The Curious Case of Walter Mosley
The author of mystery novels such as Devil in a Blue Dress talks about his Jewish and black heritage, why he invents black heroes (not Jewish ones) and his controversial belief that Jews are a non–white “race”unto themselves.
He shows up without his trademark hat. But then, Walter Ellis Mosley is all about defying expectations. The son of a black father and a Jewish mother, the 58-year-old Mosley is one of former President Bill Clinton’s favorite writers. His output careens from mystery novels to science fiction, from left-wing political treatises to existential erotica.
His passions, like his characters, defy categorization. Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins, a hard-bitten black private detective and a World War II veteran who encounters crime and racial animus in post-war South Central Los Angeles, and Leonid McGill, an ex-boxer and a private investigator on the tough side of New York in a new millennium, are profiles in contradiction.
I meet Mosley at Dish, a trendy bar in Washington, DC’s Foggy Bottom. Perhaps sensing Mosley’s celebrity, the bartender agrees to seat us even though the restaurant is not yet open for the evening. We perch on high stools in the receding light of the late afternoon, drinking espresso from white porcelain demitasse cups. I contemplate Mosley—compact, eager. A gap in his front teeth gives him an impish smile. There’s much warmth in his soulful brown eyes. From a distance, the bartender sneezes. “Gesundheit,” says Mosley.
I ask Mosley if he feels Jewish. “Sure,” he says. I ask him what it means to him to be Jewish. “In a way, to be a Jew is to be a part of a tribe,” he says. “Being a part of a tribe, you can never really escape your identity. You can be anything inside, but in the end you’re always answerable to your blood.” I ask if it’s harder to be black or Jewish in America and he pauses, eyes twinkling as he ponders the question, though he has no doubt heard it often before.
“People say to me, ‘Well, Walter, you’re both black and white.’ And I go, ‘No, I’m black, and I’m Jewish. Jews are not white people.’ They get mad at me. American Jews get mad at me. White people get mad at me. Black people get mad at me.” He recites the line from an old Tom Lehrer lyric, “Oh, the Protestants hate the Catholics and the Catholics hate the Protestants and the Hindus hate the Muslims, and everybody hates the Jews!” Once he told an interviewer for another Jewish publication that Jews were not white people, and the magazine refused to run the story. He leans in. If this happens with Moment, he adds, let me know.
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.”
Mosley did not become a writer overnight. A person of the book, Ella filled her son’s library card with authors like Dickens, Zola and Camus. Mosley recalls that she was not warm but believed in him and instilled in him the notion that he “was special and could do things” he “couldn’t imagine.” But for all their pride, his parents’ ambitions for their son were modest. Ella thought he might make a good hotel manager. Leroy thought there was a career in prison work, though he advised Walter to “pay the rent and do what you love.”
Mosley, part of the baby boom generation, did not seem at first to have any direction. There was what he describes as a “long-haired hippie” phase drifting around Santa Cruz and Europe. Then a chapter at Goddard College in Vermont, where he tried to get credit for cross-country hitchhiking before an advisor suggested that really he should drop out. Eventually he enrolled in another school in Vermont, Johnson State College, about as far from South Central Los Angeles as he could get, where he graduated with a degree in political science. After a brief flirtation with grad school in political theory at the University of Minnesota, he returned east to be with Joy Kellman, a dancer. They married in 1987, divorced in 2001. Kellman is Jewish; Mosley chooses not to speak of their marriage. His face looks so pained when I bring it up that I decide not to ask him about reports that his wife’s parents did not talk to their daughter for several years after she married him.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Mosley worked as a computer programmer for Mobil, IBM and Dean Witter but also tried his hand at various trades—making and selling pottery, collecting jade jewelry, opening a catering business. He was making a living, paying the rent, as his father had hoped. But he told one interviewer that during this period he felt lost, empty.
Always a reader, in the late 1980s, he picked up Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Color Purple, and it rekindled in him an urge to create, not in computer code but on the blank canvas of the monitor. He enrolled in City College of New York (CCNY), attending classes at night and studying on weekends. He took poetry writing from Bill Matthews, creative writing from Frederic Tuten and fiction courses from Edna O’Brien, the Irish writer who is known for the emotional turmoil of her female characters. Reading his work, she told Mosley, “Walter, you’re black, Jewish, with a poor upbringing. There are riches therein.”
And so, while on duty one day at Mobil, he typed out a sentence about people on a back porch in Louisiana. “I don’t know where it came from,” he has said. “I liked it. It spoke to me.” The sentence read, “Hot sticky days in southern Louisiana, the fire ants swarm.” That is how Mosley began to write, and how he writes still. “First there is a sentence. Then characters start coming in,” he explains. “But the beginning is always just words in a sentence.”
That night, he went home and told his wife that he wanted to write full-time. She suggested he save enough money first to secure them financially for a year. He replied that if he waited a year, he might as well wait for retirement. A day later, she relented, telling him, “Walter, if that’s what you want to do, do it.”
For one of his classes, he had written a novella featuring a man named Ezekiel Rawlins. He flung his inaugural work toward the publishing giants of New York. Fifteen agents rejected his work. So he returned to the library. After reading Graham Greene’s screenplay, The Third Man, he decided to rework the Easy Rawlins story into a mystery novel. Seeking editorial guidance, he gave the manuscript to Tuten, his CCNY advisor. Tuten was so impressed that he showed it to his own agent, Gloria Loomis, who also liked the novel, and W.W. Norton & Company published Devil in a Blue Dress in 1990. There was critical acclaim, but it was muted. Two more novels in the Easy Rawlins series followed—A Red Death in 1991 and White Butterfly in 1992. Then during the 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton was spotted with a copy of Devil in a Blue Dress and later, as president, he told The Wall Street Journal that it was interesting “for all Americans” to see “the way it was from a black person’s view…in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s.” The endorsement helped catapult the hardworking wage earner to literary stardom. Mosley’s next book, Black Betty, sold more than 100,000 copies. And in 1995, Denzel Washington starred as Easy in a neo-noir film version of Devil in a Blue Dress.
