One Very Unlikely Role Model…

spookIn college, I went through a Black Nationalist period, and read a number of novels written by African American men in the late 1960s that were very race-conscious. At the same time, I had a black boyfriend who read James Bond, and so I read Ian Fleming as well. Those two worlds–spy fiction and Black Nationalism–collided in a 1969 novel by Sam Greenlee, The Spook Who Sat By the Door, about the first African American man to integrate the CIA as an officer trainee, who takes his training and develops a black militant army. These nationalist novels, like Fleming, were all uniformly male-dominated in their imaginary worlds.

Around the same time, I began my own imaginary world, a novel called The Black Squad, in which an African American woman and a motley militant band of bank robbers. They executed daring heists and used the money to revitalize low-income African American communities. At that time, crack cocaine and Reaganomics had really ravaged my community, and we seemed to be in need of a miracle. Although the specifics of how they robbed the banks or how they used the money were never clarified, because I never finished the novel.

At the center of the plot was a love affair. In one bank heist, they injure an African American police officer, and it sparks a split within the group. They are sworn to be non-violent toward all African American people in the heists, but some argue that, as a cop, he’s blue not black, and they should leave him to die. The female ringleader protagonist prevails, with her decision to take him prisoner and indoctrinate him to their cause. They nurse him back to health, and she falls in love with him. At stake throughout the book is the question of his loyalty. If they free him, will he support them or turn on them? Again, I’ll never know what happened, because I never got further than an overall concept and a couple of character sketches.

The protagonist of that novel (whose name I can’t recall) morphed into two different characters within my subsequent work: one is Madeline Moore, the main character of a mystery series I wrote in the 90s that will never see the light of day. Madeline did, however, appear as the star of a short story in the anthology Spooks, Spies and Private Eyes, an anthology of African American crime and detective fiction, edited by Paula Woods and Felix Liddell. The other heir of the Black Squad protagonist is Yolanda Vance from my spy novel Operation HOLOGRAM, which I still hope to publish one day.

While I haven’t been compelled since college to finish that nationalist novel, I have taken huge parts of the plot and character arc for my debut novel, Uptown Thief. My new protagonist Marisol is Puerto Rican, and her band is multi-racial, as opposed to all African-American. She robs corrupt corporate CEOs involved in a sex trafficking scandal, as opposed to banks. The money goes to the women’s health clinic she runs, as opposed to some vague notion of “the community.” Also, the love interest is an ex-cop whom she knew in high school. He’s not injured in any way, but the whose-side-is-he-on? question is strong throughout the novel. So there are many differences, but at the core of both novels is the certainty that in an unjust society, people may need to band together and break the rules or the laws to achieve justice. Also at stake is the question of whether or not everyone who looks like us is really on our side. In my college visions, things were literally black and white. But now, I see in a color spectrum, where racism is one of many intersectional challenges that my characters battle against.

GreenleeUnfortunately, Sam Greenlee died in 2014. I don’t know that he would like Uptown Thief. After all, it’s women’s fiction, and he was definitely what we call a “man’s man.” However, I see the ways that he and I have similar values with regard to creating work that encourages critical thinking. Here’s a quote from an interview near the end of his life about the film that was made of his book, for which he wrote the screenplay. Note the Black Nationalist language: “I want people to think. And out of thought, concerned action…I’m not trying to proselytize. I’m not trying to convince anybody. I want to shake up ‘the man.’ I want people to look at that movie and go out of there thinking and I think I’ve accomplished that purpose.”

You certainly got me thinking, Sam Greenlee, may you rest in peace. I hope my book can do the same.

Author: Aya de Leon

Aya de Leon directs the Poetry for the People program in the African American Studies Department at UC Berkeley. Her work has appeared in Essence Magazine, xojane, Ebony, Guernica, Writers Digest, Mutha Magazine, Movement Strategy Center, My Brown Baby, KQED Pop, Bitch Magazine, Racialicious, Fusion, and she has been a guest on HuffPostLive. She is the author of the children's picture book PUFFY: PEOPLE WHOSE HAIR DEFIES GRAVITY. Kensington Books will be publishing her debut feminist heist novel, UPTOWN THIEF, in 2016. For more info, go to