Pulitizer Prize winner Leonard Pitts tackles the politics of the human condition in his debut novel and collection of columns.
In the foreword for his new collection of columns, Leonard Pitts, Jr. writes that he finds it difficult to describe what his twice-weekly column for the "Miami Herald" is about. The best he can offer is a line that he once saw in promotional material that said his column is about "the politics of the human condition." It's actually a fitting description. There is no rhyme or reason to the topics that the Pulitzer Prize winning syndicated columnist tackles. In "Forward from this Moment: Selected Columns, 1994-2009," it's made clear that Pitts writes about anything and everything that attracts him—offering an honest take on a host of issues including feminism, racism, plagiarism, gangsta rap, fatherhood, Barbie, and Thomas Jefferson.
The book's title was inspired by "We'll Go Forward from this Moment" his highly popular 2001 column about September 11 that ran the following day. Like that timely response, Pitts ensures that he weighs in on the news of the day whether it's the Duke rape case, Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick or Michael Vick.
He has a knack for using the seemingly innocuous as an entry to riff on a bigger concern. A 2003 column about PJ Squares, a ready-made peanut and belly combination that saves time when making a sandwich, discussed how our obsession with convenience and our "crammed" schedules take us away from the simple pleasures of life, such as preparing and eating a relaxed breakfast before our days get started.
You may not always agree with him. And there are times, when discussing the plight of black folk in particular, he dishes out tough love or condescension, depending on how you take his words. Whether you agree or disagree, like or dislike him, there’s no denying that Pitts is damn good at what he does. The ability to make millions of readers think, laugh, pout, scowl and respond to an opinion confined within a tight word count is far from easy (he averages 2,500 email responses weekly). Yet, Pitts makes it look as such every Sunday and Wednesday.
The release of his column collection comes on the heels of the publication of his first novel "Before I Forget," which came out earlier this year. Like his column, Pitts’ debut work of fiction is about many things: generational conflicts, the downfalls of pride, fatherhood, the strife between parents and their children, the meaning of family, the burden of secrets, and quite frankly, the politics of the human condition. While it can be difficult for journalists (or anyone for that matter) to find their voice in fiction, Pitts doesn't stumble. He strolls and bops, manipulating his talent of observation and analysis to pen a narrative that compels you to follow where he's going.
The book centers on Moses Johnson, a former soul star of the 70's known as "The Prophet," who upon learning that he has early onset Alzheimer's, is on a quest to right the wrongs in his life. These responsibilities include coming clean with the son whose life he was hardly a part of and visiting the dying father whom he hated. The quest takes Moses on a cross-country drive with his nineteen-year-old son, Trey, who's on bail for his role in an armed robbery.
Along the journey, which, by the way, is backed by a soulful soundtrack, secrets are revealed, truths are exposed, but father and son begin to mend a broken relationship. Back home, Tash, Trey's mother, and the woman who Moses let slip from his life, must confront a series of conflicts, including fostering a relationship with the other grandmother of her grandson, nurturing her strained relationship with her boyfriend, protecting her family from a mysterious stranger, and maintaining her faith in God.
In many ways "Before I Forget" is a sad novel—one that illuminates the depressing lives we lead, that we've often created for ourselves. Pitts points out our faults: parents who enable their children in unhealthy ways, young men who put their reputation before common sense, and older men who embrace stubbornness even if it threatens their survival. He shows us however, that our actions, even the hurtful and stupid ones, are rarely executed in a bubble. Unlike his column, the novel form allows Pitts to fully give his subjects context. He takes us into the household of LaShonda, the young, pregnant mother of Trey's son, to show how her strained relationship with her own mother has helped to shape her perceptions. He gives us a three hundred and sixty degree view of Dog, the brother of one of Trey's friends, whose decision to follow the murderous code of the streets is spurred by pressures from his family.
But if you've read Pitts columns, you know he isn't about excuses. He is however, about trying to make sense of and untangle the messes that we humans create. And in "Before I Forget," as in his column, Pitts reminds us that when we strive to be better, to correct mistakes, to grow, to make the right, yet hard decisions, we improve and heal the human condition.
