In the Shadows of Boundaries

Easy loves his ‘little home.’  Like young love on a balmy evening, he is jealous of her, because he knows that he is “just as good as any white man “ (9).  A transplanted Houstonian who in World War II gave his time for God and Country.  Like many others, Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins, author Walter Mosley’s protagonist in “Devil in a Blue Dress,” buys into the “California dream.”  Unfortunately, for this veteran, Easy Rawlins’s “American dream,” is deferred by racism just beyond the boundary of palm trees that dot the major boulevards separating Watts from the Westside, as if to say, so this is what you must compare your life with, which pales in comparison.  Some human boundaries are welcome, and other boundaries are accepted, while others are even, tolerated.  Then, there are those that society strictly forbids.  However, does one need to lose anything in order to give another fellow human being the most basic of respects?

Mr. Rawlins is black, and in the late 1940’s if you were to walk the streets of these racial boundaries which did not include Hollywood, you would more likely than not, witness written degrading racial quotes in public restrooms and thoroughfares, for instance the likes of “if you’re black, get back.  If you’re white, you’re all right.”  Mosley the writer depicts Los Angeles at a time when on the surface, was becoming, “heaven for the southern Negro.”  “People told stories of how you could eat fruit right off the trees and get work enough to retire one day.  The stories were true for the most part but the truth was not like the dream.  Life was still hard in L.A. and if you worked every day, you still found yourself on the bottom, ”  (27) remarks Ezekiel.  Easy’s view, as a black man, living on the outside of white society is from the inside of a boundary abandoned by whites, politically, culturally, and geographically.  “Devil in a Blue Dress,” captures the rich essence of a people, continuously lied to, and their identity, in that symbolically, South Central Los Angeles is to be described like the bottom of a well that, at one time was full, but now contains only the last few drops of the sweet nectar of the promise.  The promise of the “California dream.

In general, most people will attempt at least once in their lives to cross a cultural boundary of some sort, for example, cuisine.  Have you ever tried sweet potato pie, Black eye peas, corn bread, or greens?  Chances are you have tried at least one of these dishes.  There has also been a current upsurge in white female and black male dating, as opposed to the already accepted black female and while male relations that has been common since the days of slavery and Thomas Jefferson.  Mr. Mosley’s character is very uneasy about crossing racial boundaries as he travels to the Westside.  “We hadn’t even seen a police car on the ride and that was fine with me, because the police have white slavery on the brain when it comes to colored men and white women,” (91) Easy Rawlins remarks as he drives west.  There are some boundaries; we cross in our daily lives, without even giving it a second thought.  There will always be a few boundaries that humans for some reason, either rational or irrational never seem to cross, whether the reason is a social phobia, an illogical fear, or just plain ignorance.  Experiences are the staple of the soul.  The human soul needs different input to enlighten itself to make the right choices in life.  This need forces us to cross boundaries.  From these experiences come values, and a more sound judgment.

While Mosley’s protagonist is already accustomed to white people as he “ate with them and slept with them,” and he, “killed enough blue-eyed young men [in the war] to know that they were just as afraid to die,” (1) as he was when going to the Westside.  Easy is always conscious of his race because white society views the black man as dangerous.  In crossing over these racial boundaries, Easy remarks, “I was unhappy about going to meet Mr. Albright because I wasn’t used to going into white communities, like Santa Monica to conduct business,” (51) then his voice (thoughts) relents, “I never loitered anywhere except among my own people, in my own neighborhood (51).”

The metaphor of Watts in Mosley’s “Devil in a Blue Dress” produces a feeling that the lack of originality expressed in the landscape of this abandoned district, equates to the dullness of its resident’s lives.  Although for Easy Rawlins, it was just “another beautiful California day.  Big white clouds sailed eastward toward the San Bernardino mountain range.  There were still traces of snow on the peaks and there was the lingering scent of burning trash in the air, (44)” Easy confesses to himself as he returns home.

