A Timely Essay on Walter Mosley’s Novel ‘47’: The Story of a Slave Who Discovers Insight and Wisdom
Immediately I have to break a rule, shatter it into shards and let it drop around me, with no umbrella, accepting the consequences like the desert accepts more sand. It’s more than a rule, really. It’s a paradigm, dug into our brains deep as a battle trench, a myth turned common sense, Santa Claus as a scholarly god. It’s more than a bad idea because it keeps us from truth. It’s gentle as a muon, passing through us, around us, up us, down us, unnoticed, unfelt, unheard. But because it keeps us from truth, it hits us like a mugger, a baseball bat to our thoughts, demanding not money but out hearts.
Look how innocuous this rule is. When discussing a novel, only analyze what’s on the page, do not try to guess what the author is thinking or feeling. How simple is this? How speck-of-dustlike?
But it’s the difference between thinking that Walter Mosley is out of his mind or thinking that Walter Mosley is a serious and courageous writer. So it’s not so simple after all. And since Mosley wrote a book about slavery, it could mean understanding the difference between freedom and slavery, not then, but now, today, in the mirror. Or whether we miss it, the message, completely. It is the difference, therefore, between understanding spiritual life and spiritual death. The importance of the question is a clue right there. In real life, insanity and wisdom do not go together. The gravitas of the question tells us how intensely we must examine this book.
The book, 47, is a novel about American slavery, it is a science fiction novel about American slavery. And now you see, hopefully, why we have to break this rule.
Curious choices dot this novel like stars in a city sky. These choices are so curious, it brings into doubt whether this book is even about the realities of American slavery. And yet, there is no question this is about slavery. One question, why is our main character named ‘47’? In the book, the answer is simple, that slaves were not allowed to have names, they were closer to entries in a ledger. In reality, slaves did have names, as parents named their children according to African traditions. But, is the fiction more real than the reality? Absolutely. Another curiosity—47 begins as a young house slave, ages and then is moved out with the field slaves. Mosely gives 47 first person narrative voice, though not from the perspective of a child, nor of a young man. Mosely allows 47 to speak from the perspective of a 170 year old man, that is, 47 has outlived slavery, outlived Jim Crow, outlived Dr. King—and yet his body hasn’t aged past the physicality of his late teens. In this case, the advanced age is a sign of wisdom, because this book is ultimately about wisdom and applying this wisdom to the subject of slavery.
What happens when one applies wisdom to slavery, as opposed to combining the art of creating knowledge with slavery? I’m not sure if anyone has raised this question. There is no shortage of books and web pages devoted to the knowledge of slavery, the facts of slavery. But wisdom—this book might be it.