Apparently the program that showed children why reading is important, isn't actually all that important.
Okay, I'll admit that I haven't seen “Reading Rainbow” in probably twenty years since I was a bright-eyed kid sitting in front of the television following LeVar Burton bring the world of books to life. I did find it a tad corny, but tuned in regularly because I liked books. And subconsciously, I'm sure, because Burton is black. And he talked about books. How often do you see a black man talking about books on television? There wasn't (isn't?) a show like it. I felt connected to it. Over the program's twenty-six years, I'm sure there were many kids who felt the same way.
So I'm actually sad about the show's departure from the small screen. NPR reports that "Reading Rainbow" was the third longest-running program in PBS history after "Sesame Street" and "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."
What's probably more sad about the loss of "Reading Rainbow" are the reasons that NPR notes as the causes for the program’s cancellation. First: No one, including PBS, wants to foot the bill. Second: Funding in education is concentrating on initiatives that teach children to read, not ones that encourage them to read or show them why reading is important in the first place. Tragic.
While I agree that we have to teach kids to read, we have to simultaneously foster a need and desire to read. And that's what "Reading Rainbow" helped to do.
Well at least it did for this kid.
More than fifty years later, Carlotta Walls LaNier of the Little Rock Nine discusses integration, a post-racial America, and finally telling her story.
Carlotta Walls LaNier was just fourteen when she and eight other teenagers made history by integrating Little Rock Central High School in 1957. Her story of surviving hatred, hostility, and hardships to go on and become the first black girl to walk across the stage of Central High and receive a diploma is recounted in "A Mighty Long Way: My Journey to Justice at Little Rock Central High School," co-written with Lisa Frazier Page.
More than fifty years later, LaNier, the youngest of the Little Rock Nine, speaks around the country about her experiences and serves as president of their foundation, which provides scholarships to college-bound students. Here, she talks with Books on the Root about a post-racial America, changing minds, and the ordinary hero in all of us.
Books on the Root: You wrote that you hadn't intended anything heroic when you signed up to attend Central. Had you known all that was going to come from integrating the school—both the good and the bad—do you think you would have decided differently?
Carlotta Walls LaNier: I would do it again because of the good that did come out of it. When I speak to classes, I let them know that if we had not been successful, I don't think that [white students] would be sitting with students of color. With [integration] you learn from other cultures. You listen, talk, and you get to know one another. You find that we all want the same thing.
BOTR: What was going through your mind on September 25, 1957 when the U.S. military had to escort you and eight other teenagers into Central?
CWL: We were finally in school as we should have been. We had been out of school for three weeks. My true fear was that I was so far behind that I couldn't compete. I always felt that given the same opportunities, start time, and access, I could compete with anyone. During my day and possibly today in subtle ways, you had to be twice or sometimes three times as good as a white person. So I felt like I had to be a super Negro in the classroom.
BOTR: Did you find yourself playing that role inside and outside the classroom?
CWL: It was very clear that we could only go to school. We could not participate in any extracurricular activities. Prior to Central, I had been captain of the basketball team, a cheerleader, and vice president of student council. I knew I was given those up, but thought that after some time, those opportunities would open up again. They didn't. So the number one goal was doing well in your classroom.
BOTR: It must have been difficult to focus on education in the midst of so much hostility. How did you manage?
CWL: I always knew who I was. I wasn't at Central to change anyone's mind. Although, I felt that minds would change as they got to know me. I wasn't there to be happy sitting next to a white person. I wanted what they were getting: a good education.
BOTR: Do you feel like you were changing minds, though?
CWL: I think some people respected me. Some probably had different thoughts about us that went against stereotypes. I don't think anyone was there to love me, and I didn't expect that. I did gain respect from some of them, by virtue of what I had to go through. Not that anyone of them said that to me though.
BOTR: Governor Faubus closed Central and the other Little Rock high schools for a year after the '57-58 school year as a way to avoid desegregation. When the school reopened you were one of the two students from the Little Rock Nine to return. Why did you go back?
