African American Artists during the Twentieth Century
Frederick Brown, Stagger Lee (1983). Courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. / Art Resource, NY
The murderous nineteenth-century criminal Stagger Lee, variously known as Stagolee, Stack Lee, or by his Christian name Lee Shelton, quickly became a legendary figure within African American popular and vernacular culture. A mythical figure that incorporates ideas of outsized male sexual potency, Stagger Lee was the original well-dressed hustler who would "shoot a man just to see him die." After he murdered a man for taking his hat, his exploits became well known as a topic for blues songs. In Frederick Brown's painting Stagger Lee we see many figures overlapping each other, some men, some women, and while it is hard to tell exactly which one represents Lee, the many crosses that litter the lower register of the composition point to the trail of death that the actual Lee Shelton left his wake.