Time for a new Black Power movement
African Americans were appalled but not surprised by the terrorist attack, says author Walter Mosley. They understand the anger of America's enemies, which is why they should be the ones to lead a new movement for peace

Sean O'Hagan
Sunday August 18, 2002
The Observer

Walter Mosley, crime writer, essayist, activist and, famously, Bill Clinton's favourite novelist, is holding court in his bright and spacious apartment on West 14th Street in New York. 'Most black people in America were not surprised by 11 September,' he tells me, his defiant tone suggesting that he knows this is not a popular opinion.

'I haven't met one black person who was surprised. Like everyone else, they were shocked by the magnitude of it, and appalled by the deaths, but they weren't surprised by the hate and anger that produced it. Black Americans are very aware of the attitude of America towards people who are different, people whose beliefs are different, people of a different colour. We live with that attitude every single day. We know how hated America is.'

Walter Mosley is a bear of a man, with soft features, olive skin and a face that, even in repose, has a quizzical look. When he grows animated, his words echo across the room, which is the size of a small football pitch and empty save for the table we are sitting at. I never get around to asking him if he has just moved in or if he simply likes the Zen calm of uncluttered space. You get the feeling that he's not one for small talk. At times, he seems impatient, chippy, but it may just be that his words have trouble keeping up with his tumbling thoughts. He speaks with the zeal of someone who has undergone a political epiphany. Which, in a way, he has.

Last year, on 11 September, he, like many New Yorkers, saw a passenger plane slice into a skyscraper. Unlike many Americans, whose immediate response was incredulity, he says he knew instinctively that it was a deliberate act. 'It crossed my mind for a second that the pilot had lost his way. Then it was, "I get it". I mean, those buildings define America. I thought, this is an act born out of rage.' He pauses for a second, perhaps wary, like all American left-wing thinkers, that any deviation from Bush's all-out 'war on terrorism' line will be viewed as unpatriotic. 'It was a terrible thing, a truly terrible thing, and I don't think you'll find many black Americans who would agree with the act, but they were not surprised by it in the way that white America was. That is a crucial, and determining, difference. It tells you a lot about America, and how it sees itself.'

It is that 'crucial and determining difference' which underpins Walter Mosley's newly completed book, What Next?, to be published in America early next year. It is a collection of essays whose central theme is that America needs a new peace movement and that the black community should be at the vanguard of that movement.

'Because of our history and our experience right here in America, as well as in Africa, we have an understanding of the rage and anger of America's so-called enemies,' he elaborates. 'Black people know that most Arabs and Muslims are good people, that their beliefs are just as valid as Christian beliefs, that they have been at the receiving end of American so-called foreign policy for years. As a people of colour, we know how America treats other people of colour - with suspicion or disdain. What I am saying is that because of our unique position, we should be at the forefront of a new peace movement that starts the process whereby Americans start to see the world, and themselves, differently.'

Born Walter Ellis Mosley in east Los Angeles in 1952, he is an only child. He graduated from Hamilton High School in 1970, then drifted into a bohemian life in Santa Cruz, before earning a degree in political science at university in Vermont. Mosley came to writing late, aged 39, after 10 years as a computer programmer, and to fame even later. After marrying Joy Kelman, a dancer and choreographer in 1987, he started writing fiction instead of computer programmes, influenced by Alice Walker's The Color Purple.

Now turned 50, he has long led a parallel life as a polemicist: he came of age in the Sixties, witnessing first-hand the 1965 Los Angeles race riots in Watts. As the child of a black father from Louisiana and a Polish Jewish mother, Mosley has always been aware of the problems of belonging that attend the experience of black Americans. Since 11 September, he has been stopped and questioned every time he passes through an airport.

'I guess I look vaguely Arabic,' he says, 'but it gives you an even more heightened awareness of the suspicion that Muslims, even American Muslims, feel under at the moment. Many of these people consider themselves patriotic Americans and suddenly it's, "Whoah! America doesn't want us".'

