Why Walter Mosley Writes About Race

Walter Mosley (Marcia Wilson)
Walter Mosley (Marcia Wilson)

(The Root) — Though most recognized for his best-selling series of crime novels featuring black detective Ezekiel "Easy" Rawlins, Walter Mosley is a writer who wears many hats — both literally and figuratively. Hats — often fedoras — are one of his favorite accessories. He is rarely photographed without one.


But he also wears several as a writer. Unlike many writers whose work is firmly ensconced in one genre, Mosley has written everything from mystery to science fiction.

The man whom President Clinton called one of his favorite authors has also had his work adapted for the big screen, with Denzel Washington starring in Devil in a Blue Dress, the first installment in the Easy Rawlins series. The latest installment of the series, Little Green, hits bookstores May 14.

But Mosley has also written for the theater. His one-act play White Lilies, based on supporting characters from the world of Easy Rawlins, opened at the Crossroads Theatre in New Jersey on May 11. Don Cheadle, who co-starred in Devil in a Blue Dress, was among those in attendance on opening night. After the show, Mosley spoke with The Root about race, writing and what he thinks of Hillary Clinton's White House chances.

The Root: You have a new volume in the Easy Rawlins mystery series, Little Green, hitting bookstores May 14, and you have this new play premiering around the same time. Which did you prefer writing?

Walter Mosley: There's no preference. One's one, and one's the other. That's like asking Mouse [a character in the Easy Rawlins mysteries] which girlfriend does he prefer. It depends on which girlfriend he's with. [Laughter.]

TR: You wrote very movingly about the Trayvon Martin case for the Daily Beast. Do you feel a particular responsibility as a black writer to tackle issues like race in your fiction work?


WM: I feel a responsibility of talking about the people I come from, many of them being black people. So yes — if you talk about the people you know and the life you've lived and where you've come from. That's what you do. A "responsibility" makes it seem like something else, like something hard. But it's something wonderful. It's something I love. It's not like work. It's a labor of love.

TR: Speaking of Trayvon Martin, there are people who have argued that race relations have gotten worse in the age of President Obama. Do you have any thoughts on that? Do you agree?


WM: I don't know what people mean by that. They must not remember when we couldn't go to colleges and we couldn't get jobs and we couldn't vote. Things haven't been fixed. I can go that far, and one might say, "Why not? Seems like they could be." But the fact that we have Obama as president means a whole lot because only 11 percent of America is black, so someone voted for him who wasn't black. [Editor's note: U.S. census data show that blacks are 13 percent of the population.]

TR: The Democratic president who preceded President Obama, President Clinton, called you one of his favorite writers. Would you like to see his wife, former Secretary of State Clinton, in the White House?


WM: You know, I haven't thought about that yet. Certainly I need to see a woman in the White House, and I think she has all the experience one could possibly have to be president. More than most presidents have. But we have to wait until there's an election to see who's running and where she is in the vast panorama of things.

TR: Is there a particular reason you like setting so much of your work in the past, when things were a lot tougher for black Americans?


WM: It's not really true that I do that. I go all over the place. A lot of my science fiction is in the future. A lot of what I write is in the present. I write about things that are happening and things that have happened.

TR: Do you think having diversity in terms of who is writing material for the stage makes a difference?


WM: I think that everybody should have a chance. Every person, every race, every gender, every age should have a chance. That's not true in America, and it's not true in the bastions of some of the most developed cultural institutions — opera, classical music, Broadway — and we need to do that.

TR: Why does it matter?

WM: It matters because this is America, and everybody is equal, supposedly has an equal chance.


TR: Do you think having diverse writers impacts what we see on the stage?

WM: That happens afterwards, but that's not why I'm saying it. Because you could be a black person writing about Swedish history, so then I become a racist if I answer it in that way. That's a racist answer, and I don't want to do that. I think everybody deserves a chance. If they talk about their own people, great. If they talk about something else, just as great.


TR: August Wilson felt very strongly about having black directors direct his plays. Do you have an opinion on that issue?

WM: Do I have an opinion about August Wilson wanting African-American directors directing his plays? [Laughter.]


TR: Do you care about the race of who directs your plays?

WM: Not so much that I wouldn't have a director of another race directing it, but I completely accept August's argument for August, and if I never had black directors, that would upset me. But every once in a while, if I had a Puerto Rican or Egyptian or Chinese or even a white person now and again, that would be OK.

Keli Goff is The Root's special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.

Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter