Stagger Lee, John Wiley Price and the Important Historical Role of Big Scary Black Guys
Last weekend we saw Stagger Lee, the Will Power and Justin Ellington musical doing its world premiere at the Dallas Theater Center. All the way through it I was thinking about John Wiley Price.
Elaine Liner has reviewed it for us already, and it wouldn't occur to me anyway to offer a critical opinion on the theatrical production itself. Well, I do have to mention we loved it, thought the music and choreography were maahvelous-maahvelous. I, for one, have no idea what I'm talking about.
I was intrigued instead by something in the story that I do know a thing or two about, which is the very important role in American history of the big, bad, wicked, scary, awful black man, in this case, Stagger Lee.
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We all know how important Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was to the evolution of American racial consciousness, and lately, because of the Selma movie, we've even been trying to carve out a larger role for that larger-than-life white Texan, LBJ. But if it hadn't been for Stagger Lee, those guys would never have accomplished a damn thing.
In fact there is a basic principle buried in the heart of our nation, born of the Revolution, that behind every serious negotiation is a serious threat of violence. The implicit argument of the revolutionaries dealing with the loyalists was always, "You can deal with us, or you can go out and deal with those drunk people out on the cobblestones in the fake Indian costumes with the torches and the nooses."
That was spirit of Jefferson's admonition about the tree of liberty needing to be refreshed every once in a while with the blood of patriots -- more specifically, some blood from the patriots and then even more blood from the people the patriots went after.
In the early 1980s I studied the racial history of Dallas for a book project. I had learned my racial history the way most white people did -- in college. In that version, nobody black ever objected to bus segregation until December 1, 1955, when a lady named Rosa Parks decided to refuse to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery to a white passenger. Then all hell broke loose.
What I found when I read about Dallas in the old newspapers, white and black, was that black people never accepted bus segregation peacefully. Fights and mini-riots over it occurred cyclically.
Nor did black people necessarily run in fear from white mobs attacking their homes when they moved into white neighborhoods. Some black men stood out in front of their homes with shotguns daring the next white person to heave a brick.
It was that simmering threat of violence that gave black ministers the only bargaining power they had in dealing with the white power structure. The threat was animated by the deeply ingrained superstitious fear white people had and still have of the big, powerful, bad, black man. The ministers went to white leaders on a regular basis with the message: "We're law-abiding God-fearing citizens, but we don't know how long we can keep those other big bad black men under control. You know what we mean. Biiig black men. Huge! Baad. Big and bad. Coming your way."
It would demean King's message and life work to say all he did was make veiled threats of violence. King searched for the moral conscience and better nature of white people, and thank goodness he found it in limited quantities here and there. But the specter of Stagger Lee always loomed over the proceedings.
In his musical, Power does a wonderful job of storytelling, I thought, to put Stagger Lee into full historical context. Yes, he's a thug, and the good wives of good men hate him and don't want him around. But in Power's script, the good men remind their good wives that it was Stagger Lee who wasn't afraid of the Klan back in the cotton fields of Dixie. It was Stagger Lee who killed white men. It was Stagger Lee the Klansmen feared.
No matter how immoral he or she may be, no matter how cruel and sadistic, the man or woman who is feared by the common enemy will always be the common hero, among other things. It's complicated. Powers' play does a wonderful job exploring that complexity.
So do I think Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price is a thug? No, of course not. He is the county's most powerful and longest serving African-American elected leader. He has served his community through difficult times. He is also under indictment for a felony, and next year when his long-awaited federal trial finally happens, we will see what the full evidence is against him.
I have strong objections to his role in hampering the Inland Port development in Dallas that promised to bring jobs to southern Dallas, but those feelings are political. I'm not any better qualified to opine on his legal status than I am to write Elaine Liner's review of Stagger Lee.
What I remember about him, when I first came to town in the late 1970s, is that he was the big scary black man here. He marched in front of The Dallas Morning News and the Dallas Police Northwest Patrol Division. He even beat up white guys and got away with it.
I remember even then being so frustrated at editorial writers at my own newspaper, The Dallas Times Herald, when they would go on and on about, "Don't black people realize that this is a big scary bad man? Why do they vote for this big scary black man? One would think that once the black community realized John Wiley Price was a big scary black man, they would turn their backs on him."
I would read that crap and think, "Way to go, geniuses. You just guaranteed him another term in office."
I have read other reviews of Stagger Lee -- not Elaine's -- in which there were complaints about unresolved issues in the story. I find myself wondering if those reviewers mean the fact that the honest hard-working black people in the play fear and loathe Stagger Lee but also love and revere him. If that's it, I think we can all put our heads together and figure that one out.
No, you don't want your husband, Billy, going out to shoot craps with him every night. You never know when Stagger Lee might get drunk and coked up and shoot Billy so bad that the bullet went through Billy and it broke the bartender's glass.
But when the night is clear and the moon is yellow and the leaves come tumbling down, when you're standing on the corner and you hear your bulldog bark, and you think it might be some son of a bitch in a white cone-head costume? Oh, Stagger Lee! You busy tonight?
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