In fear that blacks would crossover their periphery, socially intermingle with the rest of society and dilute the pure Aryan bloodline, American cities like Los Angeles adopted illegal physical boundaries called Restrictive Covenants.  Early in the 1940’s, whites confined blacks to the Central Avenue area through mob intimidation, violence, and the use of these Restrictive Covenants.  A previous 1919 law made such ‘covenants’ enforceable by law.  Under association names like the West Adams Improvement Association, Caucasians attempted to remove black families from their homes in the Sugar Hill area of Los Angeles.  Rick Moss in the Fall 1996 edition of California History states, “In an effort to maintain the racial integrity of the all-white neighborhood, restrictive covenants that forbade the selling of property to African Americans and other minorities were often used to discourage integration.”

As their community grew in1922, the government came up with a new law called the “Cable Act,” which stated that people would lose their citizenship if they married a foreign national.  This heated debate may have taken just enough spotlight and unneeded attention away from South Central Los Angeles long enough for it to grasp its identity.

“Loren Miller, the famed Los Angeles civil rights attorney who successfully argued Shelley v. Kraemer, 334 U.S. 1 (1948), which struck down race based restrictive covenants in housing.”  (2) In the matter, the highest court in the land sided with Miller in that the real estate covenants, were a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment and was judicially unenforceable.  Restrictive Covenants were outlawed five years later in another ruling before the court.  In the spirit of the forty-four original Pobladores [founders of Los Angeles], black Americans made the “California Dream,” their California reality.

In an attempt to re-capture it’s spiritual essence and to begin to redefine its identity, Los Angeles became the first to begin to lay bare its slave-era past, by giving blacks their legal right, ”to testify for the first time in court against whites.”  (1) The ruling, while late in coming, expressed a possible future for African Americans in the Southland.  Since Los Angeles can claim the nations first city to employ Negro firefighters and Police officers, it became a Mecca for black migrants.  Their community began to slowly build and redefine itself, proportionately.

Some boundaries are more insidious than others are.  In the 1948 timeline of Mosley’s novel, Easy is continuously subjugated by white society as a result of boundaries that are expressed in both vague and restricted terms.  He loses his job, which is symbolic of his heated independence and yet, he clearly reaches for his slice of the American dream by drawing on his innate legitimacy.  Rawlins, a decorated veteran of World War II, is not an individual who endures discrimination with dignity and does not suffer fools gladly.  Mr. Rawlins relents, “You have to treat me with respect.  Now, I call you Mr. Giacomo because that’s your name.  You’re no friend to me and I got no reason to be disrespectful and call you by your first name.  I pointed at my chest.  My name is Mr. Rawlins,” (66) as he confronts Benny Giacomo, his ex-boss at Champion Aircraft.  Easy is a man who demands respect and justice or he is, “ready to fight (Mosley 98).”  He is clearly a man who wants to feel at home in society.  Nevertheless, Easy must live on his own terms and those terms are very basic, a job, his own home, a stable community and decent treatment from whites.

Natural features also define the geographical boundaries of Walter Mosley’s Los Angeles.  One of these is the San Bernardino mountain range to our north.  There is the Pacific Ocean to our west, and the Mojave dessert to our east.  County and city peripheries, freeways, and other landmarks mark other boundaries.  Watts is adjoined by; 107th Street on the north, 108th Street, Century Boulevard, Wilmington and Croesus Avenue on the east, Imperial Highway on the south, Compton Avenue and Central Avenue to the west.  These limits in 1965, while different than in “Devil in a Blue Dress,” and were ripe for change!  “ ‘Off-limits,’ native born author Lynell George says as she describes Watts expanding base, “for people of color in Los Angeles ran the gamut and took the pin to that well-rendered dream: not West of Main, not Glendale after dark, never ever Fontana and its dusty flatlands dotted with burning crosses.(George 222)”

