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.”