In 1900 a black laborer named Robert Charles set off a massive manhunt after an altercation with New Orleans police. Before all was done, Charles would shoot well over 20 whites sent to apprehend him, killing several. Altogether, 28 people (the exact number is truly unknown) would die in riots, including Charles, who made a last stand in a burning building. The violence that surrounded him continued to swirl and claim others even after his death. The last turbulent days of Charles life would make him a monster to many and a folk hero to others. For black musicians, he became one of the legendary “bad men”–those near mythic black anti-heroes of superhuman capabilities, whose acts of defiance were both celebratory, captivating and frightening.
painting: Cruel Old Stagger Lee, by Van Orno
The anti-hero has long been part of storytelling–from the Greek one-time murderer turned redeemer Hercules, to at least half the Lannister brood of George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. Anti-heroes are those protagonists who don’t play by the rules. They bend, subvert or break them. In fact, they are prone to doing very “unheroic” things in order to achieve their ends; but we cheer them on all the same. Conan, Wolverine, the Dark Knight, Severus Snape–we have a revered place for our anti-heroes in speculative fiction.
My favorite anti-heroes are the born rebels, who pull back the veil to reveal the world’s ugliness. Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo probably best exemplifies this anti-hero. Nemo, the ultimate anti-imperialist, fed up with Victorian society, seeks not to reform it but undo it completely. With his futuristic submarine, he sails the seas of the world fighting the unjust and plundering the ill-gotten wealth of colonial empires.
It should be noted that despite numerous popular depictions of Nemo as a white male, he names himself Prince Dakkar, the son of a Hindu ruler and as well a descendant of a Muslim Maratha Sultan. His dislike of imperialism is borne out of the real-life colonial conquest of India, which by 1857 (following the brutally repressed Sepoy Mutiny) had been placed under the British Raj. Thus one of the worlds best modern anti-heroes is a person of color, inspired to his oppositional politics by the inequity of his age.
The erudite steampunk scholar Mike Perschon calls Nemo probably one of the most obscure and misunderstood figures in speculative fiction, so often reduced to a mere villain. He quotes the late literary critic James Walter Miller, who called Nemo “Verne’s greatest creation… indeed one of the stars of world literature, and a prototype of a major science fiction personality.” Even more striking, Miller declares that with his anti-establishment radicalism, Nemo exists “as a potential model for oppositional politics.”
Perschon goes on to state:
Nemo further embodies of the essence of a steampunk hero through the repetitive cycle of death and rebirth he engages in: a subaltern member of an oppressed nation and freedom fighter against imperial tyranny; the self-made inventor of the spectacular Nautilus, an artistic romantic resisting Empire through monstrous violence; and finally, an ecumenical and egalitarian humanist seeking redemption.
And it is his very subaltern nature, his opposition to established order and his willingness to commit whatever action is necessary to unseat it, that makes Nemo such a profound anti-hero. It is what this type of anti-hero does best–ask us to see the world not in shades of black and white, in definitive heroes and villains, but from an alternative perspective. It is in part the philosophical queries behind such works as John Gardner’s Grendel, which “humanizes” the monster while making the humans perhaps all that more monstrous. It is the revisionist role of Judas in Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Jesus Christ Superstar, who questions the glorification of a would-be savior and even indicts God as the mastermind behind his (Judas’s) ultimate crime.
In African-American folklore, the stakes of the anti-hero are not always so grand or metaphysical. But they evoke issues of subverting or challenging power, most often the pervasiveness of white hegemony which for so long sought (seeks) to subjugate black existence. Perhaps one of the most famous anti-heroes that arose from this Hegelian conflict is Staggolee (also Stagger Lee). The real-life Stagolee is traced to a St Louis pimp named Lee Shelton. One night in 1895, Lee killed another man over a hat and/or a woman’s affections. Where the truth of the story lies is uncertain, but as it traveled it was continually embellished to mythic proportions.
The notion of the bad-man as anti-hero in American popular culture, especially in the era of saloon towns and six-shooters, has a long history–and includes more well-known figures like Jesse James and Billy the Kid. Stagolee became the black version of this anti-hero: a murderous pimp turned into an archetype of black masculine rebellion, self-preservation and resistance. His story was set to blues songs and ragtime, flowing through the seedy underworld of early black music venues and emerging into the mainstream through everyone from Ma Rainey to Duke Ellington to Ike and Tina Turner.
