Newspaper columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. is both fascinated and frustrated with how perceptions of race, culture, and what constitutes progress have evolved in this country in the 40 years between Martin Luther King's assassination in 1968 and the election of Barack Obama in 2008. "So much has changed," he says., "but it has not changed nearly enough."
Referring to the shooting of an unarmed black man in Ferguson last year and the death in police custody more recently in Baltimore, Pitts argues that Americans repeatedly "take two steps forward and then one step back" when it comes to race relations. "Right now, it's one step back." Describing the national dialogue regarding race as "happy talk about progress," Pitts complains that Americans aren't dealing with the problems that remain, despite having elected an African-American as president. "We talk at race and around race, and not about race," he notes. "We don't have the language to talk about it."
Pitts is hoping to "fire up some dialogue" about race with his third novel, Grant Park (Agate Bolden, Sept.), which features an African-American journalist and his white editor, both veterans of the 1960s civil rights movement, who collide on the eve of Obama's election as president. Malcolm Toussaint, the journalist, is "sick and tired of being sick and tired" of how Americans deal with race after hearing of an unarmed African-American being shot by Chicago police even as people are celebrating Obama's historic presidential campaign and certain victory over John McCain. After writing an incendiary column full of anger that his editor, Bob Carson, rejects, Toussaint hacks into the newspaper computer system so that his column runs after all. Toussaint then disappears—he's actually kidnapped by white supremacists—leaving Carson to take the fall.
"It's a little crazy, but it hangs together well," Pitts says. "I wanted a plot that's just absurd enough to be real."
Comparing the real-life police shootings of African-American men to the fictional shooting in his novel that propels the plot forward, Pitts says that he "knew that Grant Park was timely, but I could not be coming out at a better time."
Pitts signs galley copies of Grant Park today in Agate's booth (940), 2-3 p.m.
This article appeared in the May 28, 2015 edition of PW BEA Show Daily.