Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

As an attack on racism, The Spook Who Sat by the Door emphasizes, for the most part, the subtler forms of prejudice practiced by whites who falsely consider themselves enlightened and tolerant. The liberals at the South Side Youth Foundation are far more interested in the prestige of their work than in actually improving conditions in the slums. Instead of seeing concrete evidence of progress, they merely want to be told that their efforts are useful.

The general says that African Americans are incapable of “the highly specialized demands of intelligence work” because “a gap simply exists between the races which is a product of social rather than racial factors.” He also claims that African Americans are too childlike to be effective spies. Greenlee clearly shows that the opposite is the case, since African Americans have traditionally played roles to survive in a society that expects certain behavior from them. Freeman’s every action illustrates how he understands the demands of a life undercover far better than do his ostensible mentors.

Greenlee frequently expresses outrage at the consequences of racism. Freeman is constantly angered that the Cobras have not been allowed to develop their talents and intelligence. In the ghetto, Freeman sees “people born to the sun but forced to live in the sunless garbage heap of a sad, sunless, sick society.” He does not think that his revolution will automatically improve matters and does not seriously consider overthrowing a racist society. He wants to force white leaders to quit playing international political games, such as the war in Vietnam, at its height when the novel appeared, and pay more serious attention to social problems such as racism. Freeman simply wants African Americans to be given the opportunity to share in the fruits of the American economic system.

Greenlee balances his overt anger with a satirical portrait of...

(The entire section is 788 words.)