Sam Greenlee, Maya Angelou

The death last week of Maya Angelou has many people writing tributes to her life, re-examining her work and quoting her words. A verbal tribute is a wonderful thing. A written accolade even better — as pen put to paper lasts forever. But the absolute best compliment to pay a woman whose voice resonated with the intonation of every ancestor is to behave as she did. 

What Maya Angelou possessed is not something you need someone to teach you. Nor do you need someone to stand in a pulpit and preach it to you. Rather, it’s a simple decision to reach inside one’s self and bring out your best you.

I loved listening to Maya speak. Each word was enunciated with the power of a Harriet Tubman, the brilliance of a Frederick Douglass, and the scientific logic of a George Washington Carver. She had no equal in this life, and in death her passing adds to God’s magnificent choir of voices who are silenced to us here on earth but make heaven ring with a joyous sound as it welcomes its newest member.

But I can’t comment on the death of Maya Angelou without mentioning another voice that was silenced in May as well — that of Sam Greenlee, author of many novels, who died on May 19. His most famous novel was The Spook Who Sat by the Door

I first met Sam at a downtown hotel in 2007 when he was vending the movie version of the novel at an event I attended. I remember being mesmerized that the author of such an iconic novel, which I had read in my late teens, was standing before me. Reading his book, as well as Malcolm X’sautobiography and Piri Thomas’ Down These Mean Streets, was de rigueur for young people in the 1970s. Of course, I bought the movie from him. A friend joked that he was bootlegging his own movie. I countered that he was just making sure to get his profits upfront.

 In 2009, as I struggled to figure out how to publish my first novel, I joined a writers group, The Perspectivists. I later learned, when I got a directory of members, that Sam was a part of the group. When I asked for his help, he agreed, in exchange for something that was 80 proof. We sat, imbibed and I learned from a master. To this day I can recall that visit in so many details. I knew nothing of the publishing game and initially learning it was overwhelming. But I did and Sam instructed me in all the fine points of self-publishing. He was also inspirational to me in that he always had either a copy of his book or the video on hand to sell at a moment’s notice. That is what an author does. 

The loss of these two African-American icons just weeks apart is not a tear-shedding moment. I celebrate that they were here and that they left not only a mark on the world but words in print to be celebrated yesterday, today and for all tomorrows.

Rest in peace, Sam Greenlee and Maya Angelou. Death silenced nothing about you. Your voices are inked forever.


Memorial service for Sam Greenlee

  • Friday, June 6, 6:30 p.m. 
  • DuSable Museum, 740 E. 56th Place