[Book Review] 47 by Walter Mosley

47 is a young slave boy living under the watchful eye of a brutal slave master. His life seems doomed until he meets a mysterious run-away slave, Tall John. Then 47 finds himself swept up in a struggle for his own liberation.

DNF at 40%. I will preface this review by saying that, obviously, my opinions don't really matter for shit here. This is a historical fiction meets sci-fi story about an enslaved black boy written by a black man, and I am just a white woman who happened to read it.

There's plenty that I liked here. The book forces the reader to confront the harsh reality of slavery. Mosley pulls no punches in 47. He shows the reality of being an enslaved little boy on a plantation; he shows the both the brutality of it and the mindfuck of what it's like to internalize living in an abusive situation. He doesn't flinch away from violent on-screen abuses like branding; he doesn't skirt around the reality of what "crimes" (e.g., an accusation of leering at a white woman) would get a black man hanged; he throws racial slurs around with all the casual nonchalance expected of the time period. And for 47, this is both a blessing and a curse. It's refreshing to see a story, especially one written for children, that doesn't reduce slavery down to some kind of philosophical debate comparable to "my parents are strict with me and doesn't that suck?" No, Mosley's story shows the reality of the psychological and physical abuse, the maiming, the dehumanization, the torture, the murder inherent in slavery. It's authentic, it's real, and holy fuck is it horrible to read. It's a huge emotional ask of a reader, and it's entirely worth it in a "learning about slavery" context and even worth it in a fictional narrative, provided that the rest of the story can support it. And I don't feel that's what happened here; that's the part I don't like, but more on that in a minute.

The other major thing I like is that 47 isn't "just" a slavery story. It's an almost all-black sci-fi story with a slave plantation as its setting and a slave as its protagonist, which is awesome and something I honestly haven't seen before (which might say more about my reading habits than the state of the market, but I can't say that for sure). Unfortunately, I fear the degree of its sci-fi aspect might be overstated; I read to 40%, and there were only a few hints by then that anything spacey or non-mundane was going on at all. It may or may not get more science fictiony from there; I didn't read further.

And that brings me to what I didn't like. Like I said before, the no-holds-barred depiction of slavery was a double-edged sword. I appreciated it every bit as much as it repulsed me, and I appreciated that had the nerve to repulse readers, but by about 40% of the way through the story, I found myself long since dwelling on I get the point, get to the plot. That's a deeply privileged sentiment, and I acknowledge that; it's part of why I feel very awkward writing this review in the first place. On the one hand, the experience of "you think something more interesting is going to happen? fuck you, here's more torture" is a pretty good meta-allegory for, you know, slavery, and maybe my decision to stop reading before the end should be taken as pretty exemplary of white privilege and the ability for white people to simple turn away from depictions and discussions of the brutality of slavery. On the other hand, reading is meant to be either an enjoyable experience or an educational one, and since I was neither enjoying myself nor learning anything, perhaps my guilt over bailing on the story early is just, well, white guilt.

But if I'm perfectly honest, the story's unflinching portrayal of racial violence was not the reason I stopped reading. No, I stopped reading because with the introduction of Tall John, the story began to creep into victim-blaming adjacent territory. Tall John, who is implied to be an extraterrestrial and therefore neither actually black nor actually enslaved, shows up to "enlighten" the slaves about freedom. And his speeches essentially boil down to the notion that someone cannot be enslaved unless they submit to enslavement and that freedom is simply choosing to brave the consequences of not submitting to the so-called masters. All I have to say to that is a resounding fuck you. Slavery is not on the shoulders of the slaves. That is fucking victim blaming at its finest. It is not the fault of the weak or the disenfranchised that they are victimized by the stronger or more socially empowered. Slavery in America was the most unambiguous systemic racism that, to my knowledge, has ever existed. Freedom within that context was not as simple as waking up one morning and deciding to not participate. Choosing not to participate in a system of enslavement is a life and death decision that no reasonable person would ever expect someone to have to make, and choosing instead to live a life within the bounds of that system is not something that any reasonable person would ever consider judging another person for. Choosing to live and make the best of horrific circumstances is not something to be ashamed of; neither is choosing not to live that way. But to come right out and say that slaves are responsible for their slavery makes me so fucking angry that I just couldn't read anymore; I looked past the first instance of Tall John's proselytizing upon that point, but the second made me tap out. I'm not interested. No thank you. Being abused is not a choice. Leaving an abuser is not simple. And trying to escape slavery in any capacity not only was but is (because, yes, there are many, many slaves still living all around the world) many magnitudes worse than "regular" abuse. It is a system specifically designed to be inescapable, and fuck any idiot that blames someone for not magically escaping.

Ahem. So, yeah. I had some feelings there. And again, I have to say two things. One, I didn't finish the book; maybe I was supposed to be that angry at Tall John (it certainly didn't seem like it, though, and with the graphic violence already saturating the pages, I can't be expected to put up with victim blaming, too). Two, this is a White Person Opinion™. Take it all with a huge grain of salt. I specifically brought in the comparison to domestic abuse in that last paragraph because that's the experience I have; I do not and will not, however, have the experience of being either black or enslaved. Maybe African Americans and people of color who read this book see it in a different light than I did. If so, defer to them. Whatever discourse exists about this book within black circles is going to be inherently more informed, more nuanced, and more valuable than anything I've typed out here. And if you're deciding whether or not to read this book yourself, please seek out their reviews and opinions before deciding to put any stock in mine.

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