Walter Mosley: “The Awkward Black Man”

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Author, Walter Mosley. Photo by Marcia Wilson

Walter Mosley discusses writing characters that lack a perfect personality (whatever that is). These characters are awkward without being heroes: they have nervous breakdowns, struggle to make commitments, have been unfaithful—they break standards and ask the question, What is a happy life? Mosley writes for a deeper sense of humanity and a fun read, with inner lives that matter. “The Awkward Black Man” is a new book of short stories that brings readers into the middle of the experience of people today.

The National Book Foundation plans to present Mosley the 2020 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.

Excerpt from “The Awkward Black Man” by Walter Mosley.

My grandfather, and Sherman’s, was Theodore Brownley from Spiritville, Louisiana—a town that no longer exists.

Theodore moved to Brooklyn soon after the flood that washed Spiritville into the Mississippi in November 1949; at least that was what my cousin Sherman said that our grandfather told him. Grandpa Theodore came to Flatbush, bought an empty lot, built the house that Sherman was later born in, married Florida James from Brownsville, New York, and fathered three sons: Isaac, Blood, and my mother’s husband, Skill.

Florida bore their three sons in the first four years of marriage. The brothers Brownley courted three sisters born to Lucinda Cardwell, who lived with her brood across the street and down the block from the Brownley clan.

Three brides for three brothers, and, if you believe the rumors, there was some cross-pollination too.

My father, Skill Brownley, was married to Mint Cardwell. Our first cousin Theodora’s mom was Lana, and her father was Isaac. Blood married Nefertiti, then got killed in a bar fight just a year after she bore his son.

These names are very important because they are the stakes that hold down the billowing tent of my story, my lives. I am Stewart Cardwell-Brownley, born into the family of Skill Brownley— Grandpa Theodore’s youngest son. I have two brothers and one sister. Theodora had one sister and one brother. The three sisters that the Brownley brothers married had five other siblings. But the rest, even though I love them dearly, don’t figure much in the telling of my tale.

What matters is that Sherman, like his father, Blood, was killed in a street fight not three blocks from the house Theodore built. My first cousin Sherman did all things good and bad. He was a straight- A student, a Lothario of mythic proportions, nationally recognized for high school baseball and basketball, a devout Christian, a some- times heavy drinker, and a street fighter. His hunger for truth was equaled only by his thirst for life. He could never get enough, and his heart was all over the place. I was closer to him than to anyone else in the Brownley clan. Partly because, even though he was only a year older than I, Sherman was my protector and teacher; he taught me almost everything I knew, including, though it seems unlikely, most things I learned after his death.

As a youth I was never very good in school or at athletics; neither was I popular. My parents never pushed me much, but they always offered to help me with schoolwork, and my father played catch with me and my younger brother Floyd on fair days in Prospect Park, when he wasn’t putting in overtime at the machine shop.

I had three friends through all the years of public school. Bespectacled Mister Pardon, Fat Jimmy Ellis, and Ballard “the Perv” Ingram. We would hang out on the lunch court before and after school, trading comic books and gossiping about the sex exploits of everyone else.

Every now and then Sherman would join us, usually waiting to hook up with some girl. We liked him because he was the best of us, all of us. He ran faster, stood his ground no matter the odds, and he could recite every school assignment by heart. At church he sang with the gospel choir, and afterward he’d make out with one of the church daughters in the storeroom behind the dais upon which the choir performed.

But even though he was a blazing star among assorted lumps of clay, Sherman would join me and my friends on the lunch court just as if he was one of us, talking about the X-Men and teachers he couldn’t stand.

I remember one day he asked short, squinty-eyed Ballard the Perv what comic book character he wanted to be.

“Not,” Sherman stipulated, “the one you like the most but the one you would be if you could be.”

Ball, which is what we called Ballard sometimes, scrunched up his eyes and stared at my first cousin like he might be a cop who needed the right answer or else he would kick some ass.

Excerpted from THE AWKWARD BLACK MAN © 2020 Walter Mosley. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.