Crime writer Walter Mosley talks about change from the ’40s to the ’90s [1997]

Submitted by AWL on 2 September, 2009 - 11:38 Author: Walter Mosley

The big change for black Americans was World War 2. Men went to fight and found that they got respect. They were treated like Americans by the people who were trying to kill them, and by the people who thanked them for liberation. They came back from the war, thinking that they were now equals, to places like Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi. But there was no work, and black people wouldn’t be hired anyway.
So they went to California to get jobs. And then there was a basic economic change. The working people got property and property brought a different view of themselves. It also exposed the nugget of racism. It was now absolutely clear how far a black person could go.
40 years on there is a lot more poverty and hopelessness in the non-white communities. But hope also exists alongside hopelessness, and there is leadership too. One of the interesting things is that there is now a cultural leadership as well as a political leadership. Of course Jesse Jackson is still important and the NAACP does some good work.
Instead people like Ice Cube are emerging. One of the top five films in the US is only in the top five because Ice Cube is in it. He is a hero and a leader too.
Looking at this sub-culture it is true there is a lot of anger and a lot that is bad. But, take Ice Cube — he is not saying that the women should be whores and the men should be dealing. We should look at what these people are actually saying, rather than what the New York Times says they are saying.
There are now people voicing the experiences of ordinary people. And this allows the development which I am part of. Young black men who do not read much, do not read David Copperfield, it is true, but they read my books...

One of the problems developing in American politics is that people are trying to identify themselves according to their roots — cultural and political. And there are a lots of fallacies around. People make roots up. A lot of Black Americans see their roots in Africa. Well, our roots are in Africa, and a lot of our culture — and more generally American culture — comes from Africa. But we are not African. Just ask an African. So there is some truth here and some fantasy.
A lot of Jewish people identify with a history of victimisation. In this millennium the Jews have been hectored by white, Christian Europeans. For half that period those white people were also oppressing black people.
Which is worse? It is really difficult to say. Jewish people might say that they have been denied a land and they have had it worse because of Hitler. Black people in America might say that their whole history has been erased and their spirit has been killed.
This does not help.
It is not an accurate picture, and bad choices end up being made. Your enemy becomes the person who you are competing against for the role of worst victim.

Bill Clinton reads my books too [Clinton says Mosley is his favourite author]. How does it feel to be praised by Clinton? I like it. And I like Clinton.
Clinton was elected after 12 years of psychotics — Mr Reagan and Mr Bush. Bush and Reagan dismantled America. They took from the people and gave to the wealthy. It was so clear and so blatant. Savings and Loans? — give them billions! A million dollars for reading? — No!
Then Clinton came in and said he wanted gays in the military. He didn’t succeed, but he did say it. He hasn’t been successful in some things. But look at the alternative!
The Congress is now trying to reduce the deficit. But look how they are trying to do it! They are taking money away from welfare, education and health care — things that would help poor Blacks, whites, men, women and old people. A new class is created that has absolutely no choice.

It is true that Clinton is pro-death penalty. I have a strange feeling about the death penalty. I do not think — if I am being totally honest with myself — that morally I can oppose the death penalty on all counts.
But if it exists it has to be egalitarian. And I know this won’t happen. It is used against poor blacks and poor whites.
The thing I hold most strongly against it is that it is a kind of unconscious expression of how despicable the upper and middle classes are towards poor people. There is also an unconscious fear that the anger of the poor will well up.
So I am against the death penalty — strongly opposed to it — for these reasons.
The whole penal system does not help and in many ways hurts.

I think that crime writing is one of the best ways to address contemporary issues even though many authors reduce themselves to formula and entertainment and movie-star style characters.
Am I part of the same literary tradition as a writer such as Richard Wright [the groundbreaking Black author who became famous in the 1940s]? Wright himself was part of a very broad tradition going back to Melville and Walt Whitman. Wright is certainly a black writer, tied in with people like James Baldwin. Yes, I suppose I am part of that tradition.
Some of the issues are the same too. In A Red Death there is a strong echo of Richard Wright’s critical comments about the Communist Party and his involvement with them. There is a lot of confusion about Easy’s response to the Jewish Communist Chaim Wenzler [who is under investigation by Macarthyite witchunters]. What if their roles were reversed? The comment is: it is better to be on the black list than be black — you can get off the black list, you can not get out from being black.
But Wright and I are also very different. He is very critical of Black American life. Wright’s characters become evil. He sees them as evil and there is no way out of it. This is the picture in his books Native Son and The Outsider. I am much less critical.
It is not a conscious decision, but nevertheless is true, that I talk about Black male heroes.
Easy Rawlins tries to understand. He tries to respect himself and other people. He tries not to make snap decisions. Easy is a rural guy. He believes in working in communities. Easy thinks like this: What about the banks? Don’t worry about the banks? What about the police? Don’t worry about the police. The police and the banks do not care about us. But we know what we are talking about.
The bond of trust exists very strongly in my books. In Wright’s world there is none of this. He feels the hopelessness.
It is a philosophical difference and it is a generational difference too. Things are better for my generation. There are more opportunities for us now.
There is another difference too. Wright considered himself a leader — rightfully so. He should have been awarded the Nobel prize for literature, as should James Baldwin. They didn’t because they were too rough, too much bothered by the truth.
I am much more part of the crowd. I do not see myself as a leader.
Mouse — Raymond Alexander — is Easy’s best friend from back in the South. Mouse is my most deadly character.
Maybe Mouse is evil, and maybe he is not. Mouse kills people. The fact that Mouse is out there means that there is one black man in the world who no-one will fuck with. When the police see Mouse driving down the road in his convertible Cadillac, making out with two white women, the police won’t stop him. They know if they do they will have to fight, and they know they will lose.
No one is as bad as Mouse. But people believe in Mouse and need to believe in Mouse. He becomes a heroic character, not because of what he is, but because of what people see in him.
I like Mouse like I like Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X and [former Harlem Congressman] Adam Clayton Powell. The people in Harlem kept on voting for Powell because he gave the white man shit.
Neverthless some people don’t like Mouse because he does not care and does exactly what he wants. Understand that Mouse came to adulthood in the 1940s in a community where no-one ever says what they want. When a white man came up to you and said: “What you doing, boy?” you answered “Nothing, sir,” while thinking “What you asking me for?”
I don’t need people to like him, by the way. A lot of people don’t like him. And — in fact — a lot of little old white ladies love him. I’ll still write about him.

[Walter Mosely was talking to Mark Osborn.]

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