I’m a fine muthafu**a,” gives one a great look in to the personality of the legendary writer, poet and filmmaker Sam Greenlee who transitioned May 19; an act which I suspect was intentional.
Sam loved Malcolm X and probably thought it would make for a great connection. He thought like that. Greenlee is best known by the public and federal intelligence agencies for his notorious work, “The Spook Who Sat by the Door.” He is better known to those of us close to him as an ornery, quick-witted, sharp-tongued, generous, loving writer who pursued his passion till the day he left this Earth. The major media has done a fine job covering his biographical past. I’d like to share a bit more personal insight on the man.
Sam was a Jazz and Blues writer. When he wrote, he did so to the sound of that music—whether in his head or playing in his home. His personal goal was to write 1500 words a day, an output that he maintained until his health prevented him from doing so and even then, he would say, he continued to write in his head to be able to refer back to once he was well enough. The music was inseparable from his work; the novels, the poetry, the film, even the memoirs he was working on. He weaved Coltrane, Miles and more into his lines so that upon reading them you would hear the music as well.
A small crew of us became closely associated with Sam years ago. We connected almost weekly at Cedars restaurant in Hyde Park. Later, we would visit him at his Kenwood home. Big Rob was our point man, as he and his wife Latrice visited Sam most; Sam would call them if he needed something quickly. Dee and I would go by to sit with Sam, clean up around his house and sometimes take him some food. Sam’s friend and light-hearted adversary for 40+ years, Baba Griot, another community elder and artist, would join us. Watching the two of them argue and call each other expletive-filled names (Sam) was classic! We loved him. He loved us. We know because he never hesitated to tell us. I may have learned that lesson from him, now that I think about it.
He was a global giant who never grew too big for his community. You’d be hard pressed to find an artist in Chicago’s Southside poetry community who doesn’t have a Sam Greenlee story. He was an accessible man. In earlier years when I hadn’t seen him for a long time I asked him where he had been hiding. He remarked that he doesn’t hide. He realized that the Feds kept up with where he was so it didn’t make sense to hide. If anyone wanted to talk to him, he would be in the phonebook. He knew how to leave a lasting impression.
Of poetry, Langston Hughes was his foremost influence. As a novelist it was Chester Himes who later praised his book after Chester’s first wife sent him a copy. He was “knocked out” and later found out that they lived close to one another in Spain. Of the modern poetry scene he recognized the gated cadence of open-mics and the slam (competitive) arena but would say that every now and then you get somebody that’s saying something. “That makes it worth having to listen to all the bullsh**. AND,” he would state, “that it wouldn’t sound as good if everyone else didn’t sound so bad.” Sam was hilarious.
A wealth of information and insight, Sam shared stories of Black Americans fighting alongside the French in the 1st World War as the reason that they are typically so well received there to this day. He talked with admiration about Chicago’s infamous music educator, Cap’n Dyett, and why such ideals were not carried on after his passing. He spoke passionately of the current state of America. “Your generation… slams the door on their history… is brain dead when it comes to politics. The irony is the integrationalist movement produced class segregation in the community. I think it’s tragic …but we were too busy fighting for liberation to train you all the way we were trained,”
His intelligent and experienced views were invaluable and never stopped with either the book or movie that he was known for. Sam was bigger than any movie or book. If you asked him he’d tell you he didn’t write a book. He wrote a blueprint for revolution in this country because he loved his people and his community so much. In his own words, “When I die I want to be cremated and then walk out on the bridge at Washington Park and sprinkle my ashes – cause that’s where I grew up.”
He will be intensely missed.
From a previously issue of Chicago Street Journal.
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