Leonard Pitts, Jr.
Leonard Pitts, Jr. is a nationally syndicated columnist, novelist and winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize. He was originally hired by the Miami Herald to critique music, but within a few years he received his own column in which he dealt extensively with race, politics, and culture. He has won awards for his writing from the Society of Professional Journalists and the American Society of Newspaper Editors.
I recall the first time I read a column by Leonard Pitts in the Atlanta Journal. It must have been at least ten years ago. I remember thinking, "I love this man, he thinks like me!" How's that for narcissism? Well, we all like people who think like us, don't we?
In 2009 I was thrilled to find out that I would be his rep for his first novel, Before I Forget,
which is an especially powerful generational novel of, among other things, how the beginnings of Alzheimer's can profoundly (and ironically) have a very positive effect on a father and son relationship.
Then, in 2012, came Freeman, a post-civil war love story with shades of Ulysses. I wholeheartedly recommend them both.
Here's what Publisher's Weekly had to say:
And from Books & Books in Miami:
"This book is a bold and provocative take on politics, race, and recent US history—and yet another demonstration that Leonard Pitts, Jr., long recognized as one of America’s best columnists, has emerged as an important voice in contemporary American fiction."
Below are Leonard's answers to my questions and his incredibly moving and meaningful response to the time travel question. Enjoy.
Tell me about where you live and why you love it so much.
I live in the greater DC area and I think the best thing about that for me is the ability to go down to the Library of Congress whenever I need to research some arcane point or pull a 100-year-old copy of some small town newspaper. For a history buff, that’s as close as Earth gets to heaven. I also like living in Prince George’s County, which is the best-educated and most-affluent majority African-American county in the country. Given the tenor of the country these days, it’s nice to be able to walk out my front door and see the results of successful African-American striving.
Where were you living when you were 7 years old?
At 1316 Via la Reina St. in Aliso Village, a housing project just northeast of downtown L.A. Neither the housing project nor that address still exist. http://laforum.org/content/articles/same-difference-baldwin-hills-and-aliso-villages-by-liz-falletta
Did you have a favorite teacher and are you still in touch with him or her?
Lloyd “Bud” Jacobs, was my English teacher in high school. For awhile, I felt like I was stalking the poor man; when my book “Becoming Dad” came out in 1998, I tracked him down and gave him an autographed copy. In 2004, when I won the Pulitzer Prize, I tracked him down again because I wanted to show him. I started to get worried he was going to put out a restraining order, so I left him alone after that. But year before last, I was doing a book signing in L.A. for “Freeman” and who do I see sidle in to the store but “Mr. Jake?”
Is there a book that changed the way you look at life?
Maybe “Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck; the last scene is such an incredible statement of shared humanity.
Do you have a favorite children’s book?
“Beezus and Ramona” and “Ramona the Pest” by Beverly Cleary and the “Curious George” books by H.A. Rey
Why would you say these two in particular? What about them made them stand out and mean so much?
With the Curious George books, I remember loving the detail in the drawings - all the facial expressions and the background action.. With the Beverly Cleary books, I just got a kick out of Ramona's knack for getting into unintended trouble.
What are the funniest or most embarrassing stories your family tells about you?
My sister loves to tell how, when we were kids, she found half a doughnut in the weeds of a vacant lot and offered it to me. Greedy Petey that I was, I failed to notice that most of the powdered sugar was gone and the thing was so nasty-looking she was holding it in a potato chip bag. All I saw was a free doughnut. Took the biggest bite I could.
Is there any message you want to give to or anything you want to say to your great-great-great grandchildren when they read this?
“Kids. Go find a Motown album – preferably by the Temptations – and give a listen. Assuming music still exists in your era, I promise you: this is better than anything you’re listening to now.”
How did you meet your wife? How did your first date go?
