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Walter Mosley Brilliantly Depicted Black English — and Black Thought Walter Mosley Brilliantly Depicted Black English — and Black Thought
(2 days later)
About 20 years ago, I gave a talk at a bookstore on race issues. Afterward, a white woman on the staff approached me warily and gave me a novel by Walter Mosley. She told me, with a worried, sympathetic smile, that she thought I should read it.About 20 years ago, I gave a talk at a bookstore on race issues. Afterward, a white woman on the staff approached me warily and gave me a novel by Walter Mosley. She told me, with a worried, sympathetic smile, that she thought I should read it.
The subtext, from our brief conversation, was that she thought I didn’t understand what “real” Black people go through. I’m sure she meant well, but though I didn’t tell her at the time, I felt condescended to. And because for better or for worse my usual response to condescension is to return it, I decided I would most definitely not read the book.The subtext, from our brief conversation, was that she thought I didn’t understand what “real” Black people go through. I’m sure she meant well, but though I didn’t tell her at the time, I felt condescended to. And because for better or for worse my usual response to condescension is to return it, I decided I would most definitely not read the book.
In fact, at the time, I hadn’t gotten around to reading any of Mosley’s work and decided that to sidestep any sense of having been schooled by the woman at the bookstore, I wouldn’t read him at all. So I avoided, for instance, “Devil in a Blue Dress” — the book and the movie — and just nodded vaguely whenever anyone mentioned the vividness of the Black English in his writing.In fact, at the time, I hadn’t gotten around to reading any of Mosley’s work and decided that to sidestep any sense of having been schooled by the woman at the bookstore, I wouldn’t read him at all. So I avoided, for instance, “Devil in a Blue Dress” — the book and the movie — and just nodded vaguely whenever anyone mentioned the vividness of the Black English in his writing.
And yes, after a while this got kind of stupid: Was I really forgoing the heralded fiction of a Black genius out of spite? I eventually realized that it was time to let it go, and luckily, my friend, the linguist Geoffrey Pullum, recently recommended a Mosley novel he was enthralled by from 2008, the last installment of his Socrates Fortlow series, “The Right Mistake: The Further Philosophical Investigations of Socrates Fortlow.”And yes, after a while this got kind of stupid: Was I really forgoing the heralded fiction of a Black genius out of spite? I eventually realized that it was time to let it go, and luckily, my friend, the linguist Geoffrey Pullum, recently recommended a Mosley novel he was enthralled by from 2008, the last installment of his Socrates Fortlow series, “The Right Mistake: The Further Philosophical Investigations of Socrates Fortlow.”
After reading it, I’m reasonably sure it’s the best fiction I’ll read in 2022, despite that we aren’t even halfway through the year. I can’t stop thinking about it, for more than one reason.After reading it, I’m reasonably sure it’s the best fiction I’ll read in 2022, despite that we aren’t even halfway through the year. I can’t stop thinking about it, for more than one reason.
Socrates Fortlow is a Black ex-con in Los Angeles who spent much of his adulthood in prison for murder and rape, is rounding 60 and is ever haunted by a sense that his real place is still between those prison walls. The key to Fortlow is how his past has left him ambivalent about freedom, despite his titanic physical strength. In this, he is an embodiment of his local Black community, which in turn reflects Black America as a whole. It can be hard to know what to do with the very real Black Power that we have.Socrates Fortlow is a Black ex-con in Los Angeles who spent much of his adulthood in prison for murder and rape, is rounding 60 and is ever haunted by a sense that his real place is still between those prison walls. The key to Fortlow is how his past has left him ambivalent about freedom, despite his titanic physical strength. In this, he is an embodiment of his local Black community, which in turn reflects Black America as a whole. It can be hard to know what to do with the very real Black Power that we have.
