Human Observer

Illustration for article titled Human Observer

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.


is a writer, speaker, author of books for adults and youth, and the book columnist for The Root. Her most recent book is \"The Message: 100 Life Lessons from Hip-Hop’s Greatest Songs.\" Visit her at