My father recommended this book at the end of a conversation during one of my typical weekend visits. He commented that he had read the book during his late teen years and always remembered it for standing out as unforgettable. When I arrived back home, I went online to begin my search and quickly found it on Amazon. The book is fiction, which I rarely read, but my father generally has great recommendations on all types of media. And I am happy to report that once again, he did not let me down. I have already called him twice to discuss this short but powerful book by the late Samuel Eldred Greenlee, Jr. (1930-2014). The title alone is enough to raise eyebrows and at first glance, seems politically incorrect. But behind the cover page is a story that takes the ingredients of Washington, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Civil Rights Movement and Black militancy and combines them into tale that is sure to be remembered for years to come by all who have opened the pages of this book.
The story begins as Senator Gilbert Hennington is examining his chances for reelection. When his staff informs him that his polls numbers are down with the Negroes, there is a call to arms about the upcoming Senate race. His staff scrambles for ideas before he settles on the recommendation of his wife Belinda: accuse the CIA of racial discrimination. At the next committee hearing, the seasoned Senator takes the CIA Director to task on the noticeable lack of Negro special agents, and as a result he cruises to reelection in the fall. The CIA finds itself in a bind and commences a specialized espionage program aimed at hiring Negro agents to ward off any claims of racial discrimination. However, the CIA director is convinced that no Negroes will complete the program and soon enough things can get back to normal. But among the recruits is a standout, Dan Freeman, the unknown who became the spook who sat by the door.
Freeman finishes with marks higher than expected and is given an office position that entails endless meets and greets. He is not given the espionage position that recruits with his marks normally would have attained. But Dan is no ordinary office worker and is determined to change the system. His sharp intellect, acute observation skills and easy-going nature, allow him to enter circles normally off-limits to Blacks. Trips abroad, money, apartments and clandestine connections compose to the form the nexus of Freeman’s life. But there is a void to be filled and he eventually makes the decision to leave the CIA and resume his prior youth outreach activities in Chicago. Once he settles in, he sets his sights on the Cobras street gang but this is not about getting them to leave the life, Freeman has an entirely different mission planned, one that shakes the city to its core.
As the premier recruit in the CIA espionage program, Dan Freeman believed he was opening doors for Black Americans. But his time in the CIA gave him an inside look into the obstacles faced by African-Americans and the hypocrisy that is found all throughout the system. His eyes are opened and he becomes determined to make a statement. The Cobras proved to be just what he was looking for. And it is at this point in the book, that he takes the knowledge given to him by the CIA and formulates an uprising determined to uproot everything form of oppression there is. The second half of the book is bound to leave readers speechless and Greenlee masterfully composed this section, showing the complexity behind the lead character.
Although a work of fiction, there are many truths to be found throughout the novel. Freeman’s ideas and actions have as their base, the training and ideology from the very system which he now wishes to break apart. His training as a spook allows him to go undetected as he finds himself on both sides of the battle, weaving between both like the master agent that he should have been given the chance to be. He is a CIA creation, but one that has the intention of armed resistance and violence as a tool of change. His actions are undoubtedly questionable and to some readers, they will be unjustifiable. But to others like Dan Freeman, who are disillusioned with the system and the hypocrisy that continues to be used to keep the others in their place, he is a hero to the struggle. And this divergence of opinions is a reflection of the dark stain of racial discrimination in America’s past.
Greenlee speaks volumes about race in America and the Civil Rights Movement. Freeman channels all of the frustrations and disappointments that became regular occurrences in the lives of Black men and women. And in his dilemma of finding a way to give other Black Americans hope, he decides on a course of action that could only end up in one way. He is the underdog, hero and antagonist rolled into one in this classic that will never get old.