Workin' on the Chain Gang: Shaking Off the Dead Hand of History

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A passionate examination of the social and economic injustices that continue to shackle the American people

Praise for Workin’ on the Chain Gang:

“. . . bracing and provocative. . . .”

Publishers Weekly

“. . . clear-sighted . . . Mosley offers chain-breaking ideas. . . .”

Los Angeles Times Book Review

“[A] thoroughly potent dismantling of Yanqui capitalism, the media, and the entertainment business, and at the same time a celebration of rebellion, truth as a tool for emancipation, and much else besides. . . .”

Toronto Globe and Mail

Workin’ on the Chain Gang excels at expressing feelings of ennui that transcend race. . . . beautiful language and penetrating insights into the necessity of confronting the past.”

Washington Post

“Mosley eloquently examines what liberation from consumer capitalism might look like. . . . readers receptive to a progressive critique of the religion of the market will value Mosley’s creative contribution.”


Walter Mosley’s most recent essay collection is Life Out of Context, published in 2006. He is the best-selling author of the science fiction novel Blue Light, five critically acclaimed mysteries featuring Easy Rawlins, the blues novel RL’s Dream, a finalist for the NAACP Award in Fiction, and winner of the Black Caucus of the American Library Association’s Literary Award. His books have been translated into twenty languages. He lives in New York.

Clyde Taylor is Professor of Africana Studies at NYU’s Gallatin School and author of The Mask of Art: Breaking the Aesthetic Contract—Film and Literature.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Breaking the Chains

In a stirring call to thought and action, Walter Mosley offers a bold vision for America in Workin' on the Chain Gang, his new nonfiction volume. With fiery passion and cerebral precision, the ever-nimble Mosley weaves fresh perspectives on history, culture, race, capitalism, and the ballot box. Any wonder that he also announces his platform for presidency?

Best known for his standout fiction, Mosley delivers here an invigorating, prickly state of the millennial nation address. Setting aside the realms of Easy Rawlins and Socrates Fortlow, he talks plainly and forcefully about how to remedy modern society. His powerful answers will engage some and enrage others. And his catalytic questions are destined to spark debate.

"The baby born at midnight in the first time zone to cross us over into the next millennium will have been a magic baby, his or her photograph sold and shown all around the world. But in two years, when that baby's neighbor is dying from starvation, war wounds, or disease, no one will notice and no one will care, because death due to these all too regular occurrences is mundane. That death won't sell a newspaper or a TV ad, but a quirk of the clock will."

The inanities of pop culture (and what passes for news) are ripe targets for Mosley's withering pen. More Americans can name the characters of "Seinfeld" than their state's national-level politicians. Shadows win out over substance, fluff trumping issues handily. Even more offensive are the multinational corporations that propagate a faulty consumerism ideology, divorced of consequence and responsibility.

"Through PlayStation, McDonald's, various arms and aircraft dealers, Hollywood's big and little screens, and our excellently equipped armed forces, we still dominate the world's economy, culture, and hopes. When America falls down on its education, when our new crop of citizens can't add, we just import mathematicians from the former USSR and China."

Feel like a cog in someone else's wheel? A drone, lacking voice or vision? Throughout his cogent rallying cry, Mosley returns to the African experience in America, for he sees stark parallels between slavery's bitter legacy and current national concerns. Politely put, economic disenfranchisement is a toxin that corrodes all it touches. Until the history is aired, shared, lessons will go unlearned, and the toxin will spread.

"The slaves in America and the serfs in Russia were freed at about the same time. The chains were laid out in front of them, and the doors to the plantation were opened wide. Most slaves, most serfs, stayed on the plantation of their own accord, not because they liked it but because survival seemed reliant upon servitude.

"I don't believe that white attention to black history should be couched in contrite guilt. Our history is a subject just like any other taught in school. In this study, one should learn from the pitfalls and advances. Black American history, I say again, is American history. There is an echo of Jim Crow in the HMO: people shunted aside, denied access, and allowed to suffer with no real democratic recourse. Black history can't address every issue, but it can certainly talk about refusing to go another step without an accounting. It can show you how each man, woman, and child can be an impediment to injustice."

Not content merely to point out what is wrong, Mosley offers tangible proposals for fixing that which is broken, one of them as revolutionary and subversive as it is simple: As an experiment in sparking communication at home, turn off the television, and also forego attending any spectator sports. For three months. Break the spell. Without these passive pacifiers, how will we fill our evenings and weekends? Without the mediated community to bind us, how will we knit fresh connections? More than likely, people will discover the active joys of conversing, walking, reading. From this beginning, intriguing possibilities await.

