Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Mosley has been praised for his powerful evocation of African Americans and their milieu. His work portrays African Americans interacting with one another, creating both their problems and their solutions. While the white power structure certainly impinges on these African American characters, the characters are not victims. On the contrary, they are accorded their full humanity and the right, so to speak, to make their own mistakes and to achieve their own successes as individuals and as a people.

Mosley has emphasized that in Fortlow he created an African American thinker, a representative of African American consciousness. This is probably why the Fortlow stories have relatively little plot or action. They are centered, instead, on the development of character and theme. As a result, Mosley’s main character seems to resemble the skeptical philosopher he is named after. Socrates doubts the certitudes that others express, because he realizes the precariousness of not only his own position but also those of others: He knows that the African Americans he encounters might, like himself, end up in prison, precisely because their worldviews are flawed and do not take into account so many of the forces in society over which individuals have no control. In this respect, he has been compared to Tom Joad, the philosophizing common man of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939). Both men, hemmed in by societal pressures, commit murder, yet they conceive of a redemptive vision of humanity that transcends their individual fates.

Mosley has certainly become one of the most successful of the African American authors whose work has crossed over into mainstream fiction. His novels have been compared favorably to classic African American authors such as Chester Himes and John Edgar Wideman. As Francis Smith Foster concludes, however, he surpasses these authors and others in his ability to dramatize the lives of ordinary African Americans with a political consciousness and sense of social history.