In his fiction, too, he has been dealing with issues of belonging and identity, racism and injustice, since his first book, Devil in a Blue Dress, was published in 1990. That book introduced the world to part-time private eye Ezekiel Porterhouse Rawlins, aka 'Easy', a black man who has made some kind of peace with white America, and his sidekick, the amoral, often literally murderous Mouse, who most definitely hasn't. Hate and rage simmer beneath the surface of all seven Easy Rawlins novels: it underpins Mouse's more brutal excesses, as well as the racism and bigotry that Mosley's characters face daily, most often from an LAPD that views every black person as a suspect. If the Easy Rawlins books have a consistent subtext, it is how black Americans have negotiated, and continue to negotiate, a white society that, in the main, is inured to its own prejudice.

Since his early novels were publicly endorsed by Bill Clinton during the 1992 presidential campaign, Mosley has occupied a unique position in American letters, being both immensely popular and consistently provocative. His latest novel, Bad Boy Brawly Brown, which he has described as 'my homage to Malcolm X', is set in 1964, but like the other Easy Rawlins narratives, has a hard contemporary edge. Rawlins operates on the streets, filtering the ghetto life around him through a world view that is cynical to the point of world-weary.

'I got a review of the new book in the New York Times recently,' he tells me, smiling resignedly, 'and the woman goes, "Why does Easy Rawlins have to be stopped and threatened by two white cops? It's too easy". The next week, a black guy gets hauled in and beaten to a pulp on camera. Y'know, come on. Wake up.

'Americans only tend to see blacks who are kind of like them,' he continues. 'There are two Americas, and one is blind to the other. The way most black people live, the daily racism and the suffering, is transparent to white America. They just don't see it, or they choose not to. More importantly, they don't understand how most black people feel, how we live with rage every day, a rage against America.'

Mosley once told an interviewer, 'I like the free-floating creative chaos you get from being black', and his ideas come at you thick and fast, often linked by the thinnest threads. Sometimes he sounds impatient with the necessary formality of the interview contract.

He insists that he is not a spokesperson for the black community but his essays and interviews suggest otherwise. His novels, on the other hand, veer between an adherence to the conventions of the traditional crime thriller - Raymond Chandler relocated to Fifties black Los Angeles - and an often brutal contemporary realism. Mosley insists he writes from life - 'having a rage inside you is part of being a black American, no question'.

How, I ask him, perhaps glibly, does all this square with the notion of a black-led peace movement?

He looks at me and shakes his head. 'Maybe you should think about that question. It's important to rage at the injustice and the lies. If someone keeps telling you it's equal, and everyday you see that it isn't, and every day nothing changes, what have you got except your rage? That is not to say that violence is the solution. Violent responses are the absolute last resort. And, as I think my books show, violence is going to tear you down as well.'

He pauses for a moment, shifting in his chair as the thoughts run into each other. 'I mean, take 11 September: that was not an act endorsed by God. No matter what these misguided people might believe, that was an act of fanatical craziness. What I believe is that the only way to make sure that sort of atrocity does not happen again is to make sure we don't do it to anyone else.'

To this end, Mosley seems to have come to a conclusion roughly similar to Naomi 'No Logo' Klein's, citing the all-powerful sway of corporate America as 'the antithesis of democracy as it is defined in the constitution'. He sees globalisation as colonisation on a grander scale. 'American foreign policy is defined by our international business concerns, and is aimed at the erosion of the sovereignty of the nations we exploit. Put simply, we do not want democracies or unions in Haiti, we want to pay poor Haitians 50 cents an hour to build cheap cars. That's how unfettered capitalism works, that's how America works.'

