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Walter Mosley Explores Power of the Narrative in ‘John Woman’

Solitary Man Seeks Way to Transform Self, Take Control of Fate

New York Times best-selling author Walter Mosley and his longtime friend and onetime publisher, W. Paul Coates, founder of the historic, Baltimore-based Black Classics Press, removed themselves from today’s time-consuming, easily-addictive distractions, committed to doing that which may one day become about as rare as corner pay phones, couples who dance cheek-to-cheek or two-parent-married households — they talked.

On Wednesday, Oct. 3, Sankofa Video Books & Cafe, with the support of media sponsor The Washington Informer, moved their popular author’s spotlight event to the Historic Woodward Hall at Calvary Baptist Church, where Coates facilitated an enlightening conversation with Mosley.

Later in the evening, Mosley allowed the audience to ask questions — any and all questions. Then the evening would continue with an intimate reception at Sankofa’s home base in Northwest. But not before the two scholars chatted for well over an hour, allowing a standing-room-only audience to listen in, while they shared thoughts, posed questions and fed off of one another’s responses, prompted, at least in part, because of Mosley’s thought-provoking new novel, “John Woman.”

Mosley: Master of the Mystery and More

Upon hearing the name “Walter Mosley,” it’s a safe bet that the conversation will soon segue into a debate between friends anxious to prove which of the author’s many Easy Rawlins detective novels should be ranked among the best. His immensely popular “who done it” series has been instrumental in Mosley’s steadily-rising career during which he’s published more than 50 books — a surprising total number, at least to some of our readers, that represent genres totally unrelated to the detective format for which he’s most known.

Mosley says he received a real “wake-up call,” notoriety notwithstanding, after a total of seven publishers rejected his manuscript for the book, one which he developed and refined for almost 20 years, before Atlantic Monthly Press brought him aboard.

“I was really shocked when the rejections began to mount up. I recall asking myself, ‘How could they?’ ‘Do they know who I am?’ But those questions were related to my efforts to ease the pain that my bruised ego had suffered — they had nothing to do with the reality I had been forced to face.”

“When the lights came on, I understood. ‘John Woman’ didn’t fit into their box for African-American writers. I was supposed to write about life in urban America and to make sure I included a lot of situations where Black were the perpetrators of criminal actions. Those college-educated white men had never heard about Nietzsche or Hegel and I had forced them to move outside of their comfort zones. Their rejections weren’t so much about being racists and more about their refusals to accept the possibility that a man of color might actually be more intelligent than any of them.”

Analyzing John Woman’s Amazing Journey

Mosley’s protagonist, Cornelis Jones, stands on the threshold of manhood as his dying father shares a strange, new concept that turns the young man’s world upside down. That message: the person who controls the narrative of history also has control over their own fate.

Armed with this knowledge, Cornelius decides to reinvent himself, undergoing a complete transformation in which he becomes a college professor — spreading the teachings recently acquired from his father to his students. Still, one has to wonder if it’s really possible to shed one’s skin and to assume a completely different identity without semblances of the prior self ever reemerging?

Further, how should we approach the author’s thesis — one which John Woman seeks to confirm — that the stories we tell have the power to change the world?

Coates, who facilitated a discussion Sept. 13 at the Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn — an evening similar in scope to that recently held here in the District — may, because of his close contact with the author, have access to an inside track which yields a clearer understanding of Mosley’s complex protagonist and intriguing novel.

“Even before I got to know Walter, I was impressed with his writing, how he had developed a community of followers who really seemed to groove with him and his ideas and the ease with which he quickly formed a relationship with almost anyone he encountered,” said Coates describing himself first as a friend of Mosley for many years and second as one of the author’s biggest fans.

“As for his new book, it’s not the kind of story that moves in a linear fashion. It’s a well-thought out debunking of Western philosophy — a critique which challenges the limitations that humanity has accepted as truth, but which Walter contends may be more akin to today’s ‘fake news.'”

“Perhaps, he’s right and we’ve been too willing to allow the powers that be to determine who we are and how far we can go. Is it really so improbable to believe that we actually have the power already within us to take hold of and to shape our own destiny?”

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D. Kevin McNeir – Senior Editor

Award-winning journalist and 21-year Black Press veteran, book editor, voice-over specialist and college instructor (Philosophy, Religion, Journalism). Before joining us, he led the Miami Times to recognition as NNPA Publication of the Year.

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