How Does Mosley treat race in this novel
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The major themes of race and war come up in Mosley's first two short chapters of Devil in a Blue Dress. The book's first sentence sets racial tensions in play. The novel is set in post-World-War-II Los Angeles, before the Civil Rights Movement, so Mosley includes markers of segregation and cultural alienation in his narrative. Moreover, Mosley uses the novel as a vehicle through which to explore the implications of race and racial prejudice.
Race and racism are the novel's core issues. In 1948, when the novel is set, the United States is still legally divided into 'black and white.' Communities are segregated and blatant racism abounds. Easy experiences this firsthand during his encounters with white men including Mr. Albright, Mr. Carter, and Mason and Miller. In the very first moment of the book, Easy defines himself as black against the stunningly white image of Mr. Albright. He is "surprised to see a white man walk in to Joppy's bar," but moreover by Mr. Albright's completely white ensemble, down to his gleaming and insincere smile. Easy quickly connects the issue to race to his experiences during World War II. He remembers, "I killed enough blue-eyed young men to know that they were just as afraid to die as I was." Thus Easy's experience of race in the army goes beyond feeling put down by the army's segregation: he connects the issue of race to the "blue-eyed" Nazis and their mission of achieving an Aryan society. Easy's constant racial references to World War II suggest that the segregation present in America during his time is linked to Hitler's Third Reich.
The teenage boys try to degrade Easy by calling him "nigger." Mr. Albright, like many white men in his time, calls Easy "boy" in order to express racial superiority. But expressions of racism go beyond language in Devil in a Blue Dress. Mr. Carter subjects Easy to "the worst type of racism" by treating him like an equal. Easy explains that by failing to recognize the racial difference between them, Mr. Carter acts as though Easy is lower than a human being. Moreover, Easy's experiences with the police typify interaction between the black and white communities. Mason and Miller take pleasure in humiliating the men they capture because it is their way of expressing their racial superiority. Easy explains in Chapter 22 that the police do not care about crime in the black community unless white people are the victims. He asserts: "The paper hardly ever even reported a colored murder. And when they did it was way in the back pages ... To kill a white man was a real crime." Mason and Miller want to pin Easy as a stereotypical, violent and animalistic Negro. But this racism is not exclusive to white men's thoughts. Mouse wishes that Easy would own up to this stereotype, which is what he sees as the "poor nigger['s]" destiny.
As we have seen, Mosley acknowledges the 'black and white' impression of post-World-War-II Los Angeles as defined by the government and the white community. Yet he uses the novel in order to shatter notions that race and racism are clear-cut. One example of this is Easy's interaction with his former boss, Benny. Benny is a first-generation Italian-American, and according to Easy he is darker than many mixed-race blacks he knows. But Benny feels superior to Easy because for all intents and purposes, he is white and Easy is black. Through Easy's relationship with Benny, Mosley suggests that race is not simply a matter of skin color. He fleshes out this point with the character of Daphne, who is "colored" despite looking completely white. Daphne's skin color makes her feel as though she does not belong in the black community. But her cultural background alienates her from the white community. Race is such a strong measure of identity that Daphne feels lost as a person without it. Even Easy is shocked to the core when he discovers that Daphne is black. He remembers, "I had only been in an earthquake once but the feeling was the same: The ground under me seemed to shift. I looked at her to see the truth. But it wasn't there. Her nose, cheeks, her skin color - they were white. Daphne was a white woman."
Even though racism is largely a dividing force in the novel, it also brings characters together. Easy feels a kinship with Primo, who is Mexican, simply because both are subjected to racism from the white community. They understand each other because "a Mexican and a Negro [consider] themselves the same. That is to say, just another couple of unlucky stiffs holding the short end of the stick." In the same vein, Easy feels connected to Abe and Johnny because they, as Jews and Holocaust survivors, are perhaps even more familiar with racism than he. He tells the reader, "In Europe the Jew had been a Negro for more than a thousand years." Such a multifaceted examination of race is not surprising coming from Mosley, who has heritage in both the black and Jewish communities. Mosley understands what it is to be discriminated against as an African-American, as a Jew, and as a person of mixed race. Perhaps it is because of this that his perspective on racial issues is so trenchant and complicated.