It may seem paradoxical, that the story of an African-American man shooting and killing another African-American man could become a symbol of resistance to white hegemony. But the interpretation of the mythoform went far beyond Shelton Lee’s singular act. In the folktales and songs that followed, the invented persona Stagolee earned his heroism not for the murder itself for but for its audacity–which defied the rules, laws and norms of the established order constructed by white society.
In her 2005 analysis “Rap Music and the Stagolee Mythoform,” cultural studies researcher Dr. Angela Nelson asserts: “Stagolee represents a person who is not responsive or responsible to white laws or society. …he is an arrogant bully and troublemaker who is a “bad man” both by nature and by white society’s standards since his acts violate their laws.”
Indeed Stagolee’s exploits and his inherent danger was a threat to all, black or white, mortal or Devil, who stood in his way:
When de devil wife see Stack comin’ she got up in a quirl, –
“Here come dat bad nigger an’ he’s jus’ from de udder worl.'”
All de devil’ little chillun went sc’amblin’ up de wall,
Say, “Catch him, pappa, befo’ he kill us all”….
Stagolee took de pitchfork an’ he laid it on de shelf –
“Stand back, Tom Devil, I’m gonna rule Hell by
myself.”–1930s blues song from Texas and Louisiana on Stack/Stagolee
But beyond the fantastic, there were some real-life bad men whose resistance indeed challenged white authority directly–and whose exploits were things of bewildering audacity, triumph and tragic horror. If Stagolee was the mythoform, Robert Charles was that fictive persona given flesh.
Not a great deal is known of Charles. Historian Ivy Hair in his work Carnival of Fury: Robert Charles and the New Orleans Race Riot of 1900, has tried to piece together the life of this relatively unknown figure that would become shrouded in legend and myth after his death. Much of this analysis owes to Hair’s research.
Like many other black southerners Charles grew up as a sharecropper. Though originally from Mississippi, he would end up in New Orleans by the turn of the century. There he lived as a day laborer, doing odd jobs to make ends meet. While not seeming to have any political following or leaving any writings behind, cohorts noted that Charles was an outspoken figure on race relations who was openly critical of the violent, repressive and humiliating Jim Crow apartheid system that was part of black daily life.
Believing that blacks could not expect to receive fair justice from white authorities, he advocated the need for self-reliance. He was also known to be a supporter of self-defense, and not only kept himself armed but was said to manufacture his own ammunition. At some point, Charles also became involved with African Methodist Episcopal leader Bishop Henry M. Turner’s “back-to-Africa” emigration movement, and was known to have circulated/sold his magazine as well as donate some of his meager earnings to the cause. Still, Charles was hardly a fiery activist. No doubt there were many black residents of New Orleans who thought like him, and went about their everyday lives nevertheless. He would likely have joined them in obscurity, if not for a fateful incident on July 23, 1900.
Around 11pm that night, three white police officers, Sergeant Jules C. Aucion, August T. Mora, and Joseph D. Cantrelle, attempted to investigate “two suspicious looking Negroes” sitting on a porch in a predominately white neighborhood. The two were Charles and his roommate, 19-year-old Leonard Pierce. When questioned they replied they were “waiting for a friend.” By most accounts, both were indeed there courting black women who were boarders in a nearby residence. At some point, Charles is said to have stood up. Taking this as a threat one of the police officers, Mora, attempted to grab him, setting off a struggle during which Mora assaulted Charles with his billet. Though it is uncertain who drew a gun first, both Mora and Charles soon found themselves armed and exchanging shots–striking each other. Charles fled the scene injured and bleeding, leaving Pierce who was held at gunpoint by the other officers.
Returning to his residence Charles attempted to lay low. However, after interrogation, Pierce gave up his location and an armed patrol wagon was sent to apprehend him the next morning. But Charles had no intentions of surrendering. As the police approached his residence he fired on them with a rifle, mortally wounding one in the heart. Shouting, “I will give you all some!” Charles proceeded to shoot another officer in the head. The remaining patrol scattered, taking refuge, allowing Charles to make another escape.
