Author Walter Mosley told a story last night about how he almost backed out of delivering the closing lecture of the 18th annual Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium because he did not welcome the responsibility.
“I called my publicist and asked her to get out of coming here,” Mosley said during his lecture in Rackham Auditorium. His publicist told him that she would not get involved because he had already made the commitment.
Mosley did not want to come, he said, because he was aware of the risks of bearing witness, which would become the title of his speech. Bearing witness, he explained, is speaking out against cultural standards and for what you believe in.
“When we stand up for ourselves to bear witness we are alone and vulnerable,” Mosley said. “We are no longer invisible.”
Mosley, a black activist and author of the Easy Rawlins mystery novels, said he is dedicated to encouraging activism within the black community. With his book “What’s Next?” — his response to the war on terrorism — he tried to ignite a black peace movement. He said he believes black people have seen the negative side of America through their own oppression and are capable of changing the world for the better.
After Sept. 11, Mosley, whose apartment overlooks the World Trade Center site, said he talked to thousands of black people on the phone about the events. While all displayed patriotism, horror and sadness, only one black person was surprised that someone would want to attack the United States. Unlike most white Americans, Mosley said, black Americans can understand the terrorists’ antagonism toward the United States because of their own history of grievances with the government.
Among other things, Mosley criticized President Bush, America’s actions in Iraq and its refusal to recognize itself as a member of the world community.
“America’s a great country, but that doesn’t make it a smart country,” he said. “I think of myself as a sole witness to crimes that authorities don’t want to expose. Crimes of racism. Crimes of capitalism.”
Throughout his life as a writer, Mosley has found that fiction has been the best way for him to express those views. He said he had been writing fiction for years, mostly about the black experience in America, before he realized he had been expressing himself through his novels.
“I realized I had been bearing witness without knowing,” Mosley said. “The one thing you have to do to bear witness is to open your mouth.”
Most people learn at an early age not to do that, he said.
“We see things but we don’t say anything about them,” Mosley said. “Bearing witness is a dangerous occupation. An impossible task that has to be accomplished.”
He offered several strategies students can use to help them bear witness such as not blaming others and limiting statements to what they know is true.
LSA freshman Kylene Yen, who attended the speech, said she admired how he tried to motivate students.
Although Yen said she did not believe Mosley’s references to Iraq were appropriate, she praised his commitment to activism.
“I envied his passion for his political views,” Yen said.
LSA sophomore and MSA rep. Stuart Wagner said Mosley’s humorous yet practical demeanor could help bring cultural groups together.
“He’s someone who, I think, based on what he said, could bridge gaps between dichotomous groups,” Wagner said.
— Sarah Freedman and Pauline Lewis contributed to this report.