Aug 1, 2005
Little Scarlet, a murder mystery by Walter Mosley, is set in Los Angeles, during the 1965 Watts riots. We see the events through the eyes of Easy Rawlins, a private investigator who is a regular feature in many of Mosley's novels.
A black man who grew up poor in the South, Rawlins identifies with the people in L.A.'s black neighborhoods who exploded in anger at one too many indignities. But at the same time, he is uneasy about the wisdom of rioting. He worries about the loss it causes, in both lives and property. And trying to protect a neighbor – a white shopkeeper whom he knows as a decent man – Rawlins almost gets into a fight with a black rioter.
Yet Rawlins finds himself standing up to the racist attitudes of white people, especially cops, in ways that before the riot he normally wouldn't have done. And this surprises him. In fact, the riots have had a profound effect on him.
Rawlins sees the same kind of change of attitude in other black people, and he realizes that white people, including cops, have been forced to change their attitudes, too – even if grudgingly. The determination of those black masses in the streets has demanded respect from the cops and, more generally, the white population.
Through the lives of some of the people around Rawlins, Mosley gives us a hint that the changes were not just formal and superficial. One direct consequence of the riots is, for example, that companies go out of their way to hire more black employees, including for better-paying positions.
The story contrasts the riots with other ways in which people try to escape the suffocating constraints of racism – trying to hide behind light skin-color, for example. Even if these efforts may seem to provide some individual relief from racism, the reality of this racist society eventually catches up with these individuals. And the consequences can be tragic, as they are in this novel.
Through fiction, Mosley in Little Scarlet does something history textbooks choose not to do: to explore what a momentous event in history really meant to the people who were part of it.