Rewriting History

Award-winning author Walter Mosley has tackled nearly every form: fiction, nonfiction, essays, poetry, theater, even film. But he's most famous for his best-selling novels featuring Easy Rawlins, the reluctant sleuth played by Denzel Washington in the flick Devil in a Blue Dress. Some may know him for his story collection, Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned, which was made into an HBO movie last year with Laurence Fishburne as the quietly heroic Socrates Fortlow. He has also written a science fiction novel, Blue Light, and a "blues novel," RL's Dream, and plans to release Working on the Chain Gang, his "non-aligned attack on capitalism," through Random House's Contemporary Thoughts series.

Mosley in fact emphasizes how important it is for black writers to continuously explore genres, to buck trends in order "not to be forgotten." A transplanted New Yorker, born and bred in lower- to middle-class black neighborhoods in Los Angeles, Mosley puts his money where his mouth is: back into the community. In 1996 he published Devil's prequel, Gone Fishin' (set in Houston, where Mosley's father grew up), through the small, African-American-owned Black Classic Press, raising the profile of the press and making a statement that only a writer of Mosley's stature can make: that black authors should support and expand their own community and network. As it stands now, when the white-dominated publishing industry loses interest, books by African-American authors go out of print, and history gets lost or rewritten.

"History is important as it relates to the living," says Mosley. And black history, from Frederick Douglass to the Black Panthers, "is the history of America." But you won't find it in the writings of Thomas Jefferson or Henry David Thoreau. History tends to be written by its victors and left open to interpretation by its descendants. For instance, what we know about the philosopher Socrates is not accurate, according to Mosley. Plato tells us that Socrates "came out fully realized," when "really, he was just a normal guy" who "asked a lot of questions." And that, insists Mosley, is what made him remarkable. His humanity.

Socrates Fortlow, who's also featured in Mosley's new collection of stories, Walkin' the Dog, is a modern-day black philosopher, an ex-con who lives in Watts and feels as guilt-ridden about his freedom as he does about his crimes. It's not enough for Socrates to ask questions about a dominant culture that doesn't give a damn if he becomes a realized human being or not; he must find out what it means to face his demons.

Each of the stories in Walkin' the Dog is a meditation on the theme of redemption, told through the simple language and complex lives of the characters, who are struggling with the internal as well as the external issues of being poor and black in America. Mosley brings to life characters who are rarely seen in literature and tries "to convey the dignity of critical thinking in the poor black community." A churchgoing woman sobs every Sunday at the grave of Socrates's best friend, who committed suicide; a cologne-drenched petty thief makes handmade revolutionary posters that dot the landscape and inspire the philosopher; "crazy" Aunt Bellandra's passionate, poetic commentaries on race and redemption come back to haunt Socrates; a homeless trumpet player wakens him from his sleep, in more ways than one.

Walkin' the Dog is a compelling read, elegant and easily absorbed thanks to Mosley's skillful prose, but the characters and their lives stay with you long after the book has been put down. They re-emerge suddenly, quietly, refusing to be forgotten, filling in the blank pages of our history books, one story at a time.

Walter Mosley will be read from and sign copies of his new book on Friday, November 5, at 6:30 p.m. at the Shrine of the Black Madonna Bookstore and Cultural Center, 5309 MLK Boulevard, (713)645-1071. Free.

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Liz Belile