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for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes


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she had been an original Regalette, the finest tap line of the time and now had the reputation

after becoming a headliner at the Cotton Club, second billing to the great Bill Robinson and

she wasn’ about to let him patronize her with that jive routine; so she came on smoking . . .



Books by Sam Greenlee

The Spook Who Sat By the Door  / Ammunition! Poetry and Other Raps

Baghdad Blues: A Novel  / Blues for an African Princess

"Be-bop man/be-bop woman" 1968-1993: Poetry and other raps

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When Desoree Danced

By Sam Greenlee


When Desoree danced, the Gods came down from the heavens and danced with her steel-shod shoes striking fire and lightning; her heels thumping thunder in counterpoint to the staccato beat of her toes and the sparks became lightning in reverse, returning to the heavens and back again and Ilegba slid down its burning shaft and called the Gods down out of the heavens and they danced night into day!

When Desoree danced, the great Jo Jones became the God of Thunder and Lightning; his tidy body moving and swaying to the rhythm; his hands speed-blur fast, striking lightning from the bass line cymbals and thunder from the bass drum, his smile lighting the furthest reaches of Harlem and his poly-rhythmic beat levitated Desoree and she danced just above the stage, her heels resounding the bass line as John Bubbles did and it was said that she danced as fast as Honi Coles, as cool as Bojangles, as acrobatic as the Nicholas Brothers and as fiery as herself!

When Desoree danced and the great Jo Jones played, they became mirror twins, thinking together and apart, lifting one another in a constant upward spiral.  Jo Jones would run a long press roll beneath riding on a half-time beat, ending with a bomb and Desoree would reverse it: bombing first with her heels, then a press roll with her feet.  Desoree danced as a drummer plays and the audience was laughing and shouting, half of them on the time, on the one, the other half on half-time: blitty-blap, blitty-blap, blitty-blap, blitty, blitty, blitty, blitty, blitty blap, blap, blap!  Her smile was as wide as the Mississippi river at Vicksburg where she was born before her family moved to Chicago and she was there on the Apollo stage to turn Harlem on!

When Desoree danced that night at the Apollo Theater with the great Count Basie band behind her and taking flight, Bill Bojangles Robinson in the wings, the audience clapping, shouting, swaying and the great Lord Shango and the other African Gods dancing and inspired by her fire; Desoree danced, wearing her God-given talent like a crown and much too soon the dance ended and she floated to the wings of the stage.  Bojangles asked that she stay for his closing act, being the headliner he had become years before, then, with a broad smile on his ebony face, his Derby hat tilted just so, his tux fitting like a second skin, he strutted on stage to a standing ovation, poised briefly like an African emperor, hands poised on hipless hips, then broke into a fast up tempo rhythm and laid his genius on his adoring fans as the God-given gift it was going through his act with the ease of years of training and experience: up time, slow time, half time and when finished, left the audience limp and shouting and for his return as he danced to the wings and returned with Desoree on his arm.

When Desoree danced with Bill Robinson that night on the Apollo stage, it was chocolate and vanilla and a reminder that Black comes in all shades of skin.  They began with a little soft shoe shuffle to get the juices flowing, a little shuffle, slide and guide.  Then, Prez picked it up, blowing so lazy it sounded like he was asleep and dreaming his solo, making genius seem like a part time gig.  Bojangles popped out a very up tempo beat with the fingers of his hand, Basie nodded, the rhythm section picked up, the band followed and they broke into a dance so fast that the sounds of their taps ran into one another as one long, sustained note. 

The audience was silent now, in witness of a legend in the making.  Who was this woman dancing with their hero and more than holding her own and when Mr. Robinson looked out the corner of his eye, he discovered that he was in a cuttin’ contest and when the crowd got hip to what was going on, they roared their approval and eager anticipation because it had been a long time since Mr. Robinson had been challenged to defend his crown and now he was on stage with a quicksilver woman from the South Side of Chicago where it is rumored reside the baddest Black folks on the planet.

  But, with a smile on his obsidian face, Bojangles accepted the challenge, waved the band silent, except for the rhythm section, slid to the side of the stage and gave her the first thirty-two bars and Desoree took them skyward!

