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Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Sam Greenlee

Death and Crucial Questions: Sam Greenlee (1930-2014)

Each death gives birth to new questions.  It matters not whether the dead person is so unaccounted for that she or he is unmourned and assigned to an unmarked grave in the cemetery of oblivion, or so assiduously documented during his or her brief span of living that remembering and rituals of respect become footnotes for history. Each death sharpens the agony of humanity and urges inquiry about our cultural and critical practices and memory. Our endless struggle for human rights is a braided rainbow if we carefully avoid having it become a rainbow-colored noose. Minimize self-anointed lynchings.

From January 2014 to now, we witness death and the transition of American moral voices. Death ought not be proud, but it is. Its visitations are spendthrift.  Consider the short, incomplete listing for writers:

Alvin B. Aubert, March 12, 1930-January 7, 2014

Amiri Baraka, October 7, 1934-January 9, 2014

Sam Greenlee, July 13, 1930-May 19, 2014

Vincent Gordon Harding, July 24, 1931-May 19, 2014

Maya Angelou, April 4, 1928-May 28, 2014

People more adept than I can do the numerology charts.  I am merely plain, vernacular, and youthfully elderly. I just listen.

Aubert says: “We walk to the proverbial different drummer.  The difference lies, I suppose, in whether or not you want to assume a particular political stance in your writing.  I don’t have that kind of systematic ideology --- which does not, in my view, reduce my commitment to my people.”

Baraka asks the primal, philosophical question: Who?

Greenlee fictionalizes a black Iraqi voice in Baghdad Blues (1976) to say: “But you cannot oppose progress forever.  The revolution must come, and it is a pity that, when it does, you will have been found neither sympathetic nor understanding of its causes.”

Harding, noted for his work with SCLC, SNCC, CORE, and the Institute of the Black World and noted for such books as Hope and History and The Other American Revolution, is reported to have said that the key for the 21st century is to answer the voice within us which instructs us to do something for somebody.

Angelou, teaching a lesson five days before dying, intones: “Listen to yourself and in that quietude you might hear the voice of God.”

Listen to lessoning until cognition arrives.



The death of Sam Greenlee, who worked for USIA from 1959-1965 and who witnessed revolution in the Middle East , is reason for quietly, very quietly, giving more  attention to writers and the intelligence agencies. There is some interesting material on YouTube regarding Greenlee and the making of the film The Spook Who Sat by the Door. Weird stuff, this silencing of work by men and women who say “I Am.” The FBI took exquisite care to limit distribution of the film, but that suggests we have not given sufficient attention to the whole history of African American film and the quintessential presence of blacks in American film and how film often nourishes and materializes the sinister motives of the State. To be sure, we have been derelict in attending to domestic surveillance. But how could we when the greatest commandment of brave new life in the United States is: THOU SHALT NOT KNOW? We are conditioned to worship tyranny. Listening to lessoning enables a handful of us to be transgressive in asking, with Angelou, that the world be responsible for tolerance, for equality and equity, and for peace.

 I'm not sure why Greenlee's second novel Baghdad Blues (1976) has got scant attention from critics who think they know everything about how the world turns to stand still. Greenlee was also a poet -----Blues for an African Princess (1971) and Ammunition!:Poetry and Other Raps (1975) and Be-Bop Man/Be-Bop Woman, 1968-1993 Poetry and Other Raps (1995), so why do we not have discussion of him in the context of the Black Arts Movement?

Obviously, I have to do much more research on Greenlee and address uncomfortable questions to my fellow critics, especially those who deal with the messy literary politics of the Chicago scene. I have not, I hasten to confess, done enough work with my own life-radical questions that are certainly under surveillance. Mary Helen Washington's excellent The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014) paves the way for that kind of research.

Certain makers of cultural and political tastes in Chicago apparently did not like Greenlee and succeeded, to some degree, in urging  people to ignore him. Alas, the specialized problems of nationalism and nation time. Greenlee is an important figure in the whole history of black writing and the rainbow radical tradition of cultural expressiveness and performance, and we must give attention to the silence around him for the greater good of our people, for the good of all the generations as Margaret Walker instructed. Pass the word in the right places and study the kaleidoscopic patterns of the braided rainbow. Death and crucial questions bid us to be wise/whys!


Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                            June 3, 2014

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