American Literature: Summary of "Stagolee"


"Stagger Lee" (Mississippi John Hurt)

African-American Literature: Summary of "Stagolee"

As a five-year old child, Stagolee runs away from the plantation, where he had worked in the cotton fields, taking with him a guitar, a deck of cards, and a .44. As he grows up, so does his reputation. Stack, a bad-ass, has a tendency to get into bar brawls, which inevitably ends up with the other guy getting killed. The most famous brawl involves Billy Lyons (a real person killed by the real Lee Sheldon, also known as "Stagger" Lee), who becomes enraged after Stagolee wins all his money. Stagolee kills Billy and moves in with Billy’s wife. Everyone fears Stagolee, even the law, but one sheriff, a white man, is not about to let a “n____r” get away with murder, so he has a coffin prepared for Stagolee. When the sheriff tries to round up his deputies, they simply refuse to go after Stagolee. They place their guns on the shelf, and the sheriff tries to arrest Stagolee by himself, but Stagolee kills him. It turns out that Stagolee is immune to death (even after being lynched and hung by a new sheriff, who eventually learns the way things work with regard to Stagolee), and even Death fears him, and, thus, leaves him alone.

One day, 30 years later, St. Peter summons Death and orders the quivering guy with the scythe to get Stagolee. But Death is too scared, so The Lord arranges for St. Peter to get together a work crew to build a giant death thunderbolt. Even the Lord is a bit fearful of Stagolee and doesn’t even know how to spell his name (hence, all the variant spellings of Stagolee’s name: Stackolee, Stagger Lee, Stack-o-lee, Stagolee, Stag-o-lee, Stack, Stag). The giant thunderbolt finally kills Stagolee, who is then laid out in an expensive casket. Everyone mourns him, the funeral lasting three days and three nights, complete with song and dance. Because he was such a legend, an ordinary cemetery will not do, so they create one just for him and buried him there.

Stagolee breaks out of his grave and tries to find Heaven. After searching for a long time, he discovers St. Peter playing bridge with Abraham, God, Mrs. God, and Jonah. Peter tells Stagolee that he’s not welcome in heaven. He asks, “Where all the colored folks at?” St. Peter says that they have all been sent to Hell, that colored folks aren’t welcome in Heaven because they had too much fun playing jazz and the blues instead of pious hymns.

So Stagolee goes to Hell, where he finds a rollicking party. Stagolee tries to go head to head with the Devil, who doesn’t understand Black Folk much, but the Devil simply gives up his pitchfork to Stagolee, who puts it away on the shelf.

Stagolee becomes the new ruler of Hell.
Exaggerations in "Stagolee":

--The bad-ass five-year-old boy running away and surviving, even thriving

--Stagolee’s super human strength

--Stagolee not dying, even after being hung

--Death fearing him

--Stagolee rising from the dead

--God fearing Stagolee

--The Devil fearing Stagolee

--The Devil giving up without a fight

--Stagolee taking the place of the Devil.
"Stagolee" retold in 1969 (by Julius Lester (links to the author's home page, blog, and photographs), during the Vietnam War, Hippie and Black Power Movements (Flower Power), and Student Protests:

The above summary does not address the Vietnam War, but Julius Lester retold this legendary story to offer a commentary on the times, particularly the war, race relations, emerging technology (references to computers and the computerization of death), music of the times, and hypocrisy.

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