Walter Mosley: 'What Next'

Mystery Writer Turns to Non-Fiction, America's World Role

Listen: Listen to an extended version of Juan Williams' interview with Walter Mosley

Walter Mosley

Author Walter Mosley. Avie Schneider, NPR Online hide caption

itoggle caption Avie Schneider, NPR Online
'What Next' cover

What Next: A Memoir Toward World Peace. Black Classic Press hide caption

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Available Online

Walter Mosley is best known for his entertaining Easy Rawlins mysteries, but with his latest title the author decided to turn his sights on heavier stuff. His new book, a non-fiction essay on America and its role in the world, is called What Next: A Memoir Toward World Peace.

In a Morning Edition interview with NPR's Juan Williams, Mosley discusses his views on the war on terrorism, the looming conflict with Iraq, and oppression around the world — and what America should or should not be doing about it. Mosley also talks about the unrecognized political and economic power of African Americans.

What Next starts with his father's experience in World War II. Mosley writes that his father, a black man, never thought of himself as a full American citizen until German soldiers began shooting at him with the same vengeance that they targeted white GIs.

The author says he had a similar breakthrough about his American identity on Sept. 11, 2001. "When I'm looking out my window and I'm seeing these planes crashing into the World Trade Center, I say, 'Wow — just like my father — these guys are shooting at me."

Below is an excerpt from What Next: A Memoir Toward World Peace by Walter Mosley:

A Father's Story

When I was eight, I asked my father if he was afraid to go off to fight in World War II. He said, "No, honey. I wasn't afraid. You see, I knew that the Germans were fighting the Americans, but I didn't know that I was an American."

"Why not?" I asked.

"Nobody thought that Negroes were Americans where I was raised," he said. "We couldn't vote, we had no rights that couldn't be taken away by white people, and most of us believed that we weren't really equal to whites. So I thought that the Germans would just pass me by looking for their American enemies."

"Did they?" I asked, and my father laughed. I always loved it when my father laughed. Humor in our house was both strength and knowledge.

"No," he said. "Those Germans wanted to kill me just as much they wanted to kill every other foreign soldier. As a matter of fact, them shooting at me was what made me realize that I really was an American. That's why, when I was discharged, I left the South and came here to Los Angeles. Because I couldn't live among people who didn't know or couldn't accept what I had become in danger and under fire in the war."

——

My father always taught by telling stories about his experiences. His lessons were about morality and art and what insects and birds and human beings had in common. He told me what it meant to be a man and to be a Black man. He taught me about love and responsibility, about beauty, and how to make gumbo. My father's instructions have sustained me in the complex life we live here in America. Some of his lessons I'm still working out over forty years later.

What did he intend for me to learn when he told me about the war and his safety zone of race? I already knew that I was an American because every Election Day my parents made a big deal about going out to vote. California was our home, and I was so insulated by their love that racism seemed like a far off, almost mythical foe. Maybe this story about the war was just a humorous tale. But no, if you had been there, you would have felt the passion and deep emotion. You would have heard the relief in his laughter.

——

When I went to school, there were no Black philosophers, at least none that I was aware of, who were recognized by Western universities. All of the philosophers I studied were white (with a few Eastern exceptions), and, for that matter, they were all male. Africa, the cradle of civilization, seemed to have no footing in the highest form of human thought. Even the few philosophers who were obviously born on the Mother Continent were most often represented in white face. This is changing somewhat, but I'm still of a generation whose minds' eyes were trained to see white men as the only leaders and scientists and thinkers.

I would have been completely brainwashed by this lopsided and racist view of the world if it weren't for my father. He was a deep thinker and an irrepressible problem solver. He was a Black Socrates, asking why and then spoiling ready-made replies. He laughed when things got really bogged down, but he was no Sophist. My father cared about the world he lived in, and so he admitted his confusion about his place in America because he didn't want me to make the same mistake in my life. Or, if I did make a misstep, he wanted to make sure that I could find the remedy in his great treasury of tales.

