|ON THE CHAIN GANG|
April 6 , 2000
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The new book is "Workin' on the Chain Gang: Shaking off the Dead Hand of History" by Walter Mosley. His first non-fiction book, it looks at what he calls "the chains that define our range of motion." Mosley has written, among other books, seven critically- acclaimed mysteries, featuring a reluctant private eye named Easy Rawlins. One of those novels, "Devil in a Blue Dress," became a movie starring Denzel Washington. "A Story Collection," featuring a character named Socrates Fortlow, an ex-con who's a kind of moral guide in South Central Los Angeles, became a movie on HBO. Walter Mosley grew up in Los Angeles, went to college in Vermont, became a computer programmer and then wrote his first novel in his mid-30s. His books have been translated into 20 languages. Thanks for being with us, Mr. Mosley.
WALTER MOSLEY, Author, "working' on the Chain Gang:" Thank you.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What are the chains you see? Who's still working on the chain gang?
WALTER MOSLEY: Well, we're all working on the chain gang. I mean, that's what I wrote the book about. I was originally going to write a book about black people in the 21st century, and as I started to study and to think about and wonder about the problems that black people had, it blossomed out to cover everybody. So it seemed to me that even though maybe not everybody is aware of it, that we're all in the same boat, that we're all laboring under that margin of profit.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. Keep going. What do you mean we're all working on the chain gang, margin of profit?
WALTER MOSLEY: Well, you know, the idea that we're stuck in our... Most of us are stuck in our labor, that we're three or four, maybe five or six paychecks away from poverty and homelessness, that it's almost impossible to pay for good education for more than one or two kids, that it's hard for young people to buy a house, to make enough money to pay for both eating and the rent, all of these things that come together in America. America, you know, which is the land of plenty; America which is the richest country in the history of the world-- it seems that if you're in the working class, which as most of us are, no matter what kind of class we want to call ourselves in, it's a big struggle. And the struggle is getting harder; it's not getting easier.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And you think the profit motive is to blame for this?
WALTER MOSLEY: I think that the way that capitalism works and the way that it is understood is the problem. I mean, a lot of people think that democracy and capitalism are the same thing when they're two very different things. You know, it's a very simple book. I'm not really... I'm not saying things that haven't been said before. I'm not talking about some kind of new system or some kind of scientific way to get out of problems. I'm just trying to say, "listen, we're stuck inside of this margin of profit, and the margin of profit... The only place really to make money is off the labor of the people working for you, and so we're the one who pays for it."
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And I was struck by how careful you were to say that you didn't propose any other kind of system, especially any system that's utopian or too idealistic, as you put it.
WALTER MOSLEY: Well, you know, the idea that most of the... The people all the way back, 2,000, 2,500 years to Plato who tried to come up with theories or ideas about how society will grow necessarily, from the Republic to Das Kapital, they always end up saying, "well, for a little while we're going to need a dictatorship. For a little while we're going to need the few dominating the many." I don't want that. I mean, I think that we live in it today. I don't want it here, I don't want it any other time. I want us to come together. I want us to work in a democratic way, in a democratic process to try to change the world.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And how? How do we get... How do we all get rid of our chains?
WALTER MOSLEY: Well, you know, it's so difficult to talk about, and certainly to be certain about. And in this book, you know, you have to understand, when I talk about a non-fiction book, I usually think that nonfiction books lie. They tell... because they're trying to convince you of their argument. I'm not trying to convince anybody of my argument. But what I'm trying to say is that we need to cut out the distractions, the spectacles and illusion. It would be nice to give up television and drinking and big arena sports for 12 weeks, let's say; just to sit down in your house and think about who you are and what you are and where you are -- from that point, to begin to start to list, what are the most important things in our lives? What do we need to do? What do I think the most important thing is? And then to ask questions. I mean, simple questions like, "who can become president?" You know, when I think of it and when somebody asks me, "well, who do you think could be president?" I say, "well, I can tell you... I don't know who's going to be, but I can tell you that it's a him, that he's white, that he's over 35 and under 60, that he's tall, that he's handsome, that he speaks well, that he's probably wealthy, that he's straight, that he's married. You know, there's... when you finish describing who can be president, you realize, well, you don't live in a democracy, because only 1% of the country can be president.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Mosley, do you think that being a novelist gives you the imagination to see things as they might be, and that's one reason you can write a book like this?
