10,000 Years Of History Run Through Mosley's Veins

Author Walter Mosley has taken the occasion of the country's birthday to reflect on what it means, to him, to be an American. In his own personal American mix, he identifies African, Jewish, and Asian ancestors; French-speakers, and Latinos.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

And now, the Opinion Page.

Most of us get the day off to observe Independence Day, which the calendar placed on Sunday this year. On this occasion, novelist Walter Mosley joins us. In an op-ed piece for CNN.com, he considered his identity and the 10,000 years of blood that runs in his veins. Among his observations: I am a new man almost every day. I and mine were once colored, Negro, black, Afro-American, African-American, brother, sister, Uncle Tom, revolutionary, good one, bad one, convict, malingerer, miracle and so much more. In the end, Mosley writes, I can say with conviction that I am America.

Are you America? In what ways? And when did you come to that conclusion? Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. You'll also find a link there to his essay "10,000 Years of History Runs in my Veins."

Walter Mosley's latest is "Known to Evil." And the writer joins us on the phone from New York. And happy Independence Day.

Mr. WALTER MOSLEY (Author): Thank you. Happy Independence Day to you.

CONAN: And the fact that you are America might, upon rereading that paragraph, seem like one of those self-evident truths, I wonder whether that was easy conclusion for you to reach.

Mr. MOSLEY: Easy? I guess - you know, that's interesting, because I started out as a kid thinking out I was America and, you know, experienced a great deal of alienation growing up in the '60s and '70s, and maybe for a while thought I wasn't, and then came back to it again. So, whether it was easy or not, it was a long road.

CONAN: A long trip. Was there a moment of revelation that, oh, my God, I am?

Mr. MOSLEY: Well, you know, I wrote a book a while ago book called "What Next?" which is a - and - it came out just about the same time that we attacked Iraq for the second time. And it was a criticism of our war on terrorism. And I was on tour in England to talk about the book and, you know, I said, you know, we're doing this and we're doing that, talking about America.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MOSLEY: And the people are saying, well, why are you saying you? You're not doing this stuff. And I said, well, I am. I'm an American. And they said, well, you didn't vote for, you know, the president - Bush at the time. I said, no, but he's still my president.

And I think that that was the beginning of me saying, yeah, you know, I have to kind of face up to what I'm doing, you know, what I like and what I don't like and what my county is doing, what I like and what I don't like about it.

CONAN: The miracles and the crimes.

Mr. MOSLEY: Yeah.

CONAN: It is an odd set of contradictions that makes us all Americans.

Mr. MOSLEY: Well, you know, and it's - in a way, in spite of what we say about being a melting pot we are...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MOSLEY: ...and, you know, we start, you know, with those, you know, people coming over from Asia, you know, and becoming the Native Americans. And, you know, then the slaves - in my case, the Jews that came over at the beginning of the 20th century. The French and the Spanish and the - and every - all those other people all coming here at different times over many thousands of years to blend into a very unique kind of nation. When - and even though we call ourselves this great melting pot, we don't quite realize it, I think, how true it is.

CONAN: Well, we draw distinctions amongst ourselves, though, in many ways - you say you have Jewish blood?

Mr. MOSLEY: Yeah. My mother's Jewish.

CONAN: And therefore, have strong connections to that community and - or least that point of view.

Mr. MOSLEY: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: And also that you have memories of the Creole in New Orleans.

Mr. MOSLEY: Yes. The Creoles in New Orleans, and then, you know, even though I'm not directly related, you know, just being raised in L.A., you know, I mean, the thousands of Chicanos that help me out kind of govern, you know, what I became. This is - it's so amazing. And it's so true for all of us, you know? And, you know, the racial, you know, the racial definitions are so, I mean, they're kind of fallacious. You know, they don't really make much sense. And though, you know, we hold tightly to them, you know, this is black. This is white. This is, you know, so-called Hispanic.

CONAN: The - it's interesting that - I wonder, have you been watching some of those programs on PBS that Skip Gates has done, where he traces people's DNA and...

Mr. MOSLEY: You know, I have - I haven't. Yeah, because, you know, even though I'm interested in the biology of it, you know, obviously. What's more interesting for me is the linguistic culture that, you know, we're formed by linguistic culture. And so, you know, I'm not particularly drawn to it, though - you know, I know Skip is doing that.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MOSLEY: It's a wonderful thing, yeah.

CONAN: We're talking with novelist Walter Mosley about being American. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. In what ways are you American and when did you come to that conclusion? We'll go to Shawn(ph), Shawn with us from Panama City.

SHAWN (Caller): Hello. Am I on air?

CONAN: You are.

SHAWN: I make my living as a jazz pianist/vocalist and every city that I go to worldwide, I mean, I can find a crowd, but - I mean, nationwide I'm speaking. I can find a crowd or a group of musicians who are married to the concept of jazz which is an explicitly American music. And there's this resilience like through Katrina where the music keeps coming back. And I know this is probably a little - a different branch of what's been talked about, but I hear all this talk about New Orleans and the melting pot like talking about New York City, and I'm from Kansas City, originally.

