"The Black Dick": Race, Sexuality, and Discourse in the L.A. Novels of Walter Mosley

By Berger, Roger A. | African American Review, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview

"The Black Dick": Race, Sexuality, and Discourse in the L.A. Novels of Walter Mosley


Berger, Roger A., African American Review


The streets were dark with something more than night. (Raymond Chandler, "The Simple Art of Murder" 13)

Black narrative writing in America often employs a detective-like protagonist struggling against an evil society - as Theodore O. Mason, Jr., points out (182) - yet, curiously, detective fiction itself is a genre that has attracted few black writers (most notably, in decades past, Rudolph Fisher and Chester Himes). In Walter Mosley's four L.A. detective novels, he joins the small cohort of black detective fiction writers, apparently as part of a radical project to enter the mostly white, male, and conservative populist terrain of American detective fiction. At the same time, however, Mosley's often uncritical use of the traditional hard-boiled detective formula seems to work against this project by employing a black detective narrator in a previously invisible textual location - black Los Angeles. Indeed, there is a tension between Mosley's subject and his method, and this tension prompts my basic question about Mosley's L.A. novels: Are they - with their use of a black narrator, black characters, and black locations - authentically transgressive texts, or are they discursively subsumed under the detective story formula (and especially the L.A. detective fiction paradigm, as constructed by Chandler) and do they come, thus, to represent at best nostalgic traces of the hardboiled tradition? In other words, are the novels merely exotic versions of the American detective story, as opposed to subversive texts? My answer to these questions is an Ellisonian yes and no. In terms of their use of black characters and locations - and also in terms of their generic "violations" of the hardboiled detective story - Mosley's novels indeed function as texts of difference. Yet when they deploy the Chandlerian hardboiled detective and ultimately embrace the essentially conservative thematics of the L.A. detective story, Mosley's novels mute their subversiveness and reinforce the reassuring quality of formulaic detective fiction. In this light, I will read Mosley's novels as metacritical allegories that reflect a fundamental ambivalence about his own intervention into white (detective) discourse.

Two recent essays on black detective fiction decisively argue in favor of a discursive difference in texts like Mosley's L.A. novels. In "Chandler Comes to Harlem: Racial Politics in the Thrillers of Chester Himes," Peter J. Rabinowitz argues that Himes could not just imitate hardboiled novels and, as Himes claims, simply make "the face black" in his detective novels. Instead, Rabinowitz insists, the Chandlerian notion of a self-contained integrity and noir heroism is unavailable to Himes's black detectives inasmuch as "their situation . . . is inextricably tied up in racial politics" (22).(1) In another essay, "Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins: The Detective and Afro-American Fiction," Theodore O. Mason, Jr., similarly argues that, despite his use of the detective genre, Mosley breaks with the traditional white detective story through the oppositional use of black subject matter. Even more, Mason contends that Easy Rawlins discovers the inadequacy of assumed cultural knowledge - especially about race and sexuality - in the construction of self in a racist and sexist society, and thus joins other black protagonists (like Milkman in Morrison's Song of Solomon and Papa LaBas in Reed's Mumbo Jumbo) who similarly recognize the constructed nature of identity in a racist society.

Although Rabinowitz and Mason offer strong arguments in favor of a transgressive black detective fiction, both ultimately tell only part of the story, for they ignore the way in which the story and detective in Himes's and Mosley's novels reflect traditional hardboiled detective fiction. Despite Mosley's counter-discursive deployment of a black protagonist, his L.A. detective novels reinforce the conservative values of traditional American detective fiction. While (as in Chandler) Mosley's Rawlins moves through a world in which white politicians, businessmen, and cops - as well as black community leaders - are all corrupt, his novels never put "the law itself . …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

"The Black Dick": Race, Sexuality, and Discourse in the L.A. Novels of Walter Mosley
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.