We met in the 5th grade and her name was Marilyn. I had a crush on her, but it was unrequited. She hardly knew I was alive. Our first date would have been maybe 12 years later. We went to see the O’Jays at the Greek Theater in L.A. It went fine, except that at a party beforehand, we ran into Louis Price, who was then singing lead with the Temptations. He used to see me all the time with my ex-girlfriend Josette and they had a friendly, bantering relationship. As I’m introducing Lou to Marilyn, he gives her a perfunctory greeting, then asks, “Where’s Josette?” One of these days, I need to talk to him about that major breach of Guy Code.
IF YOU COULD GO BACK IN TIME
be safe from harm, be rich, poor or in-between, if appropriate to your choice,
actually experience what it was like to live in that time, anywhere at all,
meet anyone, if you desire, speak with them, listen to them, be with them.
When would you go?
Where would you go?
Who would you want to meet?
And most importantly, why do you think you chose this time?
I struggle with this.
Indeed, I am tempted to answer the question differently, tempted to say that, if given my druthers of any time and place in history to visit, I’d want to go to Washington, DC in April of 1865 and warn Abraham Lincoln to skip the play, or to Memphis, TN in April of 1968 and warn Martin Luther King not to stand on the balcony. And those answers would be truthful, but not the truth.
Because, given that choice, the fact is that I would want to be in Jerusalem during the week of the Crucifixion. I would want to see what happens. Doubting like Thomas, I suppose.
One of my favorite verses in the Bible is found in the ninth chapter of the book of Mark. A father has come to Jesus, begging him to heal the man’s demon-possessed son. “If you can do anything,” says the distraught father, “take pity on us and help us."
"'If you can'?" said Jesus and one imagines an eyebrow arching. “Everything is possible for him who believes.”
To which the desperate father replies, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”
And has any statement ever more perfectly summed up the conundrum of belief? Has any statement ever more perfectly proven that faith is often alloyed with doubt?
Some years ago, I pondered that theme in my newspaper column. The essay dealt with the ways – not all of them praiseworthy – in which religious people had responded to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and with their attempts to incorporate an act of mass murder into a narrative of faith.
“Some people,” I wrote, “will never believe. Some people will always believe without question. And some people - most of us, I suspect - will always believe with question.”
That last would seem to encompass the vast majority of us. Nor is that necessarily a bad thing.
People who believe without question tend to be the literalists and smug fundamentalists who are prone to mistaking their thoughts for God’s, their will for God’s, their voices for God’s, the ones for whom questions and independent thought become heresy, the ones who happily sacrifice their very humanity upon an altar of piety.
People who will never believe – meaning not those who don’t, but those who cannot - tend to be the ones who feel only that which can be quantified can be real, the ones who think only that which can be proven by formulae or demonstrated by theorem truly exists, the ones who sacrifice the poetry and mystery of this existence upon an altar of rationalism.
There is a hubris to be both, the one thinking she has divined the very mind of God, the other thinking anything that cannot fit in the box of his imaginings and perceptions must not be real.
And then (“I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”) there are the rest of us, believing with questions.
We muddle through, balancing that small, sweet pressure in the soul which assures us God is nigh, with that rational voice in the mind which insists God is naught. It is an uneasy existence, lacking the hard certainty of the two extremes. But lacking their blind spots, too.
More, it is an existence that requires a certain humility, a certain surrender, an acceptance that some things are beyond your knowing and always will be. You spend a lifetime mastering the difficult trick of being all right with that.
So yes, Jerusalem in the week of the Crucifixion. Do I get a digital recorder and a notepad? (“Hey, Jesus. You got a moment? Can we talk?”) Jerusalem in the week that laid the foundation of the modern world, that’s where I would want to be. Witness to the triumphant entry. Witness to the cruel betrayal. Witness to the last supper. Witness to the brutal beating. Witness to the forced march. Witness to the cross.
And then…a quiet morning at the tomb, witness waiting for the stone to roll away. Waiting to see.
Or maybe not. Maybe waiting somewhere along the road and listening for the first shouts of the Good News would be enough. More to the point, maybe it should be enough. Even there and even then, the conundrum would be the same, I suppose: the need for fact verses the demands of faith, and the struggle to walk in balance between the two.
Lord, I do believe…
Thank you Leonard for one of the most thought provoking and honest answers to my time travel question.