regularly and teaches to respect her own beauty by showing her a picture of a Queen of Dahomey. The book isnt exactly homophobic, but it doesnt really grasp sexual orientation: Freeman is presented as such a skilled and respectful lover that the sex worker, although shes lesbian and in a relationship, lies to her partner to spend a weekend with him. The hollowness of the sexual relationships is revealing. At a critical juncture, Freeman lectures a young revolutionary about how it isnt meaningful to hate white people; its essential to love black identity. That commitment to an abstract idea doesnt leave any room for a deep, intimate commitment to one other person, and its part of what feels ultimately false - or, alternatively, deeply warped - about Freemans worldview. In a way, the built-in misogyny coupled with a self-destructive ideological commitment reminded me of another revolutionary fantasy, Edward Abbeys Monkey Wrench Gang.The book was published during the Vietnam War, following a wave of nations declaring independence around the world, and following the disastrous riots and political implosion of the Democratic party in 1968. To read it now, though, is to recall the civil wars in Lebanon; ethnic cleansing in the Balkans in the 1990s; the Rwandan genocide and ongoing chaos in the Congo; the slide of Syria into anarchy over the last two years. That international view is appropriate; author Greenlee wrote the book after leaving the US Foreign Service and living for several years in Greece. In 1969, the links between American imperialism abroad and American racism at home were obvious, and, in one of the few passages offering a theoretical explanation of Freemans strategy, Greenlee writes, We dont have to win; what we have to do is get down to the nitty-gritty and force whitey to choose between the two things he seems to dig more than anything else: [messing] with us and playing Big Daddy to the world.[112]. But its much harder to see today how racial or ethnic insurgency ends in anything other than lasting bitterness, recurring violence, and the destruction of space for civil society to exist. To be fair, it may not have been clear in 1969 either; the novel ends with race war in progress across the nation, but no real indication of how it will end. Ultimately, because of that indeterminacy, I think its a mistake to call this a template for revolution. Its much more a projection of the experience of a particular kind of passing - not, in this case, pretending to be white when one is black, but pretending to be fully invested in and committed to the success of the American Experiment, when one is also acutely conscious of deep historical and ongoing racial injustice, and of the likelihood that however much it changes, it wont change fast or far enough. Of course it is possible to feel both - loyalty and searing anger. But for an author or reader who is carrying a heavy load of accumulated rage, Spook offers the fantasy that one can rise above and control that antinomy - can wear loyalty as a mask while planning the systems immolation. For anyone who has ever felt pulled in two directions - black or otherwise - such a fantasy has temporary power, and some value as a spur towards greater self-understanding.

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