Monday, January 23, 2023

Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned by Walter Mosley

Most readers know of Walter Mosley via his masterful Easy Rawlins mystery series. His faithful readers would no doubt hurry to get hold of a new book in that series, but my hunch is that Mosley wanted to speak with a different voice than the relatively well off Easy Rawlins who has both money and muscles on his side. Instead, the hero of Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned is Socrates Fortlow, a man of the streets, a convicted murderer who spent twenty-seven years in jail and has been out of jail and has lived  in Watts for eight years.

Like the Greek philosopher, Socrates, Socco is a deep thinker and one who questions those around him. The Greek philosopher Socrates says that his only claim to wisdom is that he knows that he knows nothing, and he sets out to expose those who make grand and unjustified claims to wisdom. He calls himself a gadfly (a kind of horsefly) that has attached himself to the flanks of the state, stinging  with questions. To those who claim knowledge, he asks simply, “What is knowledge?” just as he asks politicians, “What is justice? What is good?”

Socrates of Watts who lives in a two room shack and works at a chain supermarket is also a man who asks questions, and then questions the answers he receives.

“…we don’t want nobody cain’t stand up to what’s got to be done,” Socrates said.

“And just what is that?” Howard asked.

“What’s the biggest problem a black man have?” Socrates asked as if the answer was as plain as wallpaper.

“The po-lice” said Howard.

Socrates smiled. “Yeah, yeah. It’s always trouble on the street—and at home too. But they ain’t the problem--not really.

So what is?” Stony asked. 

“Bein’ a man, that’s what. Standin’ up and sayin’ what it is we want. An what it is we ain’t gonna take.”Say to who?” Right asked,  ”To the cops?”

“I don’t believe in goin’ to the cops ovah somethin’ like this here.” Socrates said. “A black man—no matter how bad he is—bein’ brutalized by the cops is a hurt to all of us. Goin’ to the cops ovah a brother is like askin’ for chains.

There are fourteen interlocked stories in this marvelous little book, and each is a kind of morality tale. Tales about what to do and what not to do. Like the historical Socrates, Socco is trying to live a good life. In one of the chapters, Socco runs into a young man who steals from the rich while dressed in a suit and tie, and then quickly covers his suit with overalls and becomes an invisible black man. 

“I’m sayin that this good life you talkin’ ‘bout comes outta your own brother’s house. Either you gonna steal from a man like me or you gonna steal from a shop where I do my business. An’ ev’ry time I go in there I be payin’ for security cameras and’ security guards an’ up-to-the-roof insurance that they got t’pay off what people been stealin’. An’ they gonna raise the prices higher’n a [expletived] to pay the bills, wit’ a little extra t’pay us back for stealin’”

Along his  way Socrates runs into a young boy who is perilously close to joining a gang, because he needs street protection. Socco lets the boy sleep in his shack and he feeds him and tries to get him away from the neighborhood where is  in danger of being killed or killing others. 

Socrates thought about a promise he’d made. A murky pledge. He swore to himself that he’d never hurt another person—except if he had to for self-preservation. He swore to try and do good if the chance came before him. That way he could ease the evil deeds that he had perpetrated in the long evil life that he’d lived.

In my not-so-humble judgment, I think Socco is wiser that the Greek Socrates who lets the state convict him of a crime he did not commit (atheism and corrupting the youth), when he could have saved himself, instead leaving his wife and children to fend for themselves while he takes the hemlock.

As for religion coming to the rescue, Socrates’ aunt Bellandra Beaufort tries to set young Socco staight. 

“God ain’t nowhere near here, child…He’s a million miles away, out in the middle ‘a the ocean somewhere. An’ he ain’t white like they say he is neither.”

“God’s black?” little Socrates asked the tall skinny woman. He was sitting in her lap, leaning against her bony breast.

“Naw baby,” she said sadly. “He ain’t black. If he was there wouldn’t be all this mess down her wit’ us. Naw. God’s blue. 


Uh-huh. Blue like the ocean.  Blue.  Sad and cold and far away like the sky is far and blue. You got to go a long long way to get to God. And even if you get there he might not say a thing. Not a damn thing.”

It is no accident that Mosley chooses Socrates as the name for his new lead character. Mosley understands the dialectical process of Socrates, But unlike the historical Socrates, Mosley’s charter does not revel in his ignorance. He is an evangelist for good.

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