——

The first thing I had to work out was that his story unfolded in three stages: First the fearless ignorance that blinded my father to his real place in the world and the real threat of the war; then the violent and frightening experience that made him see that he had been wrong all those years; and finally the wisdom he gained, which showed him that he had to break away from the world he had known, and the world that knew him, in order to act on the knowledge he had gained. His was a path set out in ideas and a system of thought based on a unique experience.

On the face of it, one might think that my father was just slow. Why didn't he see that if he put on a uniform and crossed the mighty Atlantic that his life would be in jeopardy just like the white soldiers who came from America? This story, you might think, only proves that LeRoy Mosley didn't have the sense to come in out of the rain. But my father had been seeing Black men in uniforms go along almost invisibly his entire life. They were butlers and porters and hotel clerks, red caps and jazz band members who labored in the background, in the shadows of their own skins. There were even Black policemen in my father's time, but they were not allowed to arrest whites. They weren't even allowed in certain parts of the police station. Black men in uniform, for the most part, went unnoticed. But even if some white soldier did see him, why would he worry?

Racist doctrine held then (as today) that the only true Americans were white Americans. Native Americans, Blacks, Asians, Mexicans, and all other dark-skinned people were, at best, temporary visitors who served in menial posts. They couldn't make demands or see themselves in important roles in American culture. The images on movie screens, in magazines and newspapers, and storefront windows all extolled Euro-Americans. If an Asian or Black were depicted, it was in service or for a joke. There certainly weren't any Black war heroes killing or being killed.

Jesus was a white man, and God was his sire. Taking this as his cue, my father decided that he was not considered a part of the greater moral and political system. White America and white Germany had a problem with each other; and if my father was dressed in a uniform and sent over there, it was only for him to be of service-or a joke.

——

When he was drafted, my father had to take a battery of tests. These tests revealed his ability to read, work with arithmetic, and type-skills that made him perfect for statistics, which at that time basically meant keeping tallies of the dead. So they gave my father a desk in a tent, a typewriter, a stack of long sheets, and an M1 rifle. Every now and then, orders would come through, and he would have to jump into the back of a truck with these tools, only to be deposited in some new countryside a few miles from the fighting.

The new land, Europe, was strange. Black soldiers weren't treated with the condescension or contempt that was their daily fare in the United States. Many white Europeans conversed with him openly, some thanked him, a few of the ladies even invited him home. My father chalked up these odd experiences to the strange character of Europe. He wondered about these unusual customs, but he didn't question his worldview until the day the Germans broke through Allied lines and marched on his bivouac.

"They were shooting at me, Walter," he said. "I could hear their bullets cutting through the air. When I picked up that rifle, I knew that I had just as much on the line as all those white soldiers. And when I thought about it afterwards, I realized that if I had just as much to lose, then I deserved all that any white man deserved. I became an American in France, under fire and afraid for my life."

——

So my father became an American, and I became a possibility in his life: a son who would be an American from the moment he was born, with all the rights, privileges, and hopes of any other American.

And he wasn't alone in this newfound and ecstatic view of his place in the world. A new wave of racial unrest swept the nation after World War II. The Civil Rights Movement blossomed. Black Americans began to demand their rights. They came out of the shadows and took advantage of the opportunities inherent in a nation that had been taking advantage of them for centuries. The term "American" took on a new face, and there was a resurgence of commitment to the Bill of Rights and the Constitution.

We (people of all hues and persuasions) are the heirs of this political movement. And I, personally, am the beneficiary of my father's interpretation of the structure of his experience. He graduated from the school of hard knocks and passed me his notes, in hopes that I would be able to make the transition, if ever a time came when I found myself in a situation where my perception of the world proved to be wrong. If I survived that realization, just as he survived the German attack, he hoped that I could go back to his words and discover a path of my own.

From What Next: A Memoir Toward World Peace by Walter Mosley, published by Black Classic Press. © Copyright 2003.

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