Black Jewish History Month: Walter Mosley

Today in Black Jewish History Month, Walter Mosley

How Are YOU Jewish: Matrilineal

Walter Ellis Mosley is a prominent American novelist, most widely recognized for his crime fiction. He has written a series of best-selling historical mysteries featuring the hard-boiled detective Easy Rawlins, a black private investigator and World War II veteran living in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles; they are perhaps his most popular works.

Mosley was born in, Watts, Los Angeles, California. His mother, Ella (née Slatkin), was Polish Jewish and worked as a personnel clerk, and his father, Leroy Mosley, was an African American supervising custodian at a Los Angeles public school from Louisiana who had worked as a clerk in the segregated US army during the Second World War. His parents tried to marry in 1951 but, though the union was legal in California where they were living, no one would give them a license.

As an only child, he ascribes his writing imagination to “an emptiness in my childhood that I filled up with fantasies”. For $9.50 a week, Walter Mosley attended the Victory Baptist day school, a private African-American elementary school that held pioneering classes in black history. When he was 12, his parents moved from South Central to more comfortably affluent, working-class west LA. Mosley describes his father as a deep thinker and storyteller, a “black Socrates” and though his mother wasn’t effusive, inspired in him the tools to write, filling his world with European classics from Dickens and Zola to Camus. He also loves Langston Hughes and Gabriel García Márquez. He was largely raised in a non-political family culture, although there were high racial conflicts flaring though L.A. at the time and he would later become more highly politicised and outspoken about racial inequalities in the US, which are a context of much of his fiction.

He went through a “long-haired hippie” phase, drifting around Santa Cruz and Europe. Mosley attended and then dropped out of a liberal arts college in Vermont and then earned a political science degree at another. Abandoning a doctorate in political theory he started work in computers. He moved to New York in 1981 and met the dancer and choreographer Joy Kellman, whom he married in 1987. They separated 10 years later and were divorced in 2001. While working for Mobil Oil Mosley took a writing course at City College in Harlem. One of his tutors there, Edna O’Brien, became a mentor to him and encouraged him, saying, “you’re Black, Jewish, with a poor upbringing; there are riches therein”. He still resides in New York City.

Mosley started writing at 34 and has written every day since, penning more than 33 books in a variety of categories, including non-mystery fiction, Afro-futurist science fiction and non-fiction politics, often publishing two books a year. His work has been translated into 21 languages. His direct inspirations include the detective fiction of Dashiell Hammett, Graham Greene and Raymond Chandler. Mosley made publishing history in 1997 by foregoing an advance to give the manuscript of Gone Fishin’ to a small, independent publisher, Black Classic Press in Baltimore, run by former Black Panther Paul Coates.

Mosley’s fame increased in 1992 when then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton, a fan of murder mysteries, named Mosley as one of his favorite authors.

Two of his books have been made into films or television specials. His first published book, Devil in a Blue Dress, was the basis of a 1995 movie starring Denzel Washington. The world premiere of his first play, The Fall of Heaven was staged at the Playhouse in the Park, Cincinnati, Ohio, in January, 2010.

Mosley is on the Board of Trustees for Goddard College, has served on the board of directors of the National Book Awards, and is on the board of the TransAfrica Forum.

This is Black Jewish History Month at Manishtana’s Musings.


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