BOOK REVIEW | MOVIES | BLACK HISTORY

Stagger Lee and the ‘Erasure’ of Middle-Class African Americans

What better time than Black History Month to talk about Jeffrey Wright’s hit movie ‘American Fiction’ and the very bad nigga at the center of the story.

Andrew Jazprose Hill
Momentum
Published in
6 min readFeb 5, 2024

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Photo of Actor Jeffrey Wright with a concerned look on his face and speaking into a microphone taken by Gage Skidmore via Wikemedia Commons.
Photo of Actor Jeffrey Wright by Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons

Stagger Lee shot Billy. He shot that poor boy so bad that the bullet went right through Billy and broke the bartender’s glass.

The year is 1958. I am 10 years old, leaning against the floor-standing woodgrain radio whose music has set my entire household in motion.

The man on the radio is Lloyd Price, and he is singing about a legendary figure, the seriously bad nigga known as Stagger Lee. We don’t know that this song is based on a real-life figure from the late 19th and early 20th-century, whose name was Lee Shelton — defined online as an American criminal.

And we don’t care.

For us, ‘Stagger Lee’ is a song. It is music. And it’s dance.

My mother, who has been dead 10 years as I write this, is still a honey-hued beauty in her thirties in 1958. When that song begins to play, she flies from the kitchen, turns up the volume, claps her…

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Andrew Jazprose Hill
Momentum

I like good books, and I cannot lie. My Diaries on Substack discuss art, culture, and race with a mindful eye.