Walter Mosley - A Gentle ManSaturday, September 07, 2019
In the 80s on 4th Avenue Vancouver had an amazing bookstore, Mystery Merchant, that catered to whodunit people.
I had the pleasure of taking portraits of many mystery and detective novelists from abroad. One of the most intriguing one of them all was a quiet spoken man whose gentle elegance somehow is reflected in all his writing. All of us including my friend Les Wiseman, who were into murder mysteries and police whodunits, read Walter Mosley. In those 80s (he has written all kinds of stuff since) his star protagonist, was hard-boiled detective Easy Rawlins, a black private investigator and World War II veteran living in the Watts neighbourhood of Los Angeles.
With time my memory of the man has faded and all I have are 7 6x7cm b+w negatives. My camera’s rolls gave me 10 exposures but it seems I stopped at number 7.
Today, Saturday, as in all Saturdays we get the Sunday NY Times hard copy delivered to our door around 7:45 in the evening. In the first section that I always read (most of the time inside a hot bath) was a killer but sensitive essay by Mosley. I do not think that the copyright cops of the NY Times will come after me for reproducing it here.
Why I Quit the Writers’ Room -The worst thing you can do to citizens of a democracy is silence them.
Earlier this year, I had just finished with the “Snowfall” writers’ room for the season when I took a similar job on a different show at a different network. I’d been in the new room for a few weeks when I got the call from Human Resources. A pleasant-sounding young man said, “Mr. Mosley, it has been reported that you used the N-word in the writers’ room.”
I replied, “I am the N-word in the writers’ room.”
He said, very nicely, that I could not use that word except in a script. I could write it but I could not say it. Me. A man whose people in America have been, among other things, slandered by many words. But I could no longer use that particular word to describe the environs of my experience.
I have to stop with the forward thrust of this story to say that I had indeed said the word in the room. I hadn’t called anyone it. I just told a story about a cop who explained to me, on the streets of Los Angeles, that he stopped all niggers in paddy neighborhoods and all paddies in nigger neighborhoods, because they were usually up to no good. I was telling a true story as I remembered it.
Someone in the room, I have no idea who, called H.R. and said that my use of the word made them uncomfortable, and the H.R. representative called to inform me that such language was unacceptable to my employers. I couldn’t use that word in common parlance, even to express an experience I lived through.
There I was, a black man in America who shares with millions of others the history of racism. And more often than not, treated as subhuman. If addressed at all that history had to be rendered in words my employers regarded as acceptable.
There I was being chastised for criticizing the word that oppressed me and mine for centuries. As far as I know, the word is in the dictionary. As far as I know, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence assure me of both the freedom of speech and the pursuit of happiness.
How can I exercise these freedoms when my place of employment tells me that my job is on the line if I say a word that makes somebody, an unknown person, uncomfortable?
There’s all kinds of language that makes me uncomfortable. Half the utterances of my president, for instance. Some people’s sexual habits and desires. But I have no right whatsoever to tell anyone what they should and should not cherish or express.
A few years ago when a group of my peers said that they supported outlawing the Confederate flag, I demurred. Don’t get me wrong. I have no warm and fuzzy feelings about that flag, but I do know that all Americans have the right of self-expression. (Also, if someone has that flag in their mind, I’d prefer to see it on their front porch too.)
I do not believe that it should be the object of our political culture to silence those things said that make some people uncomfortable. Of course I’m not talking about verbal attacks or harassment. But if I have an opinion, a history, a word that explains better than anything how I feel, then I also have the right to express that feeling or that word without the threat of losing my job. And furthermore, I do not believe that it is the province of H.R. to make the decision to keep my accusers’ identities secret. If I’ve said or done something bad enough to cause people to fear me, they should call the police.
My answer to H.R. was to resign and move on. I was in a writers’ room trying to be creative while at the same time being surveilled by unknown critics who would snitch on me to a disembodied voice over the phone. My every word would be scrutinized. Sooner or later I’d be fired or worse — silenced.
I’m a fortunate guy. Not everyone can quit their job. But beyond that, we cannot be expected to thrive in a culture where our every word is monitored. If my words physically threaten or bully someone, something must be done about it. But if you tell me that you feel uncomfortable at some word I utter, let me say this:
There was a time in America when so-called white people were uncomfortable to have a black person sitting next to them. There was a time when people felt uncomfortable when women demanded the right to vote. There was a time when sexual orientation had only one meaning and everything else was a crime.
The worst thing you can do to citizens of a democratic nation is to silence them. And the easiest way to silence a woman or a man is to threaten his or her livelihood. Let’s not accept the McCarthyism of secret condemnation. Instead let’s delve a little deeper, limiting the power that can be exerted over our citizens, their attempts to express their hearts and horrors, and their desire to speak their truths. Only this can open the dialogue of change.