Julius Lester’s version of “Stagolee” adds to the musical tradition a voluntary descent into and subsequent takeover of the Christian Lord’s Hell. This is a powerful act of resignification. The story’s hero or antihero protagonist — a figure “beyond good and evil,” in a sense — is returned to his beloved community. Stagolee remains his own man, surrounded by people he loves. Hell is made a Heaven after Heaven was discovered to be a racist white country club. Hell is the “other side of town,” we might say — free of the Lord’s judgment. Cecil Brown wrote a book on Stagolee called Stagolee Shot Billy. He devotes a chapter to Black Power — yet neglects to mention Lester, author of Look Out, Whitey! Black Power’s Gon’ Get Your Mama!, one of the first books on the subject. Brown claims that “The Stagolee paradigm has produced political figures such as Adam Clayton Powell, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, H. ‘Rap’ Brown, Robert Williams, and Bobby Seale” (Brown 14). Seale’s relationship to the Stagolee narrative is especially intriguing. When James Baldwin wrote a foreword to Seale’s autobiography, he titled the piece “Stagolee.” As Brown notes, “Seale not only named his son Stagolee but used the narrative toast version as a recruiting device to get young black men into the Black Panther party. It is also the paradigm for such literary figures as Bigger Thomas, the protagonist in Richard Wright’s Native Son” (Brown 14). Brown also hints at some connection between Stagolee and the Yoruba god Shango. (The latter also figures centrally in Santaria.) Yet Brown only hints at a connection, never elaborates. I suppose Shango and Stagolee both teach through their example the importance of a well-rounded life, one that achieves balance between reality and pleasure. Both are passionate warriors who love love. One wields thunder; the other wields a gun. Both command respect.
Students in my classes produced presentations on Beats, Hippies, and Millbrook. The third class was more comprehensive in its coverage — though none of the groups mentioned the new religions and religious organizations formed at Millbrook: the Neo-American Church, for instance, and the League for Spiritual Discovery. Practitioners of religion were targeted by government. These were utopian communities of love and peace: open, welcoming communities founded not through settlement but through sacramental use of psychoactive substances. They modeled for the civilization the Alternative, the solution to the economic and environmental crises. They also modeled, however imperfectly, an attempt at alliance with anti-racist, anti-colonial groups like the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement — a point neglected in the histories presented by my students. Is there more I could say to help them vote? Or is the action we must take vaster than that? Let us trust that the texts will lead the way, permitting us to say what needs saying.
I pivot in my reading from the Black Mountain Poets to poetry written and published by the Black Panthers. I learn, for instance, about Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter, one of the founding members of the latter organization’s Southern California chapter. Carter used to recite poems at Panther meetings, until his murder during a shootout between BPP and a rival black nationalist group called Organization US led by Ron Karenga. In the mid-1970s, the Church Committee hearings revealed that enmity between the groups had been sown by the FBI as part of the latter’s COINTELPRO operations. Part of me would prefer to shy away from this material; the rage it provokes worries me.