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The Spook Who Sat By the Door [Book Review]


The Spook Who Sat By the Door by Sam Greenlee was written back in the 60s and offers a lot of commentary on the self-serving nature of liberals, politicians, institutional racism, and the assimilation dreams of the Black bourgeoisie.


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The Spook Who Sat By the Door begins in the late 1960s with Senator Hennington and his wife in Washington DC brainstorming a plot to get him re-elected. Hennington is a liberal and his reelection bid is shaping up to be quite a challenge. While brainstorming ways to get more votes they hit on targeting the Black community to capture a greater share of the Black vote.

It’s decided the best way forward would be to launch a covert PR campaign where the senator creates a news story in which he could then insert himself. This would help to position him as a hero and an ally to the Black community. They settle on bringing renewed attention to civil rights by focusing on the lack of Black officers in the CIA and having the senator take up the fight. The scheme is not nearly as diabolical but in some ways reminded me of Macbeth and House of Cards.

When the news story comes out, it brings the CIA under scrutiny and puts pressure on the agency. By this point in the timeline of the Civil Rights Movement, equal rights bills and anti-segregation laws would have already been passed. At this point, the focus would have been on the implementation of these new laws and policies and thus the integration of these segregated institutions. Needing to offer some kind of a response, the CIA decides to create a recruiting and vetting program aimed at identifying Black candidates.

Senator Hennington stirs up this media story and then drops it when it no longer suits his needs. It reminded me of conversations I’ve had with my mom about the news in general. News organizations, journalists, politicians, etc. get worked up about news stories and offer commentary as a way of getting some attention. There’s no real interest in bringing about change but rather generating attention and ratings. So quite often the issue gets put on the publicity back burner the moment public interest seems to be waning or there’s a hot new story. Just look at when someone is murdered or goes missing. Getting media attention depends on the victim and how the story can be spun. Once it’s been milked for all its worth, you don’t hear much of anything about the story.

Neither the senator nor the higher-ups at the CIA are particularly interested in whether any Black candidates are hired just that they’re shown as being given a shot. Once the senator wins his re-election he drops the pretense of fighting for diversity in the CIA. And the CIA bigwigs believe it’s very unlikely that any of the Black candidates will survive the recruiting program and become officers. They expect the Black candidates to all wash out which would then give them an out for any future calls for the recruitment of Black officers.

Despite the lack of interest by the CIA organizers, a group of potential candidates is identified and they’re put through a 10-week training program which serves as a proving ground to test their intelligence and physical abilities. Most of the candidates that are selected come from middle-income families, have attended the “right” schools, and are from overall elite backgrounds. They view themselves as impressive and part of the first generation of Black men looking to be welcomed into the fold of the elite levels of general society. Dan Freeman on the other hand initially doesn’t seem like much to write home about although he has served during the Korean War, is skilled in hand-to-hand combat, and attended Michigan State University.

Dan hails from Chicago and while he is intelligent and more than capable, affects a country dumb demeanor where he presents himself as being not exactly stupid but rather unsophisticated. He uses this strategy to lull those around him into a false sense of ease. He plays into and plays up the stereotypical assumptions held by the CIA instructors and mostly escapes scrutiny by flying under the radar. A part of his strategy is to not draw attention to himself which is quite the opposite from some of the other candidates who go out of their way to attract attention.

The other candidates are very eager to please and prove themselves so they try to adopt the mannerisms of their white counterparts. But, not wanting any of them to get too close, Dan annoys them by pooh-poohing the traditions and institutions that they hold dear. There are a few exchanges with the other candidates where he passive-aggressively insults them. They become annoyed as intended but because they look down on Dan, they dismiss him as being ignorant and leave him alone.

Freeman in a sense is an activist and serves as a representation of the activists who came from low-income backgrounds and wanted to bring about change in their communities. With the advent of integration, they didn’t have a strong desire to assimilate into middle-class society and were instead drawn to the more militant Black power movements.

He’s focused on getting things done and pushing for a place within this newly opened realm. Yet he is doing so in a manner that is passive-aggressive in the sense that he’s aggressive in his pursuits but in a way that’s easy to miss if you’re not paying attention. On the surface, it seems like he’s going along to get along and fits the general stereotypes about Black people that were held at the time. But his actions are aggressive in the sense that he’s pushing back against these expectations and doesn’t back down when challenged by racists or racism.