As word of Charles deeds spread, including the death of two officers, white New Orleans residents reacted with outrage and violence. A bounty was placed on Charles head, and local newspapers fed white anger by blaming the larger black community for the entire incident. Armed white mobs began roaming the streets, beating and killing any blacks they found. This went on for three days, until on Friday July 27th it was learned from a black informant that Charles was hiding in a nearby building.
Police officers aided by an armed mob of white New Orleans citizens lay siege to the house, firing their weapons inside. At its height, they totaled nearly a thousand–anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells-Barnett, based on later investigations, placed the mob at 20,000. Yet Charles refused to give up. With his Winchester rifle and self-manufactured ammunition, he remained holed up, sporadically returning fire with such skillful accuracy that a few times the massive mob was sent scurrying for cover.
Charles would shoot some twenty-four whites in the day-long siege, allegedly killing five of them. Fearful of further losses, the police decided to burn down the building. The tactic worked, and Charles was forced to flee. As he attempted to do so he was shot to death. The frenzied mob dragged his body out from the flames and proceeded to mutilate it in their fury, shooting and beating until it was unrecognizable. Not content with Charles death, the white mob surged into larger New Orleans in open riot, killing several more blacks and burning down a local black schoolhouse.
Robert Charles violent defiance to the social order would make national headlines. White newspapers described him as a monstrous brute, typical of what they saw as Negro crime and “savagery.” In a society where Jim Crow racism and white supremacy was codified as law, many black leaders and groups also made denunciations of Charles–likely out of fear of further retaliation. But in some quarters of the black community, both local and national, Charles deeds began to take on a celebratory cause of martyrdom. The villain as anti-hero.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett in her pamphlet Mob Rule in New Orleans, portrayed Robert Charles in legendary tones as “the hero of New Orleans” for his singular act of self-defense. At a Boston gathering on anti-lynching, a black attendee allegedly asserted, “If one Negro can hold 20,000 at bay what can 10,000 Negroes do?” White Bostonian Lillian Clayton Jewett would form the Anti-Lynching League in honor of Robert Charles, whose members called for retribution and revenge–an act that placed her life in danger, as a “pro-negro agitator.” Some reactions turned violent, as Robert Charles brand of racial vigilantism seemed to reach up from the grave.
In Michigan a black boxer walked into a police station and attempted to murder a police chief in solidarity with Charles. In New Orleans a black train rider, Melby Dotson, awakened suddenly from fitful dreams of Charles death, drew a pistol and shot the white conductor; Dotson was subsequently lynched by a white mob. A black sympathizer of Charles would walk up and shoot Fred Clark (the black informant who had helped the police track Charles down) in the head, killing him instantly.
Robert Charles was buried before dawn on July 29 in an unmarked grave to prevent whites from dismembering his body for souvenirs–fingers, toes, ears, even his penis–a macabre act which was common at the time. The riots touched off by his rebellion sent black musicians fleeing New Orleans, taking the story of Robert Charles with them. He even has his own ballad.
The famed ragtime blues man Jelly Roll Morton related his own experience of the event in an oral tale to musicologist and archivist Alan Lomax, tying Robert Charles to an influential moment in the creation and dispersal of American Jazz. Robert Charles became memorialized as a dangerous folk hero and the epitome of the “baaad nigger”–a title he would share with the indomitable Stagolee. His small war reverberated beyond New Orleans, leaving a lasting impression upon the national psyche. Robert Charles, in his desperate, violent and ultimately suicidal one-man assault upon the Jim Crow apartheid system, managed to achieve immortality. And for any anti-hero, that is perhaps the greatest triumph of all.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett. Mob Rule in New Orleans: Robert Charles and His Fight to Death, The Story of His Life, Burning Human Beings Alive, Other Lynch Statistics. 1900.
William Ivy Hair. Carnival of Fury: Robert Charles and the New Orleans Race Riot of 1900. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1976)
Leon F. Litwack. Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow. (New York: Random House, 1998)
Angela Nelson. “Rap Music and the Stagolee Mythoform,” The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Spring 2005, Volume 4, Issue 1
Mike Perschon, “Finding Nemo: Verne’s Antihero as Original Steampunk,” Eaton SF Conference, 2009
Patricia A Schechter. Ida B. Wells-Barnett and American Reform, 1880-1930. (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2000)
The Ballad of Robert Charles: The Riot That Gave Birth to Jazz & Blues [As heard on Studio 360, November 10, 2005] listen to an mP3 here.