The question of whether Mosley should be included in anthologies of Jewish authors is mirrored in black literary circles, where discussions swirl about what it means to be a “black author.” Mosley’s status as a best-selling author, an airport favorite, assures him a place as a mainstream writer. Perhaps that is why he disdains others’ descriptions of him as a black crime writer, preferring the moniker “novelist.” Even that is a restriction on his oeuvre, which also includes several nonfiction books. In 2003, on the second anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, he published What Next: A Memoir Toward World Peace, arguing that African Americans are the only believable American ambassadors for world peace. “We know what the rest of the world feels about American rhetoric on democracy because we have been lied to about freedom and carry a similar rage in our hearts,” he wrote. This was followed by his 2005 epistle, Life Out of Context, in which he called for the creation of a black party to challenge the stranglehold of the United States’ two-party system. His first play, The Fall of Heaven, based on his 2008 book, The Tempest Tales, which tackles questions of good and evil, premiered at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park this year.
Mosley’s literary output has evolved with the times. Easy, a figure of Leroy Mosley’s generation, serves as a bridge between two separate and unequal worlds. “Easy Rawlins, every door he walked through he knew what he was going to find on the other side,” says Mosley. Easy could be surprised “by character, by beauty, by ugliness, by crime…but you know when you walk through a black neighborhood or a white neighborhood, you know pretty much what’s going to happen.” Leonid McGill, the hero of Mosley’s latest mystery series, of which this year’s Known to Evil is the second installment, “never knows” what he will discover behind a closed door. Leonid is a figure of the Obama age, when what Mosley dubs a “meta-racial” society elected a black man to the presidency.
Still, he bristles at the suggestion that American society has entered into a post-racial period and has matured beyond the evil legacies of slavery and segregation. “He is distrustful of the idea that we’ve moved on,” says Derek Maus. “He understands the raisin in the batter metaphor. No matter how much you stir, you cannot assimilate the raisin into the batter.” Mosley clings proudly to the role of outsider, a view that derives as much from class as color. “I doubt he will ever write about somebody of privilege as a hero figure,” says Maus. Rarely are Mosley’s Jewish characters assimilated or wealthy. “He identifies with European Jews, with camp survivors. There is this linkage to old European Jewishness.”
Back at Dish, Mosley clasps a finger, adorned with a ring from his nephrite jade collection, around his espresso cup as I return to the uncomfortable question of comparative discrimination. He deftly avoids it, declining to say which history hurts the most—the social memory of chains and degradations of whippings, rapes and being wrenched from your family because you were property, or the inhumanity of being marched off to concentration camps to face starvation, forced labor, humiliation and near-certain death. “Comparing holocausts doesn’t seem a plausible thing to me,” he says. “You look at women in the Congo today and you say, ‘I don’t know what’s harder, being black or being Jewish, but I’ll take either one as long as I don’t have to be a woman in the Congo.’”