Dan’s strategy is smooth sailing for the most part but something about him piques the interest of the agency’s hand-to-hand combat/judo instructor. The instructor believes that Black people have no place in the CIA. He takes Dan’s presence and how he carries himself as a personal insult and makes it his business to try to force Dan out. Ironically, this man thinks so lowly of Black people but he’s the only person at the agency to notice that Dan isn’t the hick he pretends to be. He has a similar run-in with another Black government employee who also believes he doesn’t deserve a position within the CIA.

Dan does such a good job laying low that the CIA personnel who are tracking the candidates’ performance forget that he’s even there. When the field narrows and Dan begins to stand out for his academic performance and physical abilities they make excuses to explain why he, a Black man, can perform at such a high level. There is a problem caused by him exceeding the expectations for Black recruits and it’s further complicated by him performing at a level that is even higher than the people within the CIA.

None of the decision-makers at the CIA anticipated any of the Black recruits making it through the program so his passing with flying colors upsets their original plans of carrying on with business as usual. They don’t have a choice but to allow him into the general recruiting program but still believe that he wouldn’t be able to cut it in the real world. To avoid putting him in the types of entry-level field positions in which a White recruit might start they consider giving him an office job at headquarters.

He goes through a hiring obstacle course followed by another obstacle course both of which eliminate most candidates. Dan manages to get through both with high marks in all areas but his competence is still questioned. It’s a job application experience that might be familiar to Black people who have attempted to enter fields that don’t have a lot of Black employees. Where companies and organizations that are attempting to position themselves as being inclusive and dedicated to diversity show themselves to be anything but.

After Dan squares things away with the CIA he temporarily leaves Washington, D.C. to spend some time in Harlem, New York. It’s there that we get to see the real Dan and realize that in a sense he’s a plant within the CIA. He’s not there to exactly destroy or otherwise harm the CIA but rather to learn about how it operates so he can make use of that information for creating his strategies. Shedding the bumpkin persona he’d presented while at the CIA, Dan shows himself to be a sophisticated and cultured man who enjoys going to museums and visiting the city’s clubs and lounges. He wears fine clothes and has an impressive collection of art and other material possessions.

There’s also a bit of irony here because the CIA decides not to put him out in the field as an agent because they believe he wouldn’t be able to pull off a false identity and might buckle under pressure if exposed. Yet, here it is that he went into the CIA using his real name but with a completely different and fabricated persona that he could turn on and off at will. He was able to fool not only the other Black candidates but also the White CIA recruiters who supposedly are some of the best spies in the business.

There’s commentary offered that he’s able to be so inconspicuous that he could have a conversation with someone and have them forget that they’d spoken just minutes later. He participated in the recruiting program and managed to get people to think what he wanted and to go unnoticed until he was ready to step forward. In some ways, The Spook Who Sat By the Door reminded me of the Paul Laurence Dunbar poem “We Wear the Mask” given Dan’s false identity and uncanny ability to code-switch.”

On the surface, The Spook Who Sat By the Door doesn’t have action in the sense that we might think of it now where things are being blown up and there are big explosions. Instead, there’s a quiet intensity where characters and their motivations are analyzed and broken down in a way that I find incredibly interesting. In some ways, it reminded me a lot of reading Sherlock Holmes where he can look at an item or a room that would seem unremarkable to most people but pays such close attention that he could point out details that would blow your mind. It’s something that happens several times within The Spook Who Sat By the Door.

The first instance is when he sizes up the Judo instructor and analyzes his weight and body to figure out his fighting style and the types of moves he’s most likely to use. He then turns around and uses that information to his advantage to devise a fighting strategy.

A prostitute that Freeman spends time with is approached by a CIA investigator while they look into his background. She doesn’t know the details of his inner life but has surmised a lot of information about Freeman just by looking at him and the way he carries himself. She’s also able to correctly figure out the sexual proclivities of the CIA agent. Using these perception skills she can pick up on cues about Freeman that the CIA agent knows nothing about and can tell him things about himself that he has never told anyone else. Within just a few minutes of meeting the man she already knows his deepest and darkest secrets. And so it speaks to the idea of overestimating one’s abilities while incorrectly making assumptions that cause you to underestimate others.

