The Curious Case of Walter Mosley

Nov 30, 2011
2010 September-October, Culture

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.’”

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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