I’m gonna do like a Chinaman… go and get some hop Get myself a gun… and shoot myself a cop—Mamie Smith, “The Crazy Blues” (Perry Bradford, composer) Of all the wonders that Jazz Age Harlem has to offer to a wideeyed...
I’m gonna do like a Chinaman… go and get some hop
Get myself a gun… and shoot myself a cop
—Mamie Smith, “The Crazy Blues”
(Perry Bradford, composer)
Of all the wonders that Jazz Age Harlem has to offer to a wide-eyed migrant from North Carolina just out of the subway at 135th Street—
“unnumbered tons of automobiles and trucks and wagons and pushcarts and streetcars”;
the promise of money, of “rights that could not be denied you” and of “privileges, protected by law”
One is “a pair of bright green stockings,” whose impossible color
is itself enough to hold your strong man in their thrall.
More astonishing still is the existence of “cullud policemans,” attested by that “handsome brass-buttoned giant,” whose sharp whistle and outstretched, white-gloved hand
carries the authority to stop vehicles loaded with white passengers in their place.
“Done died an’ woke up in Heaven,” thinks the magnificently named King Solomon Gillis, the protagonist of Rudolph Fisher’s classic New Negro Renaissance story, “City of Refuge.”
* * *
* * *
Your man, King Solomon Gillis—the story relishes each opportunity to repeat his full name—is of course named ironically, for he is by all evidence a fool, everyone’s and anyone’s fool, from the moment he climbs out of the subway until his confrontation by one of those “cullud policemans” at the story’s end. There is something recursive in the joke the story makes of his name, something dizzyingly ungrounded that laughter both dispels and leaves to squirm—something like making fun of Raven-Symoné for making fun of black people’s names.
Forget that for now, but know this character is yours, your own heroic fool, whose misadventures are offered up for your pleasure, entertainment, and edification in a manner that, it is implied, is inaccessible to the man himself. He is an open book that can be read by everyone in Harlem not named King Solomon Gillis.
The plot of his story is simple enough; if you’ve ever heard the skit in the middle of Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City,” you know it already. Arriving in Harlem on the run from a likely lynching in North Carolina, King Solomon Gillis is immediately marked by one Mouse Uggam, a smalltime criminal and World War I veteran who just happens to be his homeboy from back in Waxhaw, and who pretends to take him under his wing. King Solomon has only two desires—to become a policeman himself
(“so I kin police all the white folks right plumb in jail!”)
and to get a woman like the one with the green stockings. But soon enough, he’s innocently distributing Mouse’s special “French medicine” from behind the counter of his job at a grocery owned by an Italian immigrant. Before he knows it, he’s being arrested in Mouse’s boss’s cabaret by two white police detectives who’d been on the trail of their drug trade.
In the end, the story grants him this—
“the tall Negro could fight.”
Spotting the green-stockinged woman, who has somehow ended up in the same nightclub, he distractedly tosses the white men aside like soft dolls as fragmented memories of the treachery he’d fled stutter towards his consciousness:
“White—both white. Five of Mose Joplin’s horses. Poisoning
a well; A year’s crops. Green stockings—white—white—”
And then the black officer arrives.
* * *
Because the story is so elegantly made, it seems churlish to ask whether King Solomon’s apparent naïveté when confronted by the black officer is plausible. The answer is, of course, not really.
Adam Gussow concedes as much in his essay “‘Shoot Myself a Cop,’” a diligent recuperation of Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues” (1920)—the first phonograph record by a black woman, the first blues recording by a black vocalist, and a wildfire hit among Northern and Southern black audiences, credited with establishing the market for what would be known as “race records.” Challenging a longstanding tradition among blues historians of dismissing the number as historically significant but artistically lacking—as an inauthentic novelty barely passing as the blues—Gussow takes an unusual tack, focusing on the largely overlooked couplet cited in my epigraph above. Beginning from the evidence of the record’s commercial success, he asks, “What were these black consumers thinking when they heard poor Mamie fantasize, after losing her man, of shooting a cop?”
The question is not meant to be all that difficult, all caveats about generalization aside. Indeed, Gussow mentions the hapless Gillis himself, with a wink, as the exception proving the general rule of the violent communal antagonism between black people and the police arrayed against them. It was true in 1920 Harlem, where “a tiny minority” of black officers bound to protect their white brethren struggled to contain the righteous “civic fury” of its black residents.
And it was self-evident in the South, where black policemen, like other vestiges of post-Civil War Reconstruction, had long been wiped out by the same forces that made widespread public lynching effectively continuous with the operations of law enforcement.
How, then, could it be possible for a figure like Gillis to be so naïve—someone whose very passage to Harlem is as a fugitive from lynch law, who relates a catalogue of white violence against any minimally successful black farmer to Mouse while simultaneously insisting that his killing of a white man was just an accident?
* * *
“Know whut dey done?
’fo he lef’.
o’ Mose Joplin’s hawses
in de feed-trough.
come up on three of ’em one night
pizenin’ his well.
he better git
acres o’ lan’
an’ a year’s crops.
