The Curious Case of Walter Mosley

By | Nov 30, 2011
2010 September-October, Culture

Mosley’s mother was Ella Slatkin, an intellectual Jew, whose family fled Eastern Europe in search of a utopia and came upon the promised land of California. His father Leroy Mosley was a southern storyteller, a citizen philosopher, in his son’s words “a black Socrates,” who was raised in Louisiana. Like other black veterans who returned from Europe during World War II to find themselves still regarded as second-class citizens, Leroy knew there was no future for him in the South. He headed to California where he worked his way up as far as 1950s America would allow, eventually becoming supervising custodian at a public school in Los Angeles. Ella and Leroy met while working at the school—he as a janitor, she as a clerk. Although interracial marriage was legal in California when they tried to marry in 1951, they couldn’t get a license. It wasn’t until after Walter was born in 1952 that the state recognized their marriage.

He was their only child. For $9.50 a week, they sent him to Victory Baptist, a private black elementary school that pioneered the teaching of African-American history long before that field’s acceptance in academia. On weekends, he recalls going to the Fairfax section of Los Angeles to visit Uncle Chaim and Aunt Fanny, Uncle Abe and Cousin Louie. But he remembers few mentions of religion. “My relatives were all socialists, communists from Eastern Europe,” Mosley says. “They didn’t come here to go to shul, they came here to build that ideal life that people were thinking about in the late part of the 19th century.” He argues that Ella went further than any of her idealistic relatives by marrying a black but thinks her relatives accepted the union because “they understood black life perfectly. They had lived in ghettoes and shtetls. They identified with people being hung and burned and spurned for being a different race.”

The Mosleys never celebrated Passover, Rosh Hashanah or bar mitzvahs. Even secular holidays were pretty much ignored. Thanksgiving, he recalls, usually meant turkey sandwiches at the coffee shop. The marriage of Ella and Leroy was a union bred of a shared history of discrimination, a mutual conviction about the promise of a progressive future, not one steeped in ceremony. In a literal sense, Walter Mosley was the product of two traditions where the centerpiece of cultural memory was tsuris. Raised hearing stories of discrimination in the Jim Crow South and persecution in Hitler’s Europe, he infuses his writing with a sense that blacks and Jews—no matter how assimilated they may feel—can be reclaimed at any moment by bigotry.

It is Mosley’s conviction that like blacks, Jews are a race. He has called Jews “the Negroes of Europe,” noting that even in America, Jews have long been shut out of some country clubs, professions and universities, not because their religion is different but because they are. Having adapted to their surroundings, he believes, Jews may seem white, because white is the color of privilege. “One of the survival techniques of Jewish culture is to blend in to the society that you live in,” he says. “If you can speak the language and do the business and wear the clothes and join the clubs, it’s easier.” I ask if Judaism is not more of a religion than a race. “Some people can be incredibly religious and that will trump the notion of race.” But he adds with a knowing laugh, “there are very few Jews who are religious.”

12 thoughts on “The Curious Case of Walter Mosley

  1. pat says:

    Walter Mosely has bddn a long time favorite of mine. It’s good hearing how he got started.

  2. Grantman says:

    Looking forward to reading the article but your multiple pages format to gain ad impressions for your advertisers is a PIA. You should have a print friendly button. There are those of us who like to print out the articles and read them at our leisure and not online all the time.

  3. Dee Riley says:

    I loved this article about Walter Mosley. Although I have not read much of his work I love his idea and philosophy about writing. I read some pages from a book he wrote on the subject of writing and it is from that I feel motivated to continue writing in my own words and in my own style. For his wisdom and generous sharing of knowledge, ideas and encouragement I feel eternally grateful to him. I thank you for this article and for your interest in Walter Mosley as a man, a novelist and an artist.

  4. MonaLisa MackLamore says:

    On November 20, 2015 I was in the Library and saw the book “Debbie Doesn’t Do It Anymore” checked it out and was hooked! When I returned the book 2 days later. .. I check out three (3) more books on the 20th and completed them on the 25th at 11pm. I just could not put them down. I understand the people you write about as I am from L.A and from the same time. When will you have a reading in or around the area.

  5. Richard Ray Salazar says:

    I really appreciated this article about Walter Mosely.I also have a Jewish mother and Black father. I was adopted along with my sister by a black family.Coincedentally both psrents have Jewish parents.Growing up Yiddish names and phrases had become part of my casual conversation.At university I was to learn that I was not only Black, but Jewish, according to the Talmud Tradition.Since thst time I have studied both the Black and Jewish history and Cultures.The idea that one drop of Black blood makes you Black is aligned with the racist concept of race. I am very proud and celebrate my Black label,but I also appreciate and totally accept being Jewish.After all we are each a complex mixture of our parent’s biology and culture. Shalom!

  6. Mackie JV Blanton says:

    If it is indisputable that the origin of human beings arose in Africa, it is then also reasonable to assume that we all are at least ‘One Drop’ Black. So everyone is Black plus. Nonetheless, it’s our humanity that is significant.

  7. JN says:

    Shame on Walter Mosely! How dare he make a derogatory statement about the Congo and being a Congolese woman! Has he even ever been there? I doubt it. He’s simply bought into the stereotypes about Sub-Saharan Africa. Qiuite frankly, he seems narrow minded.

    1. Nat says:

      I don’t think he met that as an insult to Congolese women. He meant it as an insult to the imaginary person he was referring to.

  8. BFP says:

    I have never been to the Congo. But reading about this particular history of the Congo, I have read what many Congolese women have stated about their treatment. The Congolese (international?) organization “Women for Women” are valiantly and courageously fighting against the prevalance of ongoing “sexual violence and gender inequality” … maybe Mr Mosley was not making a derogatory statement but implying about the difficulties inflicted on the women.

  9. Mark Phillips says:

    Was a student of his when he taught at the Stone Coast Writer’s Seminar in Portland Maine. I very much enjoyed his writing advice.

  10. Mark Williams says:

    Every writer starts by experiencing life and language. The best can share their experience. Walter Mosley is among the best of the best.

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