“The Right Mistake” explores this racial self-conception within an almost mystical mise-en-scène that centers the novel. Fortlow’s project is convening a weekly colloquy, a wide-ranging conversation over dinner among a growing number of everyday people, many of whom are Black, from around his neighborhood, in a modest but comfortable spot he calls The Big Nickel: A gangbanger, a singer, an inveterate gambler, a deacon, a lawyer, an old-school church lady, a Latino workman, an elderly Jewish sage, a white-Black gay couple, a Black cop who starts as a snitch and comes to see differently. All (or almost all) keep coming, week after week, to eat and talk into the wee hours, limning a philosophy one part woke and one part hard-core conservative, hoping for a constructive consensus but unsure if one quite exists. In other words, the way real Black people in America tend to think. Try to classify one of Socrates’ explorations as left- or right-wing:“The Right Mistake” explores this racial self-conception within an almost mystical mise-en-scène that centers the novel. Fortlow’s project is convening a weekly colloquy, a wide-ranging conversation over dinner among a growing number of everyday people, many of whom are Black, from around his neighborhood, in a modest but comfortable spot he calls The Big Nickel: A gangbanger, a singer, an inveterate gambler, a deacon, a lawyer, an old-school church lady, a Latino workman, an elderly Jewish sage, a white-Black gay couple, a Black cop who starts as a snitch and comes to see differently. All (or almost all) keep coming, week after week, to eat and talk into the wee hours, limning a philosophy one part woke and one part hard-core conservative, hoping for a constructive consensus but unsure if one quite exists. In other words, the way real Black people in America tend to think. Try to classify one of Socrates’ explorations as left- or right-wing:
All very “conscious rap,” as it used to be called — revolution and realism taking turns. In “The Right Mistake,” truth is elusive, and making everyone see it is Socrates’ grail. He wants “the look on people’s faces when they tryin’ to say sumpin’ an’ they don’t know what it is.”All very “conscious rap,” as it used to be called — revolution and realism taking turns. In “The Right Mistake,” truth is elusive, and making everyone see it is Socrates’ grail. He wants “the look on people’s faces when they tryin’ to say sumpin’ an’ they don’t know what it is.”
I was deliberate in calling what Socrates said an exploration rather than an oration — maybe “expl-oration” is it. But at any rate, there’s little preaching and certainty to be found. On practically every page, Mosley gets across layers of attitude, feeling and question of the kind theater directors dig into line by line with their actors, examining the inner motivations of their characters’ lines, when going over the script early in rehearsals at what is often called “table work.”I was deliberate in calling what Socrates said an exploration rather than an oration — maybe “expl-oration” is it. But at any rate, there’s little preaching and certainty to be found. On practically every page, Mosley gets across layers of attitude, feeling and question of the kind theater directors dig into line by line with their actors, examining the inner motivations of their characters’ lines, when going over the script early in rehearsals at what is often called “table work.”
The septuagenarian church lady at one point calls out a young man, Ron Zeal, who served time and is on trial for murder, referring to him with the N-word (soft “-ah,” not hard “-er”). He takes exception, but is reminded by the gambler, Billy Psalms, that he refers to himself with the same word:The septuagenarian church lady at one point calls out a young man, Ron Zeal, who served time and is on trial for murder, referring to him with the N-word (soft “-ah,” not hard “-er”). He takes exception, but is reminded by the gambler, Billy Psalms, that he refers to himself with the same word:
That is, as angry as she is, she retains a degree of fellowship with Zeal because they are members of the same beleaguered community, and Billy knows that you can hear it if you listen properly to what she says.That is, as angry as she is, she retains a degree of fellowship with Zeal because they are members of the same beleaguered community, and Billy knows that you can hear it if you listen properly to what she says.
Mosley is indeed one of literature’s most accurate and savory recorders of Black English, rendering casual speech as art. His precise dialogue illustrates how Black English forms can vary from sentence to sentence, including in this exchange, how Socrates and his girlfriend Luna say “ask” in two different ways. Luna starts:Mosley is indeed one of literature’s most accurate and savory recorders of Black English, rendering casual speech as art. His precise dialogue illustrates how Black English forms can vary from sentence to sentence, including in this exchange, how Socrates and his girlfriend Luna say “ask” in two different ways. Luna starts:
Elsewhere, characters also say “ask” with a Standard English pronunciation instead of nonstandard ones — this is the real thing. As is the romance side of the novel: Mosley introduces Luna as being not especially physically prepossessing, but describes her, through Socrates’ eyes, as ever more beautiful as the narrative progresses and he falls in love for the first time in his life. And the wonder is that Mosley packs all of this into what formally also becomes a murder mystery.Elsewhere, characters also say “ask” with a Standard English pronunciation instead of nonstandard ones — this is the real thing. As is the romance side of the novel: Mosley introduces Luna as being not especially physically prepossessing, but describes her, through Socrates’ eyes, as ever more beautiful as the narrative progresses and he falls in love for the first time in his life. And the wonder is that Mosley packs all of this into what formally also becomes a murder mystery.
