on Leonard Pitts, Jr.
When I founded Agate in 2003, I knew that I wanted to devote a good deal of my publishing program to books by African-American authors. In the early 90s, I’d gotten my start in book publishing at a small black-owned independent press in Chicago; this company had a brief success publishing books by black authors aimed principally at black readers not long before going out of business in the mid-90s. I believed that by publishing African-American writers, I could not only explore a niche that has been perennially underserved by the majority media, but also do work that I found particularly worthwhile. In American history, I believe that there have been a few major “stories,” as a reporter might describe them, which really distinguish our country’s life and culture. One is about individualism and free will. Another is about egalitarianism. I think this country’s commitment to its commercial identity—its sense of America as a place that’s “about” business, in a certain way—is another. And I think race—and specifically, the roles that African-American people have played and continue to play in this country—is perhaps the most important American story of them all.
I first encountered the work of Leonard Pitts, Jr. long ago in his newspaper column, which for many years has been syndicated to my hometown Chicago Tribune. Today, Pitts’s column appears in more than 200 papers, large and small, published across the country, and it’s a model specimen of the genre. It was a not a difficult decision to publish the first-ever collection of his columns, which has been titled Forward from this Moment, after a column he published immediately following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. This particular column was singled out by the Pulitzer committee for the 2004 Pulitzer for commentary.
What I most appreciate about Pitts’s work is everywhere evident in this collection. First, his mastery of the clean, simple, accessible voice that characterizes American journalistic writing at its best. Pitts is the farthest thing from a flashy writer. His model was the kind of newspaper writing perfected by those twentieth-century column-fillers for whom efficient expressiveness was everything.
Even more important, Pitts work is characterized by a patient, nondoctrinaire but insistent attention to the centrality of race to American life and history. I am always attracted to writers who work from deep within a particular point of view or orientation or tradition, but who are fearless about diverging from the orthodoxies that might be associated with them. Pitts is never afraid to dig deep into the most important issues and deliberately clarify what he sees as right and true from what he sees as sentiment, folly, or deceit. He is unapologetically devoted to what he sees as worth celebrating about Black America—starting with the great pop and soul music tradition that flourished in the Sixties and Seventies (when Pitts got his start in journalism working as a music critic)—but his has been an invaluable critical voice when it comes to analyzing the ways in which African-Americans fail each other, and fail themselves, within the context of surviving the manifold ways America has failed them.
Forward from this Moment is not the first book by Pitts that I have acquired for Bolden, the Agate imprint devoted to the work of African-American writers. That was Becoming Dad, a 1999 work that Bolden brought out in its first trade paperback edition in 2006. In this first book, Pitts addressed the subject that has been perhaps the central focus of his writing career—the vexed relations among black men in their roles as fathers and sons. The book’s subtitle, “Black Men and the Journey to Fatherhood,” goes a little way toward describing the challenges young black men face in growing up and trying to embrace their responsibilities as men in a world where black fathers have become progressively less present in the lives of their children. Pitts sees this situation as a crisis, albeit one that can only truly be addressed among black men (and women) themselves.
This subject is also at the heart of the second Pitts book I published, in March of this year, the novel Before I Forget. This is my personal favorite of Pitts’s three books, and though we haven’t discussed it (my editorial relationship with Pitts, though warm and mutually respectful, is not as intimate as those I’ve enjoyed with a few other Agate authors, not least I suppose because of his column obligations—the man is busy), I believe it is probably the one that means most to him. As a novelist, Pitts’s prose is characterized by the same strengths of clarity, simplicity, and utility that distinguish his nonfiction; it’s a deceptively effective tool not only for creating well-drawn characters who spring quickly to life on the page, but also for dissecting the knotty complexities afflicting relations among the three generations of African-American men at the book’s center. The soul music world that Pitts knows and loves so well provides the basic backdrop of the story (the central character is a faded singing star who peaked in the 70s), but the real setting is the charged emotional ground between two men who failed and abandoned their sons (and worse), and a third on the road to doing the same. These mens’ lives are blighted by violence, betrayal, and neglect, but Pitts’s aim is to uncover, explore, and honor their efforts to love and do right by each other.
Before I Forget is a somber and, in many ways, very old-fashioned book. Pitts believes in the virtues of deep, rounded characters and well-turned plotting studded with dramatic confrontations revelations. It’s a reminder of fiction’s traditional, indelible strength as a means of addressing the issues that affect our society. In the hands of a writer with a technique that’s this dispassionate and precise, this sort of informed, impassioned commitment to the stuff of his story yields a very powerful result.
Pitts is not alone in his preoccupation with this subject. As he has walked the unique and highly public cultural tightrope that has carried him to the presidency, Barack Obama—himself both a black father and a largely fatherless son (as well as the most famous member, I believe, of the Seminary Co-op)—has made African-American fatherhood one of the very, very few “racial” issues that he has addressed repeatedly since he began his run for that office. I can’t imagine another reader who would better appreciate the work of Leonard Pitts, Jr.
Doug Seibold is the President and Publisher of Agate Publishing.
Leonard Pitts, Jr. is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist; Forward from this Moment, a new collection of his commentary, is available at the Seminary Co-op Bookstores.
Posted in Editors Speak