’s a nigger make
a li’l sump’n
An’ ’fo long
Dass jess how ’t is.
goin’ be lef’!”
* * *
What if King Solomon Gillis is not such a fool, after all?
To uphold this alternative is to read the story against the grain, perhaps, but in a way that is made possible by the story’s own artistry. For what makes him so persuasive and appealing, as a fool, is his utter conviction and sheer opacity: a character can only be so impossibly unknowing if he carries himself like the bearer of a secret no one knows, like an open book no one knows how to read.
In the same way, the ending of the story is more powerful by withholding the certainty of closure. Facing the black officer, Gillis is at first bewildered:
Into his mind swept his own words, like a forgotten song suddenly recalled:—
The officer stood ready, awaiting his rush.
Very slowly King Solomon’s arms relaxed; very slowly he stood erect; and the grin that came over his features had something exultant about it.
This is the end; what happens next, the story will not say.
Readers have typically assumed that he has begun to surrender, his muscles relaxing in submission as his face twists in delightful anticipation of a justice that will not come. Yet because this interpretation pushes the joke of King Solomon’s foolishness from comedy to the precipice of horror—that grin, as uncanny as that on an old racist doll!—it must be left to hang.
And so this interpretation is not denied, but actually shored up by the story’s refusal to explicitly foreclose its opposite—that Gillis now fully understands the meaning of “cullud policemans,” that his body is preparing for an exercise of violence beyond anything the story has yet shown.
In other words, the ending must be structurally indeterminate because neither the likeliest interpretation nor the slim alternative would be as effective if they were actually depicted. Either way, if the story told you what happened next, it would suddenly be less plausible and satisfying.
Fool or not, Gillis’s understanding of the function of policing may be more insightful than it appears. For you or me, living through the early phases of a resurgent movement against the systematic police violence delimiting the lives of black people, the blues song’s offhand fantasy of cop-killing might seem less crazy than King Solomon’s wild enthusiasm for “cullud policemans”—but the insight they express is, in truth, the same.
When he imagines becoming an officer in order to police all the white folks right plumb in jail, he is properly apprehending and reversing the racialized and racializing logic of policing as a mode of control. (Change “white” to “black,” and you have the revenue policies for North St. Louis County.) Like the song, King Solomon denies—he does not even entertain—the illusion that the police are defined by an inclusive principle of justice, rather than by the exercise of a violence that establishes a community over against its internal enemies.
And if he fails, in his initial excitement, to appreciate the capacity of white supremacy to incorporate and assimilate nonwhite agents, his desire to seize the apparatus of state-sanctioned violence draws on a revolutionary precedent that, in 1925, is within living memory.
In a recent set of lectures, “Mike Brown’s Body,” the historian Robin Kelley notes that, as part of the continual armed struggle that was the aftermath of the Civil War, black organizers in the rural South formed militias and struggled for control over the local offices of the criminal justice system (about 46:30 in). Reconstruction’s eventual defeat may have spurred the mass migration of black Southerners to places like Harlem, but it did not change their fundamental relationship to US policing, nor did it erase the everyday knowledge that is shared as a community living in the truth of justice.
And so it is not to dismiss, but to commend King Solomon’s wisdom that you might ask, What does he know of justice? All he knows is violence.
* * *
#BlackLivesMatter, and the specificity of this slogan, rather than some false universality, turns out to be, among other things, the entry point to understanding the forgotten histories of other racialized groups. The hopheaded murderous Chinaman that Mamie Smith longs to emulate is just one example, hiding in plain sight. Start looking, and you’ll find that US culture, especially prior to the Cold War, is littered with stereotypes of Asians with a predilection for antiwhite violence deemed greater and more volatile than that of black people.
But in the next installment, I’ll follow the path of King Solomon’s story to other, unexpected histories. Tracing it back a quarter-century to the Philippine-American War, and then ahead to the literature of midcentury Filipino migration, I’ll suggest that each is structured by the same relation to white American racial violence.
The question is simple: if King Solomon is not a fool, what knowledge does he bear?
The answer may be found in a song.
 It’s been a long time, but I think I borrowed this observation from Joycelyn Moody, who was the first person to read this story with me. Either way, thanks, Joycelyn, for teaching me what it means to become a reader.
 Adam Gussow, “‘Shoot Myself a Cop’: Mamie Smith’s ‘Crazy Blues’ as Social Text,” Callaloo 25.1 (2002): 8-44, and reprinted in his Seems Like Murder Here: Southern Violence and the Blues Tradition, Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 2002. But if you read that, you also need to read Daphne Brooks’s take, “A New Voice of the Blues,” in Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors’s New Literary History of America, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2009: 545-50.
 Gussow 13.
 Gussow 13-15.
 The alternate, “All Lives Matter,” is entirely typical of the dominant concept of universality in U.S. history, which aspires to a delusion of whiteness by explicitly repudiating blackness: “all” is what you are left with when you make “black” disappear.