What happens when communities, within these borders are exasperated through social indifference by society?  It reaches deep within and realizes its own collective worth, and changes.  It becomes an awesome presence, a political power to be respected.  The impetus of this change in South Central Los Angeles came in the summer of 1965, when on August 11, 1965, the Los Angeles Police pulled over a black male and his brother.  The police officers suspected the driver of driving drunk.  A group of residents began to congregate when police were questioning the two young men.  A struggle followed as police used their batons to subdue the two suspects.  As the crowd grew angry, tensions boiled over and the rioting began.  As the Watts Riots flamed for six days, it claimed the lives of over 30 human beings, and injured approximately 1,000 people.  After the smoke cleared, the community damage lay smoldering for the world to see what happens when a certain segment of society gets glossed over in social and human services.  In the following years, the community expected Los Angeles politicians to seriously take into account the residents of South Central L.A.  Some federal government services began to flow into the area, and a small number of, “bogus training schemes to cool out the streets during the long summers (Davis 302).”  Although black professional employment rose, the majority of semi-skilled workers were left to their own demise by corporate greed in sending American jobs overseas.

It would seem that after a wake up call of these proportions, one would think that the powers-that-be would take a lesson close to heart.  The building of public housing in Watts further isolated an already congested black community, and ghettoization was on.  By the turn of the1970’s, South Central Los Angeles was at full maturation.  Black Angelinos found living in Watts to be sorely overcrowded.  Already heightened racial tensions escalated when their growing numbers pushed the ghetto boundaries south and westward.  Although, no one was listening and no one cared enough.  In April of 1992, Neglect, indifference and ignorance, again paid their emblematic visit to an already wounded community.  Apathy kills!

Finally, with the knowledge that positive change takes years to bear fruit, whereas negative change happens in a New York second, Mosley’s depicts Los Angeles in a post-war employment expansion.  In this boom, Ezekiel Rawlins continues to bump into the paranoia of white society and deals with their mistrust and reactions to him.  He is saddened about the plunging state of race relations and color boundaries.  He finds that the California dream was not much of a dream at all, but the bottom of a well in as much that a factory job was, as he reflects, a “lot like working on a plantation in the South (Mosley 62).”

The final question to us all is that, will it be too late for us to learn that by denying ones humanity is to chain us to a repetition of the past?  What other minority groups in the United States corroborate the vicious experience of being methodically, institutionally and lawfully targeted in this manner as African Americans can?  “Devil in a Blue Dress” is a timely novel in that we live in a time of change, social upheaval, and justice demanded.  ‘We are paying for the sins of our fathers.’  Walter Mosley’s epic is the perfect novel to read, in this time of consequences wrought by generations of indifference, neglect, and hatred.  Mosley’s’ Los Angeles functions as a microcosm of America’s social ills.  We have come far, and we have so far yet to go.  In order to be a true integrated society, Los Angelinos must look into our collective past and finally sit down and deal with our shadows.  Evidently, we should make a sincere effort to come to terms with our own Rodney King before it is too late and we have our own Dred Scott (the impetus of the American Civil War).  The only way to cleanse this wound is to debride it.  Now, we heal!

Works cited

Mosley, Walter.  Devil in a Blue Dress.  Pocket Books 1st. edition, New York.  W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., July 1991.

Moss, Rick. Fall 1996 edition of California History

Loren Miller Bar Association.  About Us. 2003:  Home. TechnoJack Computer

Services.  May 17, 2004.

George, Lynell.  No Crystal Stair: African Americans in the City of Angels. Verso/New Left. 1 ed. New York. 1992,  pg. 222-223

Davis, Mike. “The Hammer and the Rock,”   City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles.  1 ed.  New York: Vintage/Random House, 1990.  pg. 302


About batai52

Brother, father, photographer, filmmaker, writer, artist, veteran, Iroquois/Scottish, aquarian and lover of Martinis "so dry you have to blow the dust off." There are many I admire: Maya Angelou, Ezra Pound, Morris Dees, Cornel West and Alan Alda (Hawkeye Pierce M*SH) for his art and activism. A true activist. Me? Heading towards being a feminist and I am working on my own human condition. Onward Together!
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