My number-one columnist is Leonard Pitts Jr., and he has been that way since I “discovered” him. But my memory seems fogged on when that was.
I’m clear, though, that Pitts was already famously writing when I stumbled upon his column while probing a variety of newspapers.
Admittedly, the fact that this writer – who is published in some 200 newspapers across our nation – happens to be African-American certainly heightened my immediate interest.
But, you see, in the final analysis, it would not matter if Pitts were green with pink tentacles and blue-webbed feet: His ability to think through issues with an extraordinary clarity, and to communicate as a master craftsman, is what ultimately counts. In that way, Pitts is somewhat like Michelangelo or Miles Davis – just masterful.
Pitts is so at one with his craft that he talks like he writes. He converses with the reader. A room full of admirers at the Broward County Main Library in downtown Fort Lauderdale last month listened to him speak and read from his new novel, Before I Forget.
For me, it was the conversation that followed, the question-and- answer period, that spoke volumes about Leonard Pitts Jr. That’s when we witnessed the man think on his feet and articulate, clearly and meaningfully, and without affectation.
Before I Forget is a great read. The central focus of the book is on roughly three generations of black rage. The main character, Mo Johnson, a once-popular 1970s soul singer, just got news that, at 49 years old, he is facing early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease.
He is comfortably middle class, and rides a black Escalade. He is called “The Prophet” based on a hit record he recorded many years ago. Some celebrity is the only good thing that’s happened to him.
He has a 19-year-old son, Trey, who is an aspiring rapper with his own 4-year-old son. Trey calls himself “Profit” and participates in a convenience-store robbery with two friends to get money to produce a demo CD.
One of Trey’s stickup buddies shoots and murders the store owner. In addition to regrets Mo has about his relationship with his tuned-out-son, Trey, Mo has not talked to Jack, his own father, in 30 years.
When Mo learns that Jack is dying of cancer, he takes Trey on a long road trip from Baltimore to Los Angeles, where he grew up, to see Jack and say goodbye. A lot happens during the long Escalade ride, including a “driving-while-black” confrontation.
Pitts, like a great painter, pleasingly blends form and color. Like Miles Davis or John Coltrane, he delves into intervals, rhythms and tonal qualities. He gives us other characters, textures and sub plots specific to the overriding theme of black male anger.
There is a portion of the novel’s inside cover flap description that sticks with me. Like a montage, it describes the trip a reader takes: “. . .both an in-depth anatomy of black fatherhood and a multigenerational road story that spans rural Mississippi in the ‘40s, swinging South Central L.A. in the ‘50s, the soul music scene of the ‘70s, right up to present-day Baltimore and Las Vegas.”
If you have never read Leonard Pitts Jr., please get this wonderful novel, and also read his column every Sunday and Wednesday in The Miami Herald. His talent is, indeed, rare.
On another note, we are very fortunate here in Broward County to have a top-notch library executive who constantly pushes for quality cultural programs. Tanya Simons-Oparah, the library system’s outreach services director, has been the force behind this movement for years, and was responsible for bringing Pitts to us.
We can only hope that she does not leave us before some highly trained folks are in place to carry her vision further.
Too many policy makers and bureaucrats tend to exhibit uncultured tastes, especially when planning and budgeting.
Someone who will not give up the fight must always be there to protect the people’s interests.