When Desoree danced her thirty-two bars of Basie blues, Jo Jones smiling down from his high throne at the back of the band, her smile never left her face and she became transfixed, speaking other tongues in her head, entranced and feeling the music through her pores before she heard it; the rhythm and the dancer becoming one.  She bucked and winged, spun and twirled, strutted and stanced and danced, danced, danced!  When she finished her turn, Mr. Robinson gave Desoree her due with a gracious and elegant tip of his hat, acknowledging the arrival of new found royalty and like the king he was, prepared to defend his crown.

Bill Robinson came on as cool as Desoree had been hot, the fire of her and the ice of him and some say that he invented cool.  He did a simple time step, broke into a buck and wing, slid light and easy into a series of turns, came out of them with a little bird-like leap, broke into a series of rapid fire steps, hesitated a beat and then did his legendary walk up and the bright, white, shiny staircase.  Nobody could walk the stairs like Bill He came on down stage and eased into a full split, eased back up with that big smile still on his face like a split was the easiest thing in the world to do, strutted the stage doing the Sand and a little Suzy Que, ending his thirty-two bars and the audience responded, but Desoree was ready to cut through the bull shit, knowing he hadn’t nothing yet and neither had she!

Desoree was more than ready after too many years of study and training, dues paying, torn tendons, sprains, aching muscles and dancing through the pain with a smile on her face, making the difficult look easy and the impossible look effortless. 

She had left two young boys in Chicago with her parents for a chance to conquer Harlem and she had been an original Regalette, the finest tap line of the time and now had the reputation after becoming a headliner at the Cotton Club, second billing to the great Bill Robinson and she wasn’ about to let him patronize her with that jive routine; so she came on smoking, not joking for her sixteen bars, not just layin’ there playing it safe and broke into a series of side-hand flips across the stage and back to mid-stage, higher with each leap, coming down from maximum height into a split, bounced up into a series of ballet pirouettes, flipped and slid like she was walking on ice and she and the audience laughed. 

She then started slow, her taps sounding as low as the echo of a dying love, hitting hard to punctuate each turn, came out into a Buck and Wing and they were into eight bars now and Mr. Robinson’s smile had  tightened because her ovation had been greater than his and he did not play that shit in his Harlem.

Bill Robinson reached way back to the days of his youth when he’d danced, hungry for coins on the streets of Harlem; back to the Honky Tonks and minstrel tent shows; the days of his tireless youth; pulled the old steps out of the suitcase of his mind, put them together and the master reemerged who had been resting on his laurels far too long and pulled out of his shell by a loving, youthful competitor and he loved for it as he prepared to cut her down.

Desoree and Bojangles danced that day, creating a legend that resounded throughout Harlem and along the grapevine to Chicago and beyond.  They danced that night, trading fours, taking four bars in turn, the people on their feet, their voices one continuous roar and Mr. Robinson’s smile was real because he was making magic once again with a brand new magician and Desoree smiled as well, ending her last four bars in a ballet curtsy and as a brand new princess, gave up the stage to the king.

Bill Robinson waved the band to silence and began with a time step in place, his body, except for his feet, as still as deep well water.  He tipped his Derby to jauntier angle, placed his hands lightly against his hips, pink palms outward, the crowd falling silent as Jo Jones read his mind and began keeping time with rim shots ticking off like a metronome in perfect time.  Mr. Robinson began using more of the stage, making a slow turn and motioned to the greatest rhythm section of them all to give him the limb from which to fly and fly he did! Count Basie fed him fat left hand blues chords, Freddie Green rocked as steady as the rising sun on acoustic guitar and Walter Page walked strong enough to cross the Sahara and Jo Jones called down the Gods to dance with him on the stage of the Apollo Theater.

Bill Robinson drummed with his feet as Jo Jones drummed with his hands and the people of Harlem drummed as well, clapping in call and response, the band, after a nod from the Count, riffing the blues hard and Buck Clayton blew, Sweets Edison, too and Herschel Evans, Dickie Wells and Lester Young and the brass section shouted, the reed section sung sweet, the band on its feet now and Bill Robinson danced as never before!

Mr. Robinson danced back to the wings grinning and clapping out the time and came back on stage with Desoree, with little Jimmy Rushing and Helen Humes laughing and clapping out the time as the dancers broke into a double-time machine gun chatter and the Apollo became a church, temple, storefront or ten; wherever Black folks gathered to worship and make a joyous noise for the Lord! 