Mosley is not the first black writer to portray blacks solving crimes in mystery novels. Chester Himes broke this ground, creating a detective series that featured two black cops in Harlem in the 1960s. But his New York City policemen, Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones, are insiders battling the mean streets on behalf of a meaner system. Mosley’s black characters are outsiders, who solve the riddle despite the stubborn barrier of prejudice, besting a system stacked against them. And like the heroes of Mosley’s comic book collection of more than 30,000, when they do rescue the vulnerable, they become larger than life. In outward appearance they may seem as ordinary as Clark Kent—flawed, conflicted, even weak. But by story’s end, they look as powerful as Superman.
I ask Mosley if he would ever write a novel with a central Jewish character. “Not if he wasn’t black,” he replies. I lift an eyebrow. “Hardly anybody in America has written about black male heroes,” he explains. “There are black male protagonists and black male supporting characters, but nobody else writes about black male heroes.” Mosley’s self-appointed job is to show these black heroes righting wrongs and protecting people, all in the name of justice, just like their white predecessors and contemporaries.
Black heroes also star in his science fiction. In “The Nig in Me,” a short story from Futureland: Nine Stories of an Imminent World, an international plague unleashed by white supremacist bioterrorists ravages the world. Although its intent is to eradicate blacks, it ends up sparing only those with African genes. In an interview with Africana.com, Mosley said that in Futureland, “I created a world where blacks are a very motivational force. In Star Wars, you have the opening scene with the tiny ship fighting the big ship. On both sides, all the people are white. To [George Lucas]—and I mean no disrespect—it was a white world. I don’t attack that. Instead, I say we should also make up our own worlds.”
Mosley’s fictional worlds are also filled with Jewish characters who, like their black brethren, are also sympathetically portrayed outsiders. In his 11 Easy Rawlins novels, Easy gets help from a Jewish detective, Saul Lynx, who is married to a black woman. Lynx even takes a bullet for Easy in Black Betty. To some readers, Ben Dibbuk, the protagonist in Mosley’s 2007 book of erotica, Diablerie, recalls dybbuks, the wandering spirits of the dead that invade the living in Jewish folklore. In A Red Death, set during the 1950s witch hunts, an FBI agent asks Rawlins to spy on the Polish-Jewish community in Los Angeles, which the agent believes to be a hotbed of godless socialist activism. And in Fearless Jones, also set in 1950s Los Angeles, Paris Minton—a black bookstore owner in Watts who sells public library cast-offs—is questioned by police about the death of Holocaust survivor Fanny Tannenbaum. Noting the derision in the cop’s voice when he describes Fanny and her husband Sol as Jews, Paris observes, “Jew turned to nigger in my ears, and I started to dislike the cop.”
In recent months, there has been a resurgence of interest in Mosley as a Jewish writer, sparked largely by Harold Heft, a former literature professor who contributed to a 1997 compendium on contemporary Jewish American novelists and noticed that Mosley had been excluded. In “Easy Call,” an article for the Jewish online magazine Tablet published in April, Heft made the case for Mosley’s inclusion in the Jewish-American literary canon, arguing that there is “a profoundly Jewish dimension” in his work. “What is a Jewish writer, and what is a Jewish theme?” Heft asked. “If a writer is unambiguously Jewish, doesn’t it follow that any story he or she commits to paper contains, by definition, Jewish themes, whether that story involves bubbe telling shtetl folktales over a steaming pot of chicken soup, or a black detective in Los Angeles living in the 1950s?”
The first Mosley book Heft read was The Man in My Basement, a 2004 novel about an unemployed, often-drunk African-American man living in the family’s 200-year-old home in Sag Harbor, New York. Charles Blakey is on the verge of losing his house when a white man, Anniston Bennet, offers to rent out the basement so he can imprison himself to atone for his sins. Downstairs, Blakey becomes a warden eliciting gruesome tales of Bennet’s record of child murder while upstairs he trolls through the Blakey family archives, discovering the richness of his heritage. The book is “a hidden little gem” that would have gotten a lot more attention if it had been written by an Ishmael Reed rather than someone known for mystery novels, says Derek Maus, an associate professor of English at the State University of New York at Potsdam, co-editor of Finding a Way Home: A Critical Assessment of Walter Mosley’s Fiction. “Mosley was a victim of his own success in what is often perceived as an unserious genre,” explains Maus. For Heft, the book was an eye-opening introduction, but it was years before he learned that Mosley was Jewish. He wondered if it was a coincidence, or whether “there was something all along that was speaking to me as a Jew?”
To Mosley, the debate over whether he is or is not a Jewish author comes as no surprise. “It doesn’t bother me because I understand,” he told Heft last year. “You have Jewish thinkers who wouldn’t include me, because they see Jews in America as white people.” For his own part, he is comfortable with the identities he inherited from his parents. Even in the kitchen, the two cultures merged. “Every kind of ethnicity is great with me,” he says. “If it’s soul food or kreplach, I’m going to be eating it.” In interviews, he talks openly about his Jewish roots. “My mother’s a Jew and that makes me a Jew. That means they would take me in Israel,” he told Heft.
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.’”