CWL: I needed that diploma. I needed to go back to validate that all the things I had gone through were worth it. Determination and perseverance got me through.
BOTR: For thirty years, you didn't speak about your experience at Central and all that your family went through. What made you finally able to revisit your experiences and discuss them in a book and around the country?
CWL: The first time that all nine of us were together again and returned to Central was thirty years later. The event was a news item on CNN. It was an emotional time. I was getting a number of requests to speak to civic and history classes. I didn't want to at first, but the more I thought about it, I thought it was necessary. My children were growing up and I knew that they really needed to know.
For a long time, I had pushed everything that had taken place to the recesses of my mind. It took a long time to get to where I am today.
BOTR: Is it surprising that the nine of you are still a tight knit group after more than fifty years?
CWL: No. Many can't say that they have eight close friends from high school. I stay in contact with everyone. There are nine different personalities and nine different stories. This book just happens to be mine. Not all of us stayed in contact for the first thirty years. Everyone was finding their own way. But I feel blessed that we are all alive today and that all of us were able to experience the 50th anniversary.
BOTR: Did you ever think you'd see the day we'd have a Black president?
CWL: Initially, as a young person in my Central and college days, I thought we might see a Black president. But as the years went on and things weren't moving as fast as I thought they should be, I thought that my children would see an African-American president. I'm moved by the fact that I've lived long enough to see it.
In my community though, we heard that we could be president; my parents always told me I could be anything I wanted to be. I know that part of the reason why our parents told us this was to motivate us, even if they didn't believe it. It was something inspirational to give us. But as reality set in, you started to wonder if it was possible. Education was always the key to success. We were always told that if you have credentials—master's and doctorate degrees—behind you, you could get through the door. Some got disenchanted when they had everything checked off the list to be vice president and president, and weren't getting it. Many became cynical. But I always liked to look at the glass as half full.
BOTR: There's a lot of talk about America's potential to be post-racial. What do you think is required to make this a reality?
CWL: It's going to take awhile. You can't assume because we have an African-American president that the race issue is said and done. Take for instance, what happened to Skip Gates. That in itself shows that it's going to take a lot for people to see people as people. I do feel that the younger generation can do that if they're minds aren't tainted by racism. But I think that young people need to go to school and grow up in communities together. We need more interaction among each other to dispel myths and stereotypes. But economics plays a big role. If you don't have money to move into a particular neighborhood, you can't do it. This affects all types of people no matter what color you are.
BOTR: What always amazes me is that you were just fourteen years old when you helped to integrate Central. It seems that many young people don't know their own strength. How can we remind them that they are powerful enough to affect change in their lives, community, and world?
CWL: When I tell my story, I make it a point to let youth know that we were just teenagers. It has empowered many of the young people I talk to. They have come up to me after my presentations to tell me that hearing what I went through inspired them to do better. You never know how much you can change a person or help to put them on another or better path.
BOTR: You make a great point in "A Mighty Long Way" that your family may have seemed unlikely candidates for helping to spark nationwide change, but that the point in sharing your story is "to show that determination, fortitude, and the ability to move the world aren't reserved for the ‘special' people."
CWL: You are absolutely correct. It takes ordinary people to do extraordinary things. Often we don't know what it is, so something needs to be tapped to bring that out. There's a hero and shero in all of us. In almost every one of his speeches, the President speaks of service. There is something that everyone can do. Volunteer for one hour out of your week at a school in your community. Grow a garden and give food to an elderly person. I don't like to see people who just sit around and do nothing. We all have something to give.
Want to travel to another country? Be introduced to a new culture? Consider these multicultural titles.
Travel across continents, countries, and cultures in this edition of Books on the Root's Reading List.
The Sound of Water
By Sanjay Bahadur
Atria, June 2009
The former director of the India Ministry of Coal takes on the treacherous and exploitative conditions of the Indian mining industry and humanizes the lives of workers and their families.