Mr. Robinson became Lord Shango, Jo Jones Ilegba, Desoree both Oshun and Yemayah, Jo Jones’ drums increased a hundred fold, echoing the drums of the motherland, the crowd shouting, the musicians roaring and Desoree and Bojangles until their taps echoed against the end of time!

Yes!  When Desoree and Bojangles danced that night on the Apollo stage, the Gods came down from the heavens and danced with them!

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Bill Robinson, also called Bojangles (1878-1949), American tap dancer and entertainer, known for his skill and originality, and one of the first black entertainers to achieve popularity among members of different races in the United States.

Born Luther Robinson in Richmond, Virginia, he was raised by his grandmother after being orphaned as a baby. As a child Robinson danced for pennies from passersby on the streets. He left school before the age of eight and ran away to Washington, D.C., where he worked as a stable boy at a race track. In Washington he observed traveling minstrel shows and copied aspects of their movement, eventually creating a unique dance style characterized by highly rhythmic, syncopated, and complex footwork that appeared effortless, carefree, and buoyant. He developed tap dance and soft-shoe routines (tap dances done in soft-soled shoes) in which he proved himself a master of improvisation, able to produce a seemingly unlimited range of percussive sounds. Encarta MSN

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Sam Greenlee—novelist, poet, screenwriter, journalist, teacher and talk show host—was born 13 July 1930 in Chicago. He attended Chicago public schools. At age fifteen,  Greenlee participated in his first sit-in and walked his first picked line. His social activism continues.  In 1952, Greenlee received his B.S. in political science from the University of Wisconsin and the following year attended law school. He transferred to the University of Chicago to study international relations from 1954 to 1957. In 1957, he began a seven-year career with the U.S. Information Agency as a foreign services officer, serving in Iraq, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Greece, and in 1958 he was awarded the Meritorious Service Award for bravery during the Baghdad revolution.

Greenlee's novel The Spook Who Sat By the Door, was published in 1968. Prize-winning its fictionalization of an urban-based war for African American liberation became an underground favorite. Greenlee co-wrote a screenplay adaptation of the novel, and in 1973 The Spook Who Sat by the Door was released on film. The film was an overnight success when it was released but was unexpectedly taken out of distribution.

Greenlee has written numerous novels, stage plays, screenplays and poems. He moved back to Chicago after several years of voluntary exile in Spain and West Africa and is hosted a radio talk show program. He is presently working on his autobiography.

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Sam Greenlee (born July 13, 1930) is an African American writer, best known for his novel The Spook Who Sat by the Door, first published in London by Allison & Busby in March 1969, which was made into the 1973 movie of the same name and won The Sunday Times Book of the Year award. Other works include Baghdad Blues, a 1976 novel based on his experiences traveling in Iraq in the 1950s, Blues for an African Princess, a 1971 collection of poems, and Ammunition, a 1975 collection of poems. In 1990 Greenlee was the Illinois poet laureate.

Born in Chicago, Greenlee attended the University of Wisconsin (BS, political science, 1952) and the University of Chicago (1954-7). He is a member of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc. He served in the military (1952-4), earning the rank of first lieutenant, and subsequently worked for the United States Information Agency, serving in Iraq (in 1958 he was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal for bravery during the Baghdad revolution), Pakistan, Indonesia, and Greece between 1957 and 1965. He undertook further study (1963-4) at the University of Thessaloniki, in Greece, where he lived for three years.Wikipedia

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Ammunition: Poetry and Other Raps

By Sam Greenlee

Greenlee is also known for such works as Blues for an African Princess (1971), a collection of poems. His novel Baghdad Blues (1976) and Ammunition: Poetry and Other Raps (1975) both deal with African Americans’ pain, anger, and fear, particularly that of those who are caught up in the racism and oppression of government agencies.

