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Novelist Walter Mosley discusses race and identity at DSS lecture

Walter Mosley delivering the MLK Distinguished Speakers lecture

Walter Mosley talks with moderator David Schmid, associate professor of English, at Mosley’s Distinguished Speakers Series lecture on Feb. 28.
Photo: Steve Morse

By CHARLOTTE HSU

Published March 1, 2013

Americans need to look beyond the fictitious boundaries of race and see one another as individuals, bestselling novelist Walter Mosley said in an eloquent, provocative lecture on Thursday night at the Mainstage Theatre in the Center for the Arts.

“We live inside of a lie,” Mosley told the crowd, arguing that race in America is a fabricated, concocted concept that arose as a result of economic circumstances — originating at a time when the “white man” owned the “black man” and took the “red man’s” land.

Walter Mosley

These races that were so well-defined in America never existed before in the history of the peoples they categorized, Mosley said. Europeans in Europe weren’t white before they came to America, and Africans didn’t think of themselves or each other as black. Before colonizers arrived, American Indians were Arapahoe or Mohawk or Sioux — not one homogenous group.

Mosley’s talk, sponsored by UB’s Minority Faculty and Staff Association and Citizens Bank, was a UB Distinguished Speakers Series lecture and a highlight of the university’s 37th Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration Event.

Mosley’s written works span genres from crime, literary and science fiction to political commentary. Through his novels, he has created memorable characters that he describes as the kind of “fully formed, complex black men who have been absent from much of contemporary literature.”

In his talk, Mosley honored King by exhorting the attendees to think beyond the fictional boundaries of race to see the individual. His speech — a spoken essay that sounded at times like poetry — kept the audience riveted. His words were serious, but the stories he told to make his point managed to be both profound and humorous.

He shared, for instance, an encounter on a street, where a young black man was watching a young white man advertise a gay rave.

The young black man finally approached the young white man, calling him “brother” and asking, “Any bitches up in here?”

The young white man smiled and replied, “No, brother, just us niggas.”

“Things are changing in America,” Mosley said.

The audience laughed, but then grew quiet to ponder the true meaning of the narrative.

These races that were so well-defined in America never existed before in the history of the peoples they categorized, Mosley said. Europeans in Europe weren’t white before they came to America, and Africans didn’t think of themselves or each other as black. Before colonizers arrived, American Indians were Arapahoe or Mohawk or Sioux — not one homogenous group.

“Maybe the young people know something, have gotten to places that we weren’t able to get to,” Mosley said.

As Mosley moved toward the conclusion of his lecture, he asked the crowd to consider their commonalities as humans. The white man in America and the Chinese woman north of Beijing all have to breathe air, eat and take in water to live, he said. They age at more or less the same rate and speak languages older than any person alive today. They love and hate and quake at the vastness of the universe, he said.

“If I light a fire,” Mosley said, “smoke fills our air.”

When a person looks in the mirror, he or she doesn't see a black man or a white man or a Chinese woman. In the mirror, everyone sees the same thing: the self, an identity the extends beyond race, gender or even history. They see an individual who has experienced joy and endured despair.

“Joe never asks, ‘Who’s that white man in the mirror?’” Mosley told the audience. So why should Joe look at anyone else and ask that question? Race and identity are, in fact, easily separated.

Prior to Mosley’s talk, UB Minority Faculty and Staff Association President Jerry Linder welcomed the audience and presented an Academic Achievement Award to UB English student Marc Pierre and a Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship Award to UB political science and African American studies student Sharlene Green.

Reverend Tommie Babbs from Thankful Missionary Baptist Church delivered an invocation. UB Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Charles Zukoski discussed Mosley’s achievements and stature as a powerful social commentator, and UB Associate Professor of English Hershini Young introduced the speaker.