Mosley wraps up his appeal with a declaration of principles, the foundation of his presidential platform. Whether he truly aspires to the Oval Office or not, his ideals resonate with refreshing candor, and should be welcomed for their honesty. After castigating both parties for decades of pocket-lining and image manipulation, he offers tangible dreams as the guiding light for his candidacy:

"Most voters don't really care about a pretty face, but you better believe they'd turn out for the cure for cancer; they'd be casting their votes for an extra ten years of life. What I want is freedom to share in the incredible wealth of our minds. I'm not talking material ownership here. What I'm saying is that our citizens should have equal access to the advantages we discover. Medical care, education, a living wage, and peace of mind should be available for everyone."

After twice reading Workin' on the Chain Gang, I'm voting for Walter.

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Mosley, the author of the popular and critically acclaimed Easy Rawlins mystery series and other novels, issues an ardent manifesto that addresses the political and economic "chains that define our range of motion and our ability to reach for the higher goals" under capitalism, and argues that these "chains might be more recognizable in the black experience, but they restrain us all." Pointing out how "history, economics, self-image, the media, politics and our misuse of technology" limit us, Mosley boldly calls for an aggressive reevaluation of how public information, social life, work and identity are constructed in the United States, invoking a simple axiom: "What we need is a reexamination of the people and their needs." While he claims not to be specifically advocating socialism, he targets an economic system that values corporate profits over the lives and well-being of workers as the main source of psychic and physical pain and ill health in our society. His evaluation of U.S. politics is harsh ("What kind of democracy gives you two candidates who represent less than 5 percent of the population?"), but his message is idealistic, even utopian in its simplicity. In the end, Mosley urges his readers to take responsibility for their own lives and to use their imaginations to envision a new world: "The only way out is to be crazy, to imagine the impossible... to say what it is you want." Less a rigorous political proposal than a cri de coeur against the stifling of the human spirit, Mosley's short book is a bracing and provocative declaration of intellectual and political independence. (Jan.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
We're all in chains, argues Mosley, imprisoned by a society that celebrates money and power. Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780472031986
  • Publisher: University of Michigan Press
  • Publication date: 12/27/2006
  • Series: Class : Culture Series
  • Pages: 128
  • Sales rank: 905,596
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Walter Mosley
Walter Mosley is the bestselling author of many works, including five critically acclaimed mysteries featuring Easy Rawlins; the blues novel RL's Dream, which was a finalist for the NAACP Award in Fiction and winner of the Black Caucus of the American Library Association's Literary Award; the story collection Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned, which received the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award; and the science fiction novel Blue Light, a national bestseller. He is also the winner of the TransAfrica International Literary Prize. His books have been translated into twenty languages. He lives in New York.
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    1. Hometown:
      New York, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      January 12, 1952
    2. Place of Birth:
      Los Angeles, California
    1. Education:
      B.A., Johnson State College
    2. Website:

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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 8, 2005

    Read it and Think!

    This is one of the most thought provoking essays I have read. It lays bare what the truths are in modern American society: a society that values money over human dignity and rights - despite the illusion of prosperity. It also lays bare that we (black, white, male, female, straight, gay, Jew and Gentile) are all in this together. We can no longer rely on the old 'isms' that divides and at the same time enslaves us. Read it and think!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 23, 2000

    Thought Invoking

    This book helps you realize what the world really is, decieving; and that most people base success on money and profit. To gain this profit they use poeple for labor, and under-pay and under-appreciate them. Mosley is a genius and brings forth ideas that most people, including me, could never even think of. I highly recommend you read this book. It is a little over a hundred pages and reads pretty easily. In its simplicity, Mosley presents brilliant ideas that challenge many of the ideas that we have never thought of to be wrong in this world. He, as well, challenges us to make better lives for ourselves by our own means. His ideas bring about what is wrong with a nation (the US) and offers solutions on how to fix them.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 9, 2000

    Unveiling the Truth about America and Capitalism

    Walter Mosley courageously exposes our capitalistic system for the slave master that it is. It is refreshing to hear someone speak truths we often feel but don't or can't articulate. Rather than celebrate the new millenium and our achievements to date (many of them questionable), he calls us to action to create new systems that work for the betterment of us all in the new millenium to replace those that keep us enslaved. I find his message inspiring, the encouragement I need to persist in a battle that usually seems hopeless and impossible. If there is to be a better world, we're the only ones who can build it. It's up to us individually and collectively. Original thinking is hard to come by today and perceiving our own systems and culture accurately and realistically is difficult at best. He sharpens our view by exposing much of the myth of the 'greatest nation' and capitalism. I applaud his work.

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