Walter Mosley: Ignorance is not bliss

When the novelist Walter Mosley saw how deeply the Arab world hated America, he found an explanation in his own backyard. The race riots of the 1960s civil rights struggle were motivated by the same alienation that fuelled the September 11 attacks, he argues
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The Independent US

When my father sat there in our darkened living room wishing that he could go out and join the mêlée (of the 1965 Watts Riots), I saw something that it took me many years to work out. He was far beyond simple outrage. He wanted revenge for all of those years that he was mistreated and for all the millions who had been murdered and robbed, raped and silenced. He wanted to go out in the streets and yell and fire his gun into the void of his oppression. Did he hate? Most definitely. Should the people he hated have been afraid of him? Without a doubt.

LeRoy Mosley was the victim of a system of racism that had ruined his people for six, eight, 10 and more generations. He was the inheritor of that bitter pill. He was the survivor who now found himself with the possibility of finally getting revenge. "Burn, baby, burn" was the catchphrase of the riotous Sixties. Those words were screaming in my father's mind. He, and millions of other black men and women, hated white America for the five days of the Watts Riots; for those five days and for generations before and after them. His smouldering wrath was justified in his experience. He never once questioned his own culpability for the racist institutions and their adherents. America was afraid of my father. More than ever, they wanted the part of his mind that held this deep grudge to disappear. And if my father, and the millions that felt like him, could not drop this hatred, they wanted them to disappear.

This is only natural. No one wants someone who hates them to be anywhere in the periphery. Their mere presence poses a threat. All the years before the riots white people could ignore the history and the crimes. That was a long time ago, we were taught in school. But then Lincoln freed the slaves. But now the grandchildren and the great-grandchildren of those slaves were cutting up, acting out hatred that went all the way back through centuries of abuse.

Once again my father's seminal story rears its head. This time it's white America saying: they couldn't be at war with me. I never did anything to those people. But white America had to wake up, if just a little and realise that dark America was writhing in an endless nightmare. Seeing my father so wretched over his decision to stay at home during the riots made me very insecure. After all, my mother was a white woman. The Luckfields next door and many of the people my father worked with were white. My father wasn't duplicitous, either consciously or unconsciously. His friends were his friends before and after the riots. He would have died to protect my mother from harm, and he would never have hurt her. He didn't bad-talk whites because of their race. He never excused himself because a white superior criticised him. If the criticism was wrong, then he'd say so. If the criticism came from racism, he boiled. But he was always rational and responsible. My father would never become his enemy to make a point.

So why did he want to go out with his gun and a Molotov cocktail during the summer of '65? Why did his heart race with a dark pride when he saw his fellow black Americans wreaking havoc? Of course, I've already answered this question. The hatred lived inside my father; it lives in the hearts of so marry black people in the United States today. It is part of the legacy of slavery, racism and Jim Crow. It is something that my father and most black Americans have learned to live with. He never fired his gun or burned a building. He never allowed himself to commit the crimes that were committed against him. Most of us haven't. We understand that the choice is between building and tearing down.

There is a long discussion issuing from that painful realisation, but that is not my topic. The only purpose that my father's muted rage has here is to help us try and understand the rage that men and women around the world feel towards America today, especially the Muslim population of the Middle East. The similarities are undeniable: a group of people who feel intense political and economic pressures from an external culture; people who are pushed to adhere to standards that make them outcasts in their own culture, their own skins. We see them on CNN or on the cover of our magazines and newspapers: enraged dark-skinned people burning effigies and flags, marching and loudly denouncing the capitalist imperialists - us. From Pakistan to Saudi Arabia, they rage. For decades, they say, America has interfered with their religion, their money and their rulers. Sometimes we run away. Often, we get involved with covert military actions. But lately, we've been preparing for all-out war.

This sort of international politics presents a deep quandary for black Americans. I realised that when I saw Colin Powell being burned in effigy on the streets of Pakistan. They didn't think of him as a black man.

They certainly didn't see him as a son of Africa. He was an American pressing American policies on a people who are sick of our policies and our representatives. They don't identify with him, but I see some of my father in their rage. I imagine 10,000 Pakistanis for every one that stands in protest. I imagine these men and women sitting in their houses feeling impotent and seeing America as their enemy. I see them wanting a world that is forever denied them. They are living in poverty in a nation surrounded by enemies. They are a people who want to realise their dreams in a world that vies to control their every thought.

They hate me. I wish that this hatred would disappear, in just the same way that white America felt about my father's hatred. I find myself, oddly, in the position that whites found themselves in regard to my father's generation. Here I am, feeling no enmity towards a people who hate me. They celebrate when I am attacked and damaged. They pray for my downfall.

White America recoiled at the images of black American hatred. They ran to the suburbs. They elected Richard Nixon. They complained of their innocence. And in ignorance of their own history, they believed in that innocence. White America has had centuries to hone the myth of American incorruptibility. It's hard to fault the full-faced happy Americans who believe in the Constitution and the right of every American to vote; who believe in democracy and freedom of religion and a free marketplace. Travelling in the limited circles of middle-class America, anyone would be hard pressed to deny the utopian majesty of our nation. We have clean water and automobiles, televisions in every home, and policemen who patrol the streets. We have elected representatives and free schools and vast quantities of food, clothing, medical aids, alcohol and tobacco.

The America that exists for the middle class is beautiful. But there are places that deny this American Eden: poor America, working-class America and the grey area between those two suffering masses. The millions of men and women who travel the revolving door between the ghetto and prison, the children who go to bed hungry, the mentally ill, the sick and the under-educated make up a large portion of this paradise. And these suffering masses are the lucky ones. At least they have the chance of being associated with the American dream. There's the magic of wealth in America, but what about the rest of the world?

Afghanistan was the poorest nation in the world before the World Trade Centre attack. And while Aids decimates Africa, we only have to look at our recent history to see the carnage that we've created on a worldwide scale: the bombing of Cambodia and the senseless, endless war on the Vietnamese people; the slaughtering of thousands in Guatemala, and the invasion of Panama. We have embargoes against the leaders of nations who never suffer want, leaving only the innocent populations to endure our punishments. Our freedom and comfort comes at a great cost for our own citizens and peoples around the world. Middle-class white America and its aspirants have been blissfully ignorant of this situation.

But black Americans are not so lucky.

Taken from Walter Mosley's new book, 'What Next?' (Serpent's Tail), to be published in September. His latest Easy Rawlins mystery is 'Six Easy Pieces' (Serpent's Tail), published last month