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
Neuman, Johanna, Moment
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, die 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. "Gesimdheit," 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 farther than any of her idealistic relatives by marrying a black but thinks her relatives accepted the union because "they understood black life perfectly. …