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.