Greenlee's contributions to the literary tradition in African American literature have caused his readers to examine closely the racial awareness or unawareness within agencies and institutions that are designed to serve all Americans. His presentation of African Americans’ duality and paradoxical existence in a racist society is still providing scholars with text to investigate the themes of racism. Greenlee is masterful in his presentation of characters and community; his work is saturated with the African American literary tradition.Answers

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Sam Greenlee is relaxed. He sits lotus style on a rainbow-striped blanket, rolling cigarettes and talking in reflective, short streams about the rage that fueled his 1969 underground classic The Spook Who Sat by the Door. "I planted the seed and I'll live to see it grow," says Greenlee. The seed was a portrait of a black CIA agent who trains a Chicago street gang to orchestrate a Mau Mau-style war on whitey. Its growth was stunted, Greenlee has long contended, by a campaign to keep the 1973 film version of the book out of theaters. "They haven't discouraged me," says Greenlee, 63. "I'm old but I'm not tired. I'm satisfied with my career, I've done the right thing."

Growing up in the 30s and 40s in west Woodlawn, Greenlee lived an "idyllic" childhood filled with Sunday school, Boy Scouts, and the rural, southern values of his parents. He went to Englewood High and earned a track scholarship to the University of Wisconsin in 1948. He began a graduate degree in international relations at the University of Chicago. "I went to two white, brainwashing institutions. But I'm the black dog that didn't fall for Pavlov's scam," he says with a chuckle.

Greenlee joined the foreign service in 1957. "I wanted to see the world," he says, stroking his silver beard. "Baghdad was my first post; they were having a revolution. I was in Pakistan and Greece while both countries were having a coup. What I've lived is far more exciting than anything I could make up."

After eight years, he left the foreign service but stayed on the Greek island of Mykonos, where he began writing his first novel. "I never could write while I was surrounded by those people," he says of his colleagues. "I was so enraged when I came home every night. I was watching them undermine whole cultures. The U.S. is the biggest threat to world peace there is."—the relaxed rage of Sam Greenlee 

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On YouTube

The Spook Who Sat by the Door  / Part 2 of 11 / Part 3 of 11 / Part 4 of 11 / Part 5 of 11 / Part 6 of 11

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Baghdad Blues

The Revolution That Brought Saddam Hussein to Power

By Sam Greenlee

This book is based on the real life experience of a black man posted to Baghdad in the late 1950s and employed by the US Information Bureau. His white colleagues are totally out of touch with the emerging political unrest protesting the corrupt royalist regime and when the revolution erupts, the US embassy is shocked. The king it supports is killed and the entire city of Baghdad is plunged into political chaos and violence. Sam Greenlee is a most engaging story teller...a very interesting read! Gives insight into Saddam Hussein's ability to rise to power given the preceding historical events.—amazon customer

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 The Spook Who Sat by the Door is about a black CIA agent who masters the skills

of a spy and then  uses them to lead a black guerrilla movement in this country

The Spook Who Sat by the Door


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Salvage the Bones

A Novel by Jesmyn Ward

On one level, Salvage the Bones is a simple story about a poor black family that’s about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy. The force that pushes back against Katrina’s inexorable winds is the voice of Ward’s narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Esch, the only daughter among four siblings. Precocious, passionate and sensitive, she speaks almost entirely in phrases soaked in her family’s raw land. Everything here is gritty, loamy and alive, as though the very soil were animated. Her brother’s “blood smells like wet hot earth after summer rain. . . . His scalp looks like fresh turned dirt.” Her father’s hands “are like gravel,” while her own hand “slides through his grip like a wet fish,” and a handsome boy’s “muscles jabbered like chickens.” Admittedly, Ward can push so hard on this simile-obsessed style that her paragraphs risk sounding like a compost heap, but this isn’t usually just metaphor for metaphor’s sake. She conveys something fundamental about Esch’s fluid state of mind: her figurative sense of the world in which all things correspond and connect. She and her brothers live in a ramshackle house steeped in grief since their mother died giving birth to her last child. . . . What remains, what’s salvaged, is something indomitable in these tough siblings, the strength of their love, the permanence of their devotion.—WashingtonPost

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of Haiti 

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Related files: Sam Greenlee's Book (Wickham)  How the Riots Might Have Turned Out   Be-Bop Man/Be-Bop Woman    Autumn Leaves   Snake in the Garden of Eden    Ammunition Poetry and Other Raps   

We Are A Dancing People  When Desoree Danced   Katherine Dunham Dancing a Life