Devil with a Blue Dress/Good Golly Miss Molly

I decided that for 2019 I was going not only to continue, regarding my reading, with the Short Story Project but was also to create and dedicate myself to a new reading project: The Diversity Project, which entailed reading books and stories by marginalized authors. Marginalized authors, of course, can mean anything from authors of color to queer ones to women, for that matter; pretty much anyone other than a straight white cisgender man. I’ve been reading mostly  women authors for the last few years, with the occasional straight man thrown into the mix, and my reading has primarily focused on crime novels, with the occasional horror novel thrown in. Over the years, I’ve been supportive of marginalized writers; I’ve been buying their books and helping to publicize them on social media…but I’ve not been actually reading the books, despite hearing wonderful things about the writers and seeing them win awards. I came to realize this was white privilege in a nutshell and kind of a subconscious bow to white supremacy; whether it was intentional or not I would buy the books but when it came time to select something to read…I always reached for a book by a white writer and justified it with the rationale well, women writers are also marginalized; this is why Sisters in Crime exists in the first place.

But it isn’t enough and it’s definitely the mentality of the limousine liberal–who is all about marginalized people and their rights, but never has anyone from a marginalized community in their home.

If I am going to talk the talk I need to walk the walk.

My adult life has been an education on race, an education that continues as I grow older. As I was saying to one of my younger co-workers the other day, who was telling me about visiting a Civil Rights museum…I remember the Civil Rights Movement. It happened during my lifetime, and I saw it all on television, on the news. The recent blackface scandal in Virginia? I was about the same age as the  governor of Virginia when he did his blackface. I can honestly say I don’t remember anyone in college when I was there doing blackface, but I remember horribly racist “South of the Border” theme parties and “Pimps and Hos” parties which were equally bad. The history of race in America is complex and hideous and horrible; if you haven’t read Howard Zinn, I highly recommend him to you. My elementary school education was an indoctrination into white supremacy and American exceptionalism; it’s taken me years to understand that Columbus wasn’t a hero and that Andrew Jackson committed genocide, among other historical lessons that were not accurate. Gone with the Wind used to be one of my favorite books and favorite films; now I can see how problematic they are, and I question my embrace of both. (At some point, I am going to sit down and reread Gone with the Wind, which, at over a thousand pages, is a gargantuan task. But I think reading it as a more aware adult in my late fifties, with my eyes more open to the barbarities of slavery and plantation life, would be an interesting thing to do; particularly since it, along with Birth of a Nation, did more than anything else to perpetuate the mythology of the genteel Southern plantation way of life. I tried watching Mandingo on Amazon Prime the other day–it was a much more, I think, realistic look at the barbarity of slavery than Gone with the Wind but it was hindered by being a terrible movie.)

So I selected Walter Mosley to kick off the Diversity Project (the actual first book I read for this was William Bradford Huie’s The Klansman, but after reading it decided it didn’t count). And Devil in a Blue Dress, the first Easy Rawlins novel, is quite a gem of private eye fiction.

I was surprised to see a white man walk into Joppy’s bar. It’s not just that he was white but he wore an off-white linen suit and shirt with a Panama straw hat and bone shoes over flashing white silk socks. His skin was smooth and pale with just a few freckles. One lick of strawberry-blond hair escaped the band of his hat. He stopped in the doorway, filling it with his large frame, and surveyed the room with pale eyes; not a color I’d ever seen in a man’s eyes. When he looked at me I felt a thrill of fear, but that went away quickly because I was used to white people by 1948.

I had spent five years with white men and women, from Africa to Italy, through Paris, and into the Fatherland itself. I ate with them and slept with them, and I killed enough blue-eyed young men to know that they were just as afraid to die as I was.

The white man smiled at me, then he walked to the bar where Joppy was running a filthy rag over the marble top. They shook hands and exchanged greetings like old friends.

Easy is a World War II vet originally from Houston who’s moved to Los Angeles to work in a factory–following in the footsteps of any number of people of color who fled the South to the factories of the West Coast and the Midwest in the post-war years, not only to escape Jim Crow but to improve their lives (poor Southern whites also did the same; my parents among them). Easy owns a house, of which he is justifiably proud, but also recently lost his factory job and is worried about losing said house…which makes him more susceptible to an offer of work from DeWitt Albright, the white man in Joppy’s Bar. Basically the job pays a hundred dollars and all Easy has to do is locate a white woman named Daphne Monet…but as ever in a hardboiled/noir novel, there is a lot more going on than that, and this simple task involves Easy in a dangerous world of corrupt racist cops, politics, and gangsters. The hardboiled sensibility of crime fiction is given a brilliant overhaul by Mosley in this novel; invigorating the genre in much the same way Sara Paretsky, Marcia Muller, and Sue Grafton did when they gave a tired genre a shot of adrenalin in the early 1980’s, bringing the genre back from the almost-dead.

Devil in a Blue Dress does much the same, and really, is there anything more noir or hard-boiled than the life of people of color in American society? As I watched the movie last night (after finishing the book I found the film on Amazon Prime, and it’s also quite good), the scenes where Easy is basically the victim of police brutality and has zero recourse come across much more vividly on the screen than on the page–and the scenes in the book were pretty fucking powerful. How do people exist in a society where justice is regularly denied them by the people who are supposed to provide it for them?

And that, I think, is the key. As a gay man, I constantly struggle with the idea that justice and fairness, the two things I was raised to believe are the cornerstones of American society and government, aren’t available to everyone. We are raised to believe as white Americans that the criminal justice system works for everyone, and it is our recourse whenever we are victims of crime. We want to–need to–believe that the police and the system enforce the law equally and fairly for everyone, and realizing, and recognizing, that isn’t true shakes our foundation of belief in everything, so we tend to look the other way and pretend that isn’t true.

But denying there’s a problem means the problem never gets fixed.

And injustice for one means there’s no justice for all.

I highly recommend this book, and can’t wait to read more of Mosley’s work.

devil in a blue dress

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