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Walter Mosley's Louisiana heritage

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In this weekend’s New York Times Sunday Book Review, the great Walter Mosley, born in Los Angeles, describes in an essay his deep Louisiana roots. Mosley is the author of more than 50 books, winner of a Grammy, an O. Henry Award, and PEN American’s Lifetime Achievement Award, among many other accolades. He accepted an honorary degree from Tulane University last spring.

I am what you might call a grandchild of Louisiana. My father was born there as were many of his friends and relatives. Most of my neighbors in Los ­Angeles came from there too — black rural folk who had traveled west through southern Texas on their migration to escape the South’s heavy hail of racial hatred. They came to California for the tattered shelter of mocking freedom that the Golden State had to offer people like them, poor people willing to work hard.

My father and his family brought the Deep South with them — barbecues and gumbos, dirty rice and soul food. They brought their strong accents and multiplicity of tongues, their histories from Africa, France, Native America mingled with generous drams of so-called white blood, European blood.

Louisiana flowed in that blood and across those tongues. Louisiana — a state made famous by Walt Whitman and Tennessee Williams, Ernest Gaines and Arna Bontemps, Kate Chopin and Anne Rice. These writers, from many eras, races and genres, took the voices of the people and distilled them into the passionate, almost desperate, stories that opened readers to a new kind of suffering and exultation.

I could talk about any or all of these writers with respect and admiration. But my relationship to the literature of Louisiana goes deeper, back to my childhood. Almost everyone in Watts came from Louisiana or Texas. They’d gather around kitchen tables, eating raw oysters swimming in Tabasco sauce, telling stories of the old days when death shadowed their every step.

There was the story of Alberta Jackson, bitten by a harbor rat and saved by a backwoods auntie who used the sliced-open body of a special toad to draw the toxins from the wound. There was my cousin Helen, who took my father’s knife intending to kill the man he was getting ready to fight. She swung at the man but stabbed my father by mistake. Hearing the story again, 20 years later, my father laughed and laughed at the memory.

Another cousin, Willie, got a job as a porter on the Panama Limited that traveled between Chicago and New Orleans. When he got his first check, he proudly told his mother he was going to use it to buy a new pair of pants. “She socked me so hard,” he told us one night, “that by the time I came to she had already cashed the check and spent it at the general store on Bywater Street.”

Read the full essay at the New York Times.

This article was reposted from Press Street: Room 220, a NolaVie content partner.