The Curious Case of Walter Mosley

November, 30 2011

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.

10 thoughts on “The Curious Case of Walter Mosley

  1. pat says:

    Walter Mosely has bddn a long time favorite of mine. It’s good hearing how he got started.

  2. Grantman says:

    Looking forward to reading the article but your multiple pages format to gain ad impressions for your advertisers is a PIA. You should have a print friendly button. There are those of us who like to print out the articles and read them at our leisure and not online all the time.

  3. Dee Riley says:

    I loved this article about Walter Mosley. Although I have not read much of his work I love his idea and philosophy about writing. I read some pages from a book he wrote on the subject of writing and it is from that I feel motivated to continue writing in my own words and in my own style. For his wisdom and generous sharing of knowledge, ideas and encouragement I feel eternally grateful to him. I thank you for this article and for your interest in Walter Mosley as a man, a novelist and an artist.

  4. MonaLisa MackLamore says:

    On November 20, 2015 I was in the Library and saw the book “Debbie Doesn’t Do It Anymore” checked it out and was hooked! When I returned the book 2 days later. .. I check out three (3) more books on the 20th and completed them on the 25th at 11pm. I just could not put them down. I understand the people you write about as I am from L.A and from the same time. When will you have a reading in or around the area.

  5. Richard Ray Salazar says:

    I really appreciated this article about Walter Mosely.I also have a Jewish mother and Black father. I was adopted along with my sister by a black family.Coincedentally both psrents have Jewish parents.Growing up Yiddish names and phrases had become part of my casual conversation.At university I was to learn that I was not only Black, but Jewish, according to the Talmud Tradition.Since thst time I have studied both the Black and Jewish history and Cultures.The idea that one drop of Black blood makes you Black is aligned with the racist concept of race. I am very proud and celebrate my Black label,but I also appreciate and totally accept being Jewish.After all we are each a complex mixture of our parent’s biology and culture. Shalom!

  6. Mackie JV Blanton says:

    If it is indisputable that the origin of human beings arose in Africa, it is then also reasonable to assume that we all are at least ‘One Drop’ Black. So everyone is Black plus. Nonetheless, it’s our humanity that is significant.

  7. JN says:

    Shame on Walter Mosely! How dare he make a derogatory statement about the Congo and being a Congolese woman! Has he even ever been there? I doubt it. He’s simply bought into the stereotypes about Sub-Saharan Africa. Qiuite frankly, he seems narrow minded.

    1. Nat says:

      I don’t think he met that as an insult to Congolese women. He meant it as an insult to the imaginary person he was referring to.

  8. BFP says:

    I have never been to the Congo. But reading about this particular history of the Congo, I have read what many Congolese women have stated about their treatment. The Congolese (international?) organization “Women for Women” are valiantly and courageously fighting against the prevalance of ongoing “sexual violence and gender inequality” … maybe Mr Mosley was not making a derogatory statement but implying about the difficulties inflicted on the women.

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