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 hands — and begins to dance.

She grabs whichever of us kids is closest and does the jitterbug. My mother is a contest-winning dancer and has always loved to dance. We will learn years later that some of our ancestry on her side of the family may stem from members of a dance troupe that emigrated from France to Louisiana before Napoleon sold it to Thomas Jefferson in 1803.

But in 1958 there is no ancestry.com, 23andme, or Henry Louis Gates, Jr., to help us find our roots. There is only the music. There is only the dance.

And as that music fills the three-bedroom house my parents purchased on Atlanta’s Mozley Place in 1952, we do not care that the song we are dancing to is about a murder.

Meanwhile, Stagger Lee lives on —

as legends often do. Music has granted him immortality. He’s right up there with Bad-Bad Leroy Brown and good ole John

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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.