"Lost in These Damn White Halls": Power and Masculinity in Walter Mosley's Fiction

Article excerpt

Critics often note that detective fiction in general, and noir in particular, concerns itself with issues of masculinity as expressed through the "hard boiled" detective that often roams the dark imaginative cityscapes of the genre. These detectives exhibit the rugged masculine qualities that we have come to associate with such writers as Dashiell Hammett, Mickey Spillane, and Raymond Chandler. Tough, closed mouth figures that inhabit the liminal space between legality and criminality, these detectives live, love, and fight by strict masculine codes. Walter Mosley, a contemporary black novelist, creates just such a detective in the character of Easy Rollins. In the eponymous Easy Rawlins series, Easy works, not always by choice, as a black detective in post-World War II Los Angeles. Through Easy, Mosley explores a number of themes, most notably, issues surrounding both racism and masculinity because in his textual world these two issues are inextricably linked. This study focuses on both black and white racialized masculinities, and because power is an important factor in identity construction, an understanding of power and how it works proves crucial to this discussion.

Discussing Devil in a Blue Dress Marilyn Wesley asserts that "power ... is not an order to be retrieved but the contingent result of specific circumstances that black men may understand through violence and adapt to their own needs for respect and freedom" (104). Wesley's understanding of power as "the contingent result of specific circumstances" points to several features relevant to an understanding of masculinity in Walter Mosley's work. The contingency, the dependence upon chance or the unknown, precludes the possibility of stability on many levels. Instabilities arise both in the deployment of power and in those areas in which it works, such as identity and all the components that make up identity including race, gender, and class. The "specific circumstances" to which Wesley refers make clear that power does not appear as an object or an "order"; instead, these "circumstances" reveal the dynamic and fluid qualities that power possesses. Taken together, this dynamism and these instabilities inform Mosley's texts in the twists and turns of not only plot, but also in the twists and turns we see in the dynamic power relations between the characters in their negotiations of many aspects of race and gender. Wesley's reference to violence also points to the close associations of violence and masculinity found in detective fiction.

Mosley presents what I term conditions of masculinity, which he utilizes to identify masculinities through actions rather than as static terms of definition. Ultimately, Mosley does not offer a definitive black masculinity because in the face of white racist patriarchal society such a masculinity proves untenable. Because of the workings of power, a definitive vision of black masculinity would collapse in the face of the shifting realities that confront it. Such a vision would prove inadequate especially if predicated on definitions of masculinity rather than on the active engagement that keeps it contingent, free flowing, and laden with possibility. By understanding masculinity as a condition, a nexus of power, history, race, gender, class, and culture, we can better understand the shifts and changes that inform it. We can, then, also better understand masculinity as open to change and possibility, even in the face of hegemonic oppression. This viewpoint opens up paths of resistance as well as of understanding. Viewing conditions of masculinity as conditions also situates masculinity in such a way as to locate it within a larger framework. Masculinity, then, does not arise in isolation but as a result of social, cultural, and political forces. Masculinity also relies on these forces for not only its own construction, but also for any alterations or reconfigurations of its construction. Patricia Hill Collins states that "if African Americans design new conceptions of . …