I prepare a series of video mini-lectures on Diane Di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters, Julius Lester’s telling of “Stagolee,” and Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo. Along the way I glimpse the famous white patron of the Harlem Renaissance, Carl Van Vechen, as depicted by the Jazz Age artist Florine Stettheimer in her 1920 painting Asbury Park South.
Van Vechen remains a controversial figure, in part due to his 1926 novel, the title of which I don’t wish to repeat (though it appears that Langston Hughes was one of the book’s defenders). Countee Cullen and W.E.B. Du Bois regarded it as an “affront to the hospitality of black folks.” Ralph Ellison condemned Van Vechen — as did Reed, given that he modeled Mumbo Jumbo‘s villain Hinckle Von Vampton after him.
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.
Drafting a series of notes on Julius Lester’s telling of the “Stagolee” narrative, I ask myself: What can we say of the tale’s protagonist? Is Stagolee a hero, a superhero, a deity, an antihero, a villain? In what way is he a “rebel”? He’s not just a murderer. He’s a community hero. He cares for his victim’s wife and kids. Others love him and celebrate him at his funeral. He is what I think Ishmael Reed would call an “Osiris” figure, given his magical capacity for self-resurrection. Osiris both is and is not the same as Christ. He likes to party and dance and have a good time. He shares his love with others. Cecil Brown, however, recognizes in Stagolee Shango, the Yoruba god of thunder (Brown 3). He claims that there were field hollers and field blues that predate the 1895 shooting of William Lyons by Lee Shelton. The songs precede, foretell — prophetically conjure into being, we might say — the characters in the newspapers. The vibrational form of the song dreams the world into being. Religion is once again the site of battle. It is against one religion, a certain kind of Christianity, and in practice of another that Stagolee’s rebellion is staged. He rejects all higher authority, including that of the Lord of what Frederick Douglass called “the slaveholder’s religion.” Stagolee is a man who can say, as Douglass did, that he is his own master.
I wish to become a better giver of gifts. Remembering to do so and doing so. Where does one find them? Doesn’t one have to acquire in order to give? Or can one give things received in language? Special words, like those spoken in Julius Lester’s folk tale, “People Who Could Fly.”