I know I’m late to the game here, like someone at a dinner party exclaiming that they just watched “The Wire,” going on about how good it is. But like that person, I figure better late than never. And some of my joy has come from imagining the work in a different format. There is an agonistic, theatrical aspect to “The Right Mistake” that repeatedly left me, despite trying to restrain myself, thinking, “That was a musical number!” There is a surreal quality to the Big Nickel meetings, which seek no conclusion, gather disparate and sometimes mutually hostile people and yet often last until sunrise. I kept thinking of the close-but-no-cigar 1990 musical television drama “Cop Rock.” (It wasn’t that bad — there’s a reason enough people remember it fondly that the whole run was released on DVD in 2016 — and it pointed the way toward making music out of people humbly reaching for the ineffable.)I know I’m late to the game here, like someone at a dinner party exclaiming that they just watched “The Wire,” going on about how good it is. But like that person, I figure better late than never. And some of my joy has come from imagining the work in a different format. There is an agonistic, theatrical aspect to “The Right Mistake” that repeatedly left me, despite trying to restrain myself, thinking, “That was a musical number!” There is a surreal quality to the Big Nickel meetings, which seek no conclusion, gather disparate and sometimes mutually hostile people and yet often last until sunrise. I kept thinking of the close-but-no-cigar 1990 musical television drama “Cop Rock.” (It wasn’t that bad — there’s a reason enough people remember it fondly that the whole run was released on DVD in 2016 — and it pointed the way toward making music out of people humbly reaching for the ineffable.)
Were it ever to happen, a musicalization of this book should not be an opera: The singing technique would mask the earthy, on-the-street voices, and in general, there would need to be spoken as well as sung dialogue. Luna would sing in a kind of neo-soul and her exchanges with Socrates could recall the interplay in The Roots’ classic “You Got Me.” Cassie, the lawyer, might speak as if performing spoken-word poetry. As for the meetings, there would need to be a kind of music indigenous to the show, something like a musical love child of Charlie Smalls’ “The Wiz” and Jeanine Tesori’s “Caroline, or Change” with a dash of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s work for “Hamilton.” Were it ever to happen, a musicalization of this book should not be an opera: The singing technique would mask the earthy, on-the-street voices, and in general, there would need to be spoken as well as sung dialogue. Luna would sing in a kind of neo-soul and her exchanges with Socrates could recall the interplay in The Roots’ classic “You Got Me.” Cassie, the lawyer, might speak as if performing spoken-word poetry. As for the meetings, there would need to be a kind of music indigenous to the show, something like a musical love child of Charlie Smalls’s “The Wiz” and Jeanine Tesori’s “Caroline, or Change” with a dash of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s work for “Hamilton.”
I’m carried away, I know. But being a completist type — during the pandemic I watched all 253 episodes of “The Jeffersons” — I’ll now be reading all of Mosley’s novels. And maybe even giving them out to people.I’m carried away, I know. But being a completist type — during the pandemic I watched all 253 episodes of “The Jeffersons” — I’ll now be reading all of Mosley’s novels. And maybe even giving them out to people.
In any case, I’ve been rewarded for letting go of my intransigence, perhaps a microcosmic version of Socrates trying to let go of his guilt and pain, and I would hope that the Library of America will soon get around to canonizing Mosley with his own collection. In the meantime, though, as Socrates says in salute at the story’s end: “I guess we bettah be gettin’ back to the war.”In any case, I’ve been rewarded for letting go of my intransigence, perhaps a microcosmic version of Socrates trying to let go of his guilt and pain, and I would hope that the Library of America will soon get around to canonizing Mosley with his own collection. In the meantime, though, as Socrates says in salute at the story’s end: “I guess we bettah be gettin’ back to the war.”
Have feedback? Send a note to McWhorter-newsletter@nytimes.com.Have feedback? Send a note to McWhorter-newsletter@nytimes.com.
John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He hosts the podcast “Lexicon Valley” and is the author, most recently, of “Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America.”John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He hosts the podcast “Lexicon Valley” and is the author, most recently, of “Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America.”