Walter Mosley: To End Race, We Have To Recognize 'White' Doesn't Exist

Walter Mosley's writing inspired Hollywood filmmakers and a generation of black writers. He's now being honored at the National Black Writers' Conference. He talks about the award and his new book.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. It's a cliche, but it's true - our next guest needs no introduction. Walter Mosley is the author of more than 40 acclaimed books that have captured the evolving black experience and beyond. He has created complicated and memorable characters like Ezekiel "Easy" Rawlins, played by Denzel Washington in the 1995 film version of "Devil in a Blue Dress."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS")

DENZEL WASHINGTON: (As Ezekiel Rawlins) I first came out to Los Angeles when I got home from the war in Europe with $300 in my pocket and the GI bill. Like me, a lot of colored folk from Texas and Louisiana had moved out to California to get them good jobs in the shipyards and in the aircraft companies. Now me, myself, I was in machines. And the first thing I did when I saved enough money was to buy me a house. Man, I love coming home to my house. I don't know. I guess maybe I just loved owning something.

MARTIN: In addition to his many novels, Mosley has also put his hand to nonfiction on matters of public interest. And if that were not enough, he has a new play premiering next month. Not surprisingly, Walter Mosley is being honored at the 12th National Black Writers Conference being held in New York City this weekend, which is really just an excuse to talk to him again. So congratulations on that, and welcome back to the program. Thanks for joining us.

WALTER MOSLEY: Well, thank you very much. Great to be here.

MARTIN: You know, I was looking up my notes, and I realized I talked to you almost four years ago to the day. And back then - this is true - and back then, I said you had more than two dozen books to your credit. Now it's nearly four dozen, and I don't think I'm the only one who wants to know how you manage to keep up this pace.

MOSLEY: Oh, it's easy to write. I think I probably wrote more than two dozen books four years ago. But the truth is, I don't update it every time I write a book. But I just write every morning for two to three hours, about 360 days a year or more. And that seems to make the books come. So.

MARTIN: Do you get antsy if you don't write something? Do feel, like, uncomfortable?

MOSLEY: I'm very unhappy if two days go by and I haven't written.

MARTIN: The award that you're getting this weekend - you're being honored at this conference. It's just chockful of exciting names and people who are doing exciting things. Did you ever imagine that there would be enough people like you around, to have a conference like this?

MOSLEY: You know, when I first went to this conference, it was 1988. It was two years before my first book was published. And there were like, 300 black writers at that conference, many of them good and none of them being published that year except one. Terry McMillan was getting published that year. But to be at the conference with, you know, working writers who were getting published, that was not believable at that time.

MARTIN: Why do you still go to things like this? I mean, you're the - for many people, you are the reason to go. I was wondering why you go?

MOSLEY: Well, I think that it's, you know, one of the more important conferences for black writers in America. And I think that that's really important for us to remember, that we are that. I remember when I was there in 1988, I was listening to Terry talk. She hadn't, you know, really broken through yet. And she was saying, well, if you want to get published, you have to have the letterhead from the publisher; and you have to go from church to church, and have books in your trunk of your car. I didn't even have a car. So I was thinking, God, I'll never get published. So it's good when you can talk to people about, well, you know, we can do this. This is possible.

MARTIN: Well, speaking of books you're not going to take door-to-door to churches to get published, let's talk about the next one. "Debbie Doesn't Do It Anymore" is scheduled for May. The novel's main character is in the adult-entertainment business. She's a star. And her husband's accidentally electrocuted himself performing a sex act, right? And alluding to the title, as I understand it, she wants to get out of the business, right? Yeah.

MOSLEY: Yeah, in the first eight pages of the book, she quits the business.

MARTIN: Yeah. So she quits the business.

MOSLEY: And the rest of the book is, you know, what happens.

MARTIN: I think that a lot of people are excited about this. But so many of your famous protagonists are men, and I think this is the first time you've put a female protagonist at - kind of at the center of the story, correct? Does that...

MOSLEY: It's a female protagonist. It's first-person narrative. So I'm writing from her point of view. She's seeing the world. This woman who's very recognizable - you know, 6 feet tall, you know; almost jet black skin; and she has platinum blonde hair, you know, down her back; and blue contact lenses. You know, she's a very recognizable figure in the porn industry and is now leaving.

MARTIN: I think many people, you know, associate you as portraying the black experience through the perspective of your characters over time, in different eras, faced with different situations. I was thinking about the essay that you wrote around the Trayvon Martin case. And you were reflecting on the way that George Zimmerman, the shooter, was described. And you said, you know, he's identified variously as white, half white, half Hispanic or Hispanic. And you said all of these terms have their roots drenched in the lifeblood of racism. And so race is kind of one of the many things that we get wrong, right? I would say.

MOSLEY: Well, of course. I mean, the truth is, is I've been giving this talk a lot lately; that the big issue about race in America is that there really is no such thing as white people. And, you know, in order to end race in America, all we have to do is recognize that the notion "a white person" doesn't really exist on any term, and in any way.

MARTIN: How would you like us to think about this?

MOSLEY: Well, you know, that people think about who they are from culture, not from supposed DNA or color or what continent, you know, somebody came from a long time ago 'cause then you could start talking about European people, you know. My mother's Jewish, of course, which makes me Jewish. And people say, well, how does it feel to be half white and half black? And I said my mother's Jewish. That's not white. And then slowly, I mean, over time, I said, well, nobody's white. Gypsies aren't white, and Vikings aren't white, and the Greeks aren't white, and the Spaniards aren't white. You know, they are who they are. You know, and they understand themselves in a certain kind of way that got redefined in America because they had to kill the Native Americans and enslave the Africans. And so they had to become white people.

MARTIN: You've got so much going on. You've got a play coming out. And do you have any more books that have already been written that you just haven't published yet?

MOSLEY: I just finished a new Easy Rawlins novel.

MARTIN: Oh.

MOSLEY: And I'm about to start writing (unintelligible). And I'm writing a political monograph called "Moving the Red into the Black." I think it's very obvious - the 20th century is the dialectical battle between so-called socialism and capitalism. But now that we're in the 21st century, you know, we have to realize what part of our lives need to be social - where we have to get along, we have to work supporting each other - and what part of our lives have to be our own work realized for ourselves, which is kind of the base of capitalism.

MARTIN: Walter Mosley is an award-winning novelist and playwright. He's being honored at the National Black Writers Conference this weekend in New York City. Walter Mosley, thank you.

MOSLEY: Thank you so much. It was great.

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