There's something magical about the way that Americans respond to music, and especially amongst the jazz community. Yesterday, for some reason I just reflected on that and felt entirely American.

CONAN: Hmm.

SHAWN: Thankfully I have the music too.

CONAN: As long as you can play.

SHAWN: Yeah.

CONAN: Shawn, thanks very much. We appreciate it.

SHAWN: Mm-hmm. Thank you.

CONAN: And you were talking about the languages of America, Walter Mosley, jazz is among them.

Mr. MOSLEY: Oh, yeah, jazz is definitely in. And you know - and it's so interesting because it is, as I said in that little article of mine, it's the kind of unconsecrated marriage between Europe and Africa, jazz.

CONAN: It's interesting, I grew up in and around New York and it was of great importance there to ask people, are you Polish, Ukrainian, Irish - who are you?

Mr. MOSLEY: Hmm.

CONAN: I was always told to understand that in Southern California, in California in general, that mattered a great deal less.

Mr. MOSLEY: Yeah. I think that that's probably true and that has to do with eras. That has to do with the history of - in New York being older or the east being older in some ways and reflecting the really ancient racial stereotypes of Europe where - you know, races were - if you were from - you know, if you came from Romania or you came from Spain or you came from Italy, you were different races.

You know, that's why everybody outside of Rome was a barbarian, you know, because there were different races. You know, and I think that - and but by the time you get to California, you know, that wave of, you know, America gets to California, the races have been changed into color.

CONAN: Yet both places are membranes. They're the places through which people pass into America.

Mr. MOSLEY: Yeah.

CONAN: Yeah. Let's see if we got another caller on the line. Lynn's(ph) with us calling from Rock Hill in South Carolina.

LYNN (Caller): Are you back to me now?

CONAN: Yes, we are.

LYNN: Okay. I like what you've been saying because, you know, in South Carolina, if you're not from here, you're a, like a come-here folk. You're either Yankee or you're just an outsider.

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. MOSLEY: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYNN: It's like 20 years before you fit in. And I have lived here about 25 years.

CONAN: So, you're beginning to fit in?

LYNN: Yeah, just now. And I'm 62 years old and I'm just now beginning to fit in.

CONAN: So, being accepted as a local.

LYNN: Yes. Yeah. It's an interesting concept, isn't it? Because they just -they really are out of touch with the mainstream of America down here because they're so small. And I tend to want to speak up about that because, you know, women go so unrecognized sometimes in military, but on other occasions you do recognize them. I mean, if you have a degree or you have a specialty, like you're a cook on TV or you're - you know what, if you're a professional singer.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

LYNN: I sing, you know, I went to college for that. And I play, because I have a keyboard but I'm not well known and I'm not in the business right now but it's just a different concept down here. I think because the weather is so muggy down here that I'm thinking about moving into New Mexico.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: It may take you another 20 years to be accepted there but I - you're right though it will be a little drier.

LYNN: Yeah.

CONAN: And today is just ferocious, as I understand it.

Mr. MOSLEY: Oh, yeah.

LYNN: It's in the hundreds coming up this week down here. And boy, it's terrible.

CONAN: It's terrible. Well -

LYNN: But, you know that TV show they had on the, you know, last night, "The Capitol Steps," that was the best one they've ever had.

CONAN: Hmm. I glad you enjoyed it, Lynn.

LYNN: Oh, boy. I knew everybody had enjoyed that. It was just plain good.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call and hope you fit in.

LYNN: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

Mr. MOSLEY: I mean, I used to live in Vermont, in a small town in Vermont. It was kind of wonderful there. People would say that you didn't - you weren't a member of the community unless your grandmother was buried in the graveyard.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: That leaves a lot of people out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Let's go to Richard(ph), Richard with us from Oakland.

RICHARD (Caller): I'm listening to your program as I'm doing my bookkeeping. And I was just - I was kind of touched (unintelligible) I just - last summer, I did a bicycle tour of Europe. And I started from Sicily and cycled through Sicily and then through Sardinia and Corsica and then the French Alps and the Swiss Alps.

And when you're seeing Europe at 10 miles an hour or even less when you going up these mountains, it's, you know, you're not going more than maybe 20 or 30 miles a day and so you're sleeping in a campground. It's a very - you know, pretty intimate. You get to see the population pretty intimately.

And I'm - you know, my grandparents where German (unintelligible) and we completely assimilate, but we always kind of hang on to our German heritage. And as I was traveling Europe, I - you know, and I'm not speaking bad of it, but it seems that lets say for instance you're talking to somebody from Spain, as an American, I can call that person a Spaniard, but a Spaniard, if they're -Spaniards talking other Spaniards, you'll say - you make sure that his region of Spain is very much so, he said, well, I'm from Catalonia or Seville.

And when I was traveling in France, it's even 20 miles later, people identify with their area or their drainage so intensely and consider themselves that first and a Frenchman second. Or maybe if I'm from Basel first and then I'm a Swiss second, or...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

RICHARD: ...I'm from Sicily first and an Italian second. And their loyalty is to their region first and then to the country second. And when I saw that there, I always had these illusion about Europe being so strong, being, you know, (unintelligible) you know? We came out of the Second World War being a superpower unfortunately, but I would like to have seen Europe I was having so much faith in the European Union that they may help us or, you know, take a more active role in, you know, in war politics. And when I'm seeing how fractionalized the European is, it was pretty disheartening.

