Sam Greenlee, acclaimed Black radical writer, poet and Chicago enthusiast, celebrated with day in his honor

Greenlee took his experiences in the military to write, “The Spook Who Sat by the Door,” which explored the idea of a Black power revolution. Wednesday would have been his 92nd birthday, and the day was marked with “Sam Greenlee Day” in the city of Chicago.

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Sam Greenlee, the author of acclaimed novel “The Spook Who Sat by the Door,” was honored with “Sam Greenlee Day” by a proclamation from the city of Chicago.

Sam Greenlee, the author of acclaimed novel “The Spook Who Sat by the Door,” was honored with “Sam Greenlee Day” by the city of Chicago.

Sun-Times file photo

When Ericka Mingo’s son was a child, he loved to play with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle action figures. He also liked to incorporate one of his family’s favorite movies in his playtime.

“He had one ninja turtle tell the other one, ‘I was born green. I live green. I’m gonna die, probably because I’m green,” Mingo said. 

The original line from the radical book-turned-movie, “The Spook Who Sat by the Door,” by legendary Chicagoan Sam Greenlee is, “I was born Black. I live Black. I’m gonna die probably because I’m Black.” 

Greenlee, an acclaimed author and poet, was honored Wednesday with “Sam Greenlee Day” after an official proclamation from the city of Chicago on what would be his 92nd birthday. 

Others like Mingo’s son were influenced and inspired by Greenlee’s work depicting Black power at a time when the United States government tried to quell the rising movement.

Mingo’s husband, Diallo Kenyatta, said he got his hands on a copy of the 1969 semi-autobiographical book when he was a middle schooler in Missouri. He and his wife then showed the film to their son, who watched it frequently growing up.

The book tells the story of the first Black CIA agent, who starts a revolution in his home city of Chicago when he comes home to teach young Black men military tactics he learned while serving his country.

“We were passing it around, because it was mind-blowing,” Kenyatta said.

Greenlee’s daughter, Natiki Hope Pressley, 52, embarked on a day of festivities Wednesday following the proclamation celebrating the man she said was deeply Chicago to his core.

“It breaks my heart that he’s not here to see how well he’s celebrated and loved,” Pressley told the Chicago Sun-Times on Wednesday. “But I am excited that he finally gets the recognition. And it’s not simply because of a book. More importantly, it’s because he was a people person; he belongs to Chicago.”

Natiki Hope Pressley, wearing a shirt with her father’s image, poses at an event honoring Sam Greenlee on July 13 in Bronzeville.

Natiki Hope Pressley, wearing a shirt with her father’s image, poses at an event honoring her Sam Greenlee on July 13 in Bronzeville.

Mariah Rush/Sun-Times

Greenlee was born and raised in Woodlawn and died at his home there in 2014. He was beloved by the Woodlawn community and made sure to make the rounds to neighborhood spots like Daley’s Restaurant each week, his daughter said.

He served as an officer in the United States Information Agency, which served America’s abroad interests, before getting his graduate degree at the University of Chicago and starting his writing career.

Pressley said her father took what he’d experienced in the military as a “token” Black man, such as guerrilla warfare, hand-to-hand combat and other military tactics, and brought it back home with him for a chance to empower his people.

“I’m sure he was saying, ‘Look, it’d be so great if I could take everything I just learned and bring this back, take it with me and imagine what we could do if we could be empowered with this information.”

Initially, “The Spook Who Sat by the Door,” was rejected by publishers in America. Greenlee had to first get it published in London until it became popular enough to be printed in the United States.

The book was soon made into a low-budget movie. Former Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley refused to allow the movie to film in Chicago due to its “radical” nature, so Greenlee and his crew were forced to head to Indiana to film a majority of the scenes in the 1973 Chicago-set movie. 

However, Greenlee partook in some elicit “guerrilla-style” filming and snuck into an El station to film some select scenes in Chicago, his daughter said. 

The film opened in select theaters to good reviews, but was mysteriously wiped from all theaters days later, with no given explanation.

“He knew why,” Pressley said. “They thought that the movie was radicalizing the community. They didn’t realize that Black people were already intellectual.”

Still, families like Mingo’s were able to get their hands on the film and read the book, whose new edition was released in June with an updated forward by Pressley.

As part of her day celebrating the first Sam Greenlee Day, Pressley will be participating in a conversation about the book and her father’s life at the Stony Island Arts Bank at 6 p.m. Wednesday.

“When my father wrote this book, it was a shadow of his own life — a personal revolt against racial injustice, police brutality and economic disenfranchisement. ‘Spook’ is his termination letter to institutional racism and a clarion call for true liberty and justice for all,” Pressley said.

Now her father has been honored by the city he loved so much.

“The city of Chicago has long been home to innovative, creative and inspiring men,” reads the Sam Greenlee Day proclamation. “And one such resident — Samuel Eldred Greenlee Jr — was a testament to this fact.”

Mariah Rush is a staff reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South and West sides.

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