A Disobedient Girl
By Ru Freeman
Atria, July 2009
A literary debut that tackles class issues in Sri Lanka by following the journeys of two women who are seemingly different, yet share common bonds.
Voices of the Desert
By Nélinda Piñon
Clifford E. Landers
Knopf, August 2009
The award-winning Brazilian author retells the legendary story of "One Thousand and One Nights” from the perspective of Scheherazade.
By Raul Ramos y Sanchez
Grand Central, July 2009
Riots, racist vigilantes, and radical Latino activists ignite a divided America in this political thriller.
R. Dwayne Betts spent nine years in prison. His new memoir chronicles his coming of age and path toward published writer.
R. Dwayne Betts was a 16-year-old honor student when he carjacked a man. It was 30 seconds that would forever change lives. Thirty seconds that he, his mother, nor his victim could ever get back. It was 30 seconds that would eventually lead Betts to spend nine years in prison.
His first book, "A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison," chronicles his coming of age behind bars. The writing is deliberate and contemplative; hints of his lyrical side creep through. It's a memoir obsessed with words and how those words transformed over time, through different situations. Words like statistic, inmate, state number, maintaining, visceral. Words like Reginald and Dwayne acquired new interpretations as Betts tried to avoid and accept the name that he shares with his absent father, a convicted felon.
"A Question of Freedom" is also a bibliography of sorts. Props to reading material that Betts consumed in prison—like asha bandele's "The Prisoner's Wife," John Edgar Wideman's "Brothers and Keepers," Sonia Sanchez's "Under a Soprano Sky" and Dudley Randall's "The Black Poets". These were books that stuck to his ribs, helped him to move forward, and pushed him to pursue a career as a writer. Now, as a college graduate and published poet (his debut collection "Shahid Reads His Own Palm" drops next year), 28-eight-year-old Betts reminds us that liberation can be found in the written word.
BOTR: In your memoir, you wrote: "I've always wondered why the books I read before I'd gotten locked up didn't save my life, especially since everyone I'd met in prison could see how writing and reading changed my vision of the world." This passage struck me on many levels. I know there aren't any easy answers, but what are some of the reasons you think this was the case?
R. Dwayne Betts: The main reason for me is that as a child I'd read in isolation. I'd never been in a position to be challenged about what I thought these writers were saying, and I'd never been in the position to question others about what they might have been saying. When I write this, it sounds simple, but I believe, I fundamentally believe, that we all understand how growth and development comes through the way we engage with the world—yet, for most young people, they never have the chance to engage critically with the world of literature—at least I never did.
BOTR: What would you say to those who believe that black boys aren't interested in reading or writing?
RDB: I think I'd have to address the men around those black boys first. Reading is an acquired taste, but it starts very young. Unfortunately, many adults either read in isolation the way I did as a child, or they don't consciously push reading as a means of socializing. I'd suggest that the adults around them create a space in which they could come together and talk about books and see how books echo life and vice versa. The other thing is that most of the young folks who don't like reading, have had very few books of their own. This is a problem. You can't expect a young person to like reading when it's never been treated by people around them as if its as important as sports, or cleaning your room or doing your homework. My son is 20 months. He has about 20 little basketballs and footballs that my wife and I have bought him and that friends have bought him—he has just as many books. His world is both—toys and books.
BOTR: There have been a number of black men who have discovered their passion for the written word in prison, which also helped them to (re)discover themselves. What has reading and writing taught you about yourself then and now?
RDB: I've learned that I'm more flawed and complicated than I once thought, and that the world is far richer than I ever dreamed it was as a child. I also learned that while I can't dance, can't sing, and can't play any instrument particularly well—I can hear the music and words, and on a good day make them sing.
BOTR: Toward the end of your book, you admitted: "Almost every one of my moments outside of prison has been filled with me fighting to be defined by something other than prison." How are you managing this ongoing struggle?
RDB: I'm doing pretty good. It's one of those things where opportunities beget opportunities and I've been fortunate to have a support system that is both strong and talented. I can't complain at all. I think now the question has become how to deal with the memories.