It turns out that while Dan regularly procures the services of prostitutes (which is a situation by itself) he also has a lady friend, Joy. Their relationship is complex and the two have a conversation once he gets settled into D.C. about where they see things going. Joy wants to settle down and get married and while Dan seems to be okay with that he doesn’t see himself living the type of middle-class lifestyle that she wants for herself and her family. They love and care about each other but it seems that their visions for the future might not be able to coexist.

Both have come from humble beginnings and built new lives for themselves. Freeman wants to make a difference within the Black community and so he is more focused on working with Black youths rather than climbing the career ladder or moving up in social standing. Joy is focused on achieving the stability that she didn’t have in her childhood. She wants to live in a nice neighborhood and send her kids to nice schools. Where Dan wants to dismantle or at least push back against the system Joy wants a place or a share in the system.

It’s another instance of The Spook Who Sat By the Door’s theme of asking the question of what’s the best way forward after integration. Would it be more effective to sacrifice and remain in the Black community in an attempt to try and pull everyone forward? Or would it be better to buy into the American dream and strive to establish yourself and your family in the middle class? Do you owe loyalty to your community or yourself and your family?

Dan spends about five years with the agency where he gets one promotion going from a backroom position to being a special assistant to the director of the agency as a result of some interactions with Senator Hennington. He reaches a point where he feels that he has spent enough time at the agency as his plan all along was to learn all that he could about organizing and strategy. He intends to go back to his old neighborhood and work with the gangs to improve the lives of Black people as a whole.

During his time in D.C., he’s been patronized by a lot of his White colleagues. On the one hand, they respect his abilities and saw that he passed the limited expectations that they held for him. But, they also felt comfortable with him because he fit the stereotypes that they held about black people.

Despite his capabilities, they have handicapped and prevented him from fully using his capabilities within the agency. They don’t want to be seen as racist but at the same time don’t see Black people as equals or deserving of great opportunities. He allowed them to point to him as an example of them not being racist while subscribing to fairly racist ideologies. Dan was to the CIA what that token Black acquaintance is to racist people who seem to conveniently have one Black friend just in case of an emergency.

The Spook Who Sat By the Door’s moves next to Chicago where Dan finds work at a nonprofit. he begins working with a local gang, the Cobras, in the role of what they initially see as a social worker. It’s not a perfectly smooth start but he’s eventually able to relate to the gang members because he’s from the neighborhood and was a gang member in his youth. A lot of the gang members come from broken homes and are looking for a sense of belonging and Dan understands that this is why many of them join gangs. Though not familiar with everyone’s life story he knows what it’s like to grow up in the neighborhood under similar circumstances. Using that knowledge combined with what he’s learned in the CIA he begins training them to implement his plan.

Another change upon moving back to Chicago is that he is now able to display his appreciation of nice clothing, music, food, and wine. But at the same time, he can’t fully reveal himself to the people that he works with. His new co-workers are more liberal than the conservatives that he left behind in Washington. But they also have expectations and stereotypes about the Black people within the communities they serve. It’s a different facade in that he’s now pretending to be an aspiring Black elite but still one that Dan must maintain. And through that, we get some insight into how these false identities result in him feeling quite lonely. It speaks to the reality of having to hide one’s true self to assimilate into mainstream society.

Joy was a great presence in his life because they loved each other but also because she knew him from way back and he could be his authentic self with her. Following their breakup, he no longer has anyone to turn to or someone that knows and gets him. But when he settles in with the Cobras and shares his plans with them, it gives him the freedom to share more of himself. The loneliness that he’s felt during the five years at the agency without Joy begins to dissipate. In a sense, by becoming a well-respected big brother or father figure to the gang he experiences a sense of acceptance and belonging.

In Chicago, we get some insight into what it might be like to be a Black man working within a liberal majority White nonprofit. The environment and experience are a bit different but some of the underlying issues experienced at the CIA are still present. Some of the people within the organization are uncomfortable with or dislike Dan because of what he represents and how he carries himself. They might work together but they don’t see him as an equal. Despite their talk of believing in equality, they still hold some prejudiced views.

A riot breaks out one summer and Dan’s relationships allow him to move about in the community in a manner that his White co-workers can’t. This allows him to get and provide a firsthand account of what’s going on in the neighborhood. The organization promotes its mission as going into these communities to work with people and improve their lives. But, the reality is that their major goal is more about having control over the people.

