Walter Mosley In Context

The recent controversy Attorney General Eric Holder stirred when he remarked that we’re “a nation of cowards” when it comes to race made us think of Walter Mosely’s latest book The Right Mistake: The Further Philosophical Investigations of Socrates Fortlow. Fortlow, the central figure of a couple previous Mosley works, is an aging ex-con and convicted killer who takes advantage of a windfall to establish round-table discussions that are anything but cowardly. He brings together a rather improbable group of men and women—not all black— to a South Central L.A. home where “they can take themselves seriously” and “look for a kind of wisdom” but mostly to figure out something to do:

“I know what you feelin’,” the ex-convict said. “I might as well ask you to fly. But you know people dyin’ ten thousand miles an’ one block away from here. We go to bed knowin’ it. And when we wake up it’s still true. We bring chirren into this world. We make love here. At least we could take one evenin’ every week or two and ask—just ask, what is it we could do about this shit?”

The resistance to the idea, voiced by a young gang banger, is what you might expect:

“I expected to see a room fulla black men ready t’stand up and tell the cops and the whites what we won’t take no mo.’ But instead I come into a house fulla bitches, beaners, an’ chinks. And then you got this Jew. What the fuck am I s’posed to do with that?”

It’s surprising then that most of the external conflict in the story is generated by the LAPD. And while the cast of characters may border on cliché, the discussions they generate are not. They have the sort of exchange that we need in this uncivil society but don’t seem to get. And there’s a dose of honesty that we liberals, anxious to forget our repressed biases (contrary to popular belief, the last presidential election did not prove we progressives are all cool about color) need to embrace. Socrates:

“We are all racists here. You, me, the baby inside’a Luna and the one on Cassie’s lap. In this country you born in racism, bathed in it every day of your life.”

Holder’s defenders claim the context of his remarks was overlooked. Regardless of the context, there’s no doubt he was speaking truth. I’ve often thought of the time I spent in South Central L.A., how I was welcomed into homes and businesses, be they in Watts or the Crenshaw commercial district. But I never got over the fear that I was bathed in growing up with a Southern-born grandfather and a knee-jerk racist father. Forget the slur-alert regarding Holder’s use of the word “cowards” that went out from those on the right who see America exclusively as home of the brave (and don’t you forget it). But even Mosley’s bravest characters are a bit uncomfortable at times with what they face, even if they’re just words. The point is to do something. And that’s what some Americans in this time of trouble are resisting…doing something.

Mosley’s book is more than just a conversation starter. The race questions, though played large, take a backseat to the personal issues his characters face. That’s part of Mosley’s genius. He addresses individual struggle in the larger social context. I no longer like to segregate Mosley’s crime fiction (Easy Rawlins and others) from his serious fiction (there’s no explaining how my local library classifies some of his books as mysteries and others as straight fiction). Let’s just say that, as an American author, Mosley is no coward.–Cabbage Rabbit

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