When then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton was spotted toting the novel Devil in a Blue Dress on the campaign trail in 1992, he catapulted author Walter Mosley out of obscurity and into the spotlight. Clinton talked up the book, the first of the Easy Rawlins series of detective novels, to a Wall Street Journal reporter saying that it was important “for all Americans” to see “the way it was from a black person’s view…in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s.” Mosley soon became a literary star, noted for his portrayal of black protagonists in largely white worlds.
Though Mosley is of African-American descent and his work focuses primarily on the experiences of black characters, some argue that he might also be rightly categorized as a Jewish writer. The son of a black father and a Jewish mother, Mosley defines himself as half black and half Jewish—not, he wants it to be clear, half white.
“Jews are not white people,” says Mosley in Johanna Neuman’s 2010 Moment profile of the writer. To him, Jews are “the Negroes of Europe,” having been excluded from clubs, professions and universities because of an indefinable but inherent otherness. Jews and blacks, Mosley maintains, have a common characteristic that goes beyond a mutual history of discrimination and oppression; to Mosley, Jews and blacks share the distinction of comprising their own race.
This viewpoint has gotten Mosley into a fair amount of trouble. One Jewish magazine, upon learning in an interview that Mosley did not believe Jews were white, killed the story. Given the racial form of anti-Semitism that fueled the Holocaust, the notion that Jews constitute their own race is unsettling to many. Jews are often identified with whiteness, Mosley explains, because “one of the survival techniques of Jewish culture is to blend in to the society that you live in.” According to Mosley, Jews are simply highly successful at navigating the trappings of a white world.
Mosley says that his mother’s family was accepting of her marriage to a black man because they were liberal and generally secular Jews who “didn’t come here to go to shul, they came here to build that ideal life that people were thinking about.” But it went even deeper than that; they didn’t oppose the union because, as Mosley puts it, “they understood black life perfectly. They had lived in ghettoes and shtetls. They identified with people being hung and burned and spurned for being a different race.” The link between Jews and blacks, Mosley asserts, goes to the very core of what it means to be black and to be Jewish: to be an outsider, to be made the other, to live on the outskirts of a society that scorns and rejects you.
That’s why Mosley builds his novels around black characters—to champion outsiders by turning them into clever heroes fighting a system designed to exclude them. While Mosley sometimes includes Jewish sidekicks in his stories, his main characters are always black. “Hardly anybody in America has written about black male heroes,” he says. “There are black male protagonists and black male supporting characters, but nobody else writes about black male heroes.” As Mosley sees it, his job is to push black characters from the margins into the literary mainstream—a status that Jews in fiction already achieved.
One thing Mosley knows definitively: Being Jewish and being black may be their own distinct racial identities, and they may both come with a history of dehumanization, but the difficulties each group faces today must be kept in perspective. “Comparing holocausts doesn’t seem a plausible thing to me,” he says. “You look at women in the Congo today and you say, ‘I don’t know what’s harder, being black or being Jewish, but I’ll take either one as long as I don’t have to be a woman in the Congo.’”
Compiled by Sala Levin