Being able to keep them docile and thus avoid the large altercations that were seen in the South. They believe they should be able to maintain control by making small concessions and having employees such as Dan work closely with community members. When things go awry and the people don’t behave in the way that they want, it makes them very uncomfortable. It’s viewed as a threat or rather a betrayal because they see it as they’ve invested in these communities and have given the people everything they could want.

The reality is that they’ve just distributed bandaids. But they haven’t taken the time to fix any of the real problems as a lot of the people are still unemployed. They’re still dealing with very serious issues that aren’t being addressed. The very surface problems are being taken care of but they are just the symptoms while the serious underlying issues remain unresolved.

When the riots break out their immediate fear is that the Black people will spill into other neighborhoods, their neighborhoods and cause havoc. While reading The Spook Who Sat By the Door I thought about some of the media coverage of the protests during the summer of 2020. For the most part, the focus was on the protests but the moment there was anything that didn’t fit what has become the traditional nonviolent protest or march the media coverage would shift. There would then be a greater focus placed on damage to property over the loss of human lives and over the conditions that lead to the riot and civil unrest.

Although The Spook Who Sat By the Door was written several decades ago it’s still interesting to see that its breakdown of how the media functions in these situations still apply to today. The reporting isn’t always accurate but there also tends to be an agenda with regards to how stories are put out and how they’re framed. You have these reports that sometimes exaggerate what took place or shift attention from the more pressing issues.

Dan has an old school friend, Dawson, who is now working on the police force and the two of them have conversations during the riot. Dan explains the perspective of the rioters while Dawson speaks from the perspective of police officers and explains the need for law and order. Dawson believes that there is a role he plays within the police department and the community. They both offer their perspectives and opinions on what they think needs to be done for Black people to move forward.

Freeman states that the problems within the Black community are caused by society and problems like crime and rioting are just symptoms. But they are not the underlying disease so by only focusing on those symptoms you miss the opportunity to deal with and eradicate the real problems. It’s not some sort of pathology within Black people but rather lack of opportunity, lack of jobs, poverty, and all of these things that contribute to feeling held down by society which leads to problems.

Dawson on the other hand as a police officer touts the idea of accountability and respectability politics. Where if Black people, and poor Black people, in particular, would just get themselves together, go to school, and get good jobs they would be able to rise in society. But Dan goes on to poke holes in Dawson’s argument to the point where he doesn’t necessarily come around to seeing his point of view but begins to question things in the back of his mind.

He points out the idea of Black people overcoming and improving their lot as a group is too simplistic and not grounded in reality. The reality is that even when putting in as much if not more effort as other people the results seem to not match up. Black people realize that having to be ten times better and work ten times harder to get half of what everyone else gets is demotivating. It makes a lot of people feel like there’s no sense in trying and breeds hopelessness.

A person might be willing to work hard and put in the effort to do everything they can to succeed. But let’s say they know that regardless of how hard they work, there’s only so high they can climb. How many people are going to be willing to continue putting in that level of effort instead of throwing up their hands and giving up?

Throughout The Spook Who Sat By the Door, Dan meets other Black characters who have bought into the idea that integration will be their salvation. That they’ll finally be offered opportunities that through hard work and sacrifice will reward them with a better life. Yet, the characters who buy into this idea ultimately end up unfulfilled and second-guessing their choices.

Conversely, The Spook Who Sat By the Door shows that Dan ultimately achieves his goal by using integration and the system to acquire knowledge and resources. But instead of fixating on integration and assimilation and settling into middle-class life, he instead forms stronger ties within the Black community. Through these relationships, he shares his knowledge and resources with members of the Cobras. They then go on to spread the message and share what they’ve learned as well. And through this practice of “each one teach one” they work together to transform the Black community. They learn how to not just navigate the system but also how to use it to their advantage.

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One Comment

  1. Drew said:

    I enjoyed the book, but it really left me yearning for me details. The author glossed over a lot events and character descriptions. Outside of Willy, I really don’t know what the rest of the Cobras look like. I feel like Freeman being a former Cobra could have been explored more, and his CIA training was glossed over. Again, I enjoyed the book, and these critiques really mean I just wanted more story.

    July 10, 2021

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