In the American media coverage of 11 September, there has been relatively little media coverage of one particular demographic: the scores of menial workers - cooks, cleaners, catering staff, many of whom were illegal immigrants on breadline wages - who perished in the attacks on the Twin Towers. 'Capitalism,' as Walter Mosley notes, 'looks after its own.' In his last non-fiction book, Working on the Chain Gang: Shaking Off the Dead Hand of History, Mosley writes, 'Our actions, and the actions taken in our name, are not truly ours to govern.' This, one feels, is what motivates his activism, the sense that we have been robbed even of the right to protest. His answer to all this is steeped in the grass-roots activism of his Sixties youth: self-empowerment through education.

'We all need to be a part of an effort to understand the world we live in. We need to organise reading groups where people can disseminate the news, not just rely on big media corporations like Time-Warner.' I nod. I agree. Wholeheartedly. The only problem, I say, is that in America, I do not see the will for peace, nor for self-empowerment through self-education. Instead, I see an angry nation rallying behind a gung-ho President as he prepares to invade Iraq. Mosley is undeterred.

'I know all this is anathema to many Americans, and I can understand their trauma and confusion right now. But what is the alternative? We are on a precipice here. When people say, "Surely you don't want this to happen to America again?", my answer is, "I don't want it to happen to anyone again". If 11 September has taught us anything, it is that only by working for peace, can we ensure our own peace and safety. And, hey, hasn't Vietnam shown us that you cannot bomb for peace, or invade for peace, or attempt to destroy whole cultures for peace?' Mosley keeps returning to the notion that this reappraisal of what it means to be American must come from, and be steered by, the black community. 'We have traditionally been America's cultural leaders,' he says. 'from Louis Armstrong to Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King.' It is as if, in the midst of 11 September, he caught a glimpse of a way to resolve the traumas - of race, allegiance, identity, inequality - that have beset America since it declared itself, vauntingly, impossibly, 'the land of the free'. His epiphany has not been clouded by incredulity and recrimination, but has led him down a path both well-worn and, in recent years, untrodden: a Martin Luther King-style mass movement for peace. It is an idea both radical and simple, which, as Mosley understands, is exactly the sort of idea America was founded on, and that Americans instinctively rally round.

'When you write about 11 September, you should write about the next 10 years,' he tells me, 'not just about the moment itself.' He is quiet for a moment, then adds: 'You cannot ignore rage. It just does not go away. It only goes away when the causes of that rage are addressed. You do not have to look outside America to see how that is the case.'

Bad Boy Brawly Brown by Walter Mosley is published by Serpent's Tail on 6 September, at 10. To order a copy for 8, plus p&p, call the Observer Books Service on 0870 066 7989.

9/11 further reading...

Dennis Smith: Report From Ground Zero (Corgi 5.99, out 5 September) Personal accounts from 30 rescue workers compiled by veteran firefighter.

Michael Feldschuh (ed): The September 11 Photo Project (HarperCollins 19.99, out September) Photographs by amateurs and professionals.

Mark Hertsgaard: The Eagle's Shadow - Why America Fascinates and Infuriates the World (Bloomsbury 12.99, out September) Views on America from all over the world.

Noam Chomsky: 9-11 (Seven Stories Press6.99) Compilation of essays.

Jane Corbin: The Base: In Search of Al-Qaeda (Simon & Schuster 18.99) Panorama reporter Jane Corbin traces Al-Qaeda's roots around the world.

September 11: A Testimony (Reuters, 21.99) Hundreds of photographs of that day. All proceeds to 9/11 charities.

Caleb Carr: The Lessons of Terror: A History of Warfare Against Civilians (Time Warner Books 10.99) Historical study of terrorism.

Slavoj Zizek: Welcome to the Desert of the Real (Verso 8, out September) Five essays.

Latifa: My Forbidden Face - Growing Up Under the Taliban: A Young Woman's Story (Virago 9.99) The story of Talifa and her mother's defiance of the Taliban regime by UN Woman of the Year Latifa.

Malise Ruthven: A Fury For God: The Islamist Attack on America (Granta Books 15) An account of the Islamist case against the West.

New York one year on: Review special

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New York lives

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Observer special reports

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