CONAN: It's interesting, Richard. Thanks very much. I hope you had a good time on your trip.

RICHARD: Yeah. You - can you speak to that, please?

CONAN: If you give me just a second.

RICHARD: Thank you.

CONAN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And Walter Mosley, I wondered if you had a response to that.

Mr. MOSLEY: Well, I think it's interesting. I think that, you know, one of the things that strikes me about America that's good about us and also bad about us is how ahistorical we are, you know? And I've seen the other day when my father was telling me that when he was in World War II and they, you know, they got to France, the first thing they said is, Lafayette, I am here. And, you know...

CONAN: That was actually World War I, but that's all right.

Mr. MOSLEY: No, my father said it in World War II.

CONAN: Okay. Well...

Mr. MOSLEY: I know my father said it.

CONAN: The general said it World War I.

Mr. MOSLEY: And I know that wasn't in World War I. But, yeah, they said it's in World War I, too, but they were still saying it in World War II, that obviously...

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. MOSLEY: ...my father was just a sergeant there. And I think that our knowledge of history has changed. But even when we knew our history, we didn't have that much of it.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MOSLEY: And Europe has so much more to - it's a wonder and a weight on them, you know? And I don't really know what to think about. I don't know if it's - I don't, you know - the caller said, you know, unhappily, we ended up a superpower. Yeah, it's true. I don't know if I want Europe to be a superpower, either, saying that they've, you know, fueled some of the bloodiest wars in history.

CONAN: On the other hand, the alternatives were not happy ones.

Mr. MOSLEY: What do you mean?

CONAN: If we weren't the superpower somebody else might have been, and the alternatives were not happy ones.

Mr. MOSLEY: Well, might not have been, yes.

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. MOSLEY: Though I'm not sure - I think I agree with the caller, saying well, it would be nice if we weren't either, if we can actually kind of just share the planet and share, you know, the world, you know, between us without having to have superpowers, that will the best possible thing.

CONAN: Losing would have been unfortunate and...

Mr. MOSLEY: Losing to Germany would have been really awful, certainly.

CONAN: And you weren't going to beat Germany unless you were a superpower, so...

Mr. MOSLEY: Yeah. But we - I think he is right that we came out of it a superpower. We didn't go into it a superpower.

CONAN: Oh, that's true.

Mr. MOSLEY: Yeah. We came out of it like that.

CONAN: No question about that.

Mr. MOSLEY: And - but anyway.

CONAN: Anyway.

Mr. MOSLEY: That separation in Europe is wonderful and terrible.

CONAN: Richard, thanks very much for the call.

Here's an email from Nancy(ph) in Guadalajara. I never felt particularly American until I moved away. I now live in Mexico. And I am surprised how much I miss everything from the U.S.: the music, the writing, TV, movies. I realized the U.S. has a quest for excellence in invention, products and both public and private services, and distributing the results of that quest rather equitably.

Mr. MOSLEY: Hmm. Wow. I don't know what to say about that. I'd have to be very insulting to people like Japan and Switzerland, you know, Mali, I don't know. I think - it's interesting, I think that it speaks to us - we have an identity as an American. And I'd have that identity, and I love America, but I don't think that we're better than other countries really.

CONAN: I wanted to ask you about your conclusion to your piece...

Mr. MOSLEY: Yeah.

CONAN: ...that you said this history is not composed of the false accounts of the past. It is the blood and the beat and the light that passes through my mind and yours. I am your sibling, whether you know it or not, and whether you accept me or not.

Mr. MOSLEY: Yeah.

CONAN: Brother is an interesting word.

Mr. MOSLEY: Yeah. And sibling includes women.

CONAN: It does.

Mr. MOSLEY: But - yeah, no. The thing is I'm, you know, I think that there's a underlying relation that we have. I think it's in our blood, too, like Skip will say. But I think it's also in our language and our culture. We're connected in ways that - in which we cannot be separated. And whether we recognize it or not, that relationship is there. And, you know, it's kind of wonderful when you don't feel pressed and you don't feel put upon by people in your environment and by the government and by businesses. There's a real celebration about who we are.

I think that earlier caller talking about jazz is really - is true in our music and our stories. There's a deep identity that Americans have that I love, you know? And I'm so happy not to be able to enter into it, whereas, you know, I think we talked to a little bit about W.E.B not W.E.B. Du Bois but about the talk on yeah, Du Bois's talk about slavery.

That, you know, that on the Fourth of July, he talks about slavery. And on the Fourth of July, I can talk about how we're all related in a very important, a very deep way. And I think that shows a big change in this country, even more so maybe than our president.

CONAN: Walter Mosley, thank you very much for your time today.

Mr. MOSLEY: Thank you.

CONAN: You could find a link to his essay at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. He joined us today from New York. Tomorrow, we'll talk with NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty about neuro crime. Join us then. This is NPR News.

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