WALTER MOSLEY: Well, I think that in order to change what America is, we need imagination. I don't know if, you know, being a novelist, or being a photographer, or a painter, or a journalist or... You know, there's a lot of creativity in a lot of different people in America, but in order to change America, we need to be creative, and we need to reject the creativity that's boxed and sold to us like on the television and radios. We need to say, "well, maybe there's something better than getting on a game show and winning $1 million" or, you know, stripping down to my underwear and maybe attracting somebody for $1 million.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: At first I thought this was a departure. It's non-fiction. Your other books are mysteries. But all your work seems to me to be about morality when I look at it again. Socrates, after all, the name, Fortlow is the moral philosopher, even though he's an ex-con. Where did this strong interest in morality and moral dilemmas really, the solving of moral dilemmas come from?
WALTER MOSLEY: Well, you know, it's really interesting. When I was traveling around talking about my Easy Rawlins novels here and there around the country, a lot of people would ask me, you know, my mother's Jewish, my father's black. A lot of people would say, "Where does your Jewish side come from?" Or "where's your white side," not thinking that that's Jewish. And I'm going, what do you mean? They say, "you know, we see easy doing all of these things that we consider black, but now that we've seen him reading books, intellectual books, we think, "well, that's where the white side is: The part that reads." And I look at these people, and I say, but you know, black people read, and black people think. But it was very hard to convince them. That's the reason I wrote about Socrates Fortlow. And I guess Socrates led me into writing this book that... The biggest thing in black America is that we're solving problems. We're always solving problems, because we're faced with more dilemmas all the time. Do you want to do wrong in order to make it? Do you want to do right and suffer instead? There are all kinds of problems that we face, and now you have to understand, I think that it's not just black people, I think it's all people in America. You know, from far right white movements to far left or radical black movements, everybody's worried about how can they get good medical care for their family and their children. Everybody's worried about having a good job and making sure that they and the people that they love can do well in their lives. And the reason I wrote the book is to say, "listen, we come together." When Malcolm X says, "you have been bamboozled," he's not just talking to me. He's not just talking to black people. Everybody in America's been bamboozled. And we have to back away from that, look at it a little closer, and then wonder how we can do better with this nation.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But I'm really glad you brought that up, because you write in the book that the chains might be more recognizable in the black experience, but they chain us, they restrain us all. And you do feel that African Americans have something to teach other Americans in this. Explain that.
WALTER MOSLEY: Well, one of the problems with being marginalized, black people being marginalized, is that it's easy to say well, black history is a special thing; it's an elective, it's the month of February, it's not something important. But really, black American history speaks to all of America. To begin with, it is American history. The organization of labor, the labor of black people, is the foundation of how labor is organized in America. When black people were freed, the way that they were kind of re-chained to their labor, you know, becoming sharecroppers instead of slaves, is the way that almost everybody relates to their labor in America. And the way that we fought it, the way through the civil rights movement, through the Black Panthers, through the black nationalist movement, through the Congress, everything that we've done is a way to teach other people how to move ahead and how to fight against oppression in America. And indeed, there is oppression in America, as much as people don't want to think there is.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Are people listening? Are you pleased with the reception you've gotten so far?
WALTER MOSLEY: Well, you know, I'm very happy about it because young people, between 18 and maybe 25, 30, have really enjoyed the book. People who are older, people who have been brought up in the system of the 20th century, which means to say that political systems should have answers-- you know, if you do A, B, and C, then it will work. No matter what it is-- you know, if it's democracy, or communism, or fascism, whatever, those people, the older people have some problems with it. They say, "well, you wrote all this stuff. You didn't give me an answer." I say, "well, the answer lies within us." We have to find the answer in ourselves, and we have to find the connection between us in order to make things different.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, Walter Mosley, thank you very much for being with us.
WALTER MOSLEY: Thank you.