In Leonard Pitts Jr.’s ‘Grant Park,’ Obama’s election becomes a night of reckoning

‘Grant Park.’ Leonard Pitts Jr. Agate Bolden. 400 pages. $24.95.
‘Grant Park.’ Leonard Pitts Jr. Agate Bolden. 400 pages. $24.95.

Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr.’s third novel, “Grant Park,” was released on Tuesday. This time, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist digs ever deeper into the past four decades of race relations in America, where two veteran journalists, a superstar black columnist and his unheralded white editor, must come to terms with the choices each made as young men during the Civil Rights Movement. This is the last of three excerpts the Miami Herald is publishing this week.

Malcolm’s disappointment with his own life was matched only by his sense of estrangement from American dreams.

Not only had he traveled 40 years to become again who he once was, but had not America done the very same thing? Look at all the young black men in jail or shot to death just for being black. Look at the poverty rate. Look at the unemployment rate. Look at the achievement gap. And look at these two, this ridiculous, delusional pair who fancied themselves an army of redemption, this raggedy little meth addict and his giant companion whose hatred, whose burning sense of birthright stolen, whose conviction that they had been done wrong by all the forces of history and change, was so palpable and deep they might as well have stepped into this warehouse straight out of 1953, 1921, or 1878. Looking at them, how could you believe time had passed? How could you believe progress — any progress — had been made?

So what good was any of it? What good were Malcolm’s years of writing columns, seeking by the force of his reason and the excellence of his words to cajole and convince white America? For that matter, what good were King’s speeches, what good was Malcolm X’s fire, what good were the NAACP’s court filings, what good were Jesse’s singsong rhymes or Stevie’s brotherhood songs, if at the end of it all, 40 years later, you wound up chained to a chair pleading for your life with a giant misanthrope who called you n----r in one breath and in the next cited to you events from the legend of Michael Jordan?

What good? What good? What damn good?

The question covered him like ground fog on tarmac. The realization did, too: Malcolm had wasted his life. It had all been for nothing.

“Looks like this is it.”

Pym’s voice tried to tug Malcolm up out of himself. He did not want to come.

What was the use of opening his eyes only to bear witness to some new obscenity or insanity? What was the point of being in the world if the world was only going to s--t on you and disappoint you and make you feel like a goddamn fool for ever having dreamed or believed? Malcolm did not want to open his eyes.

He opened them anyway.

Pym was standing, his hand cupping his mouth, calling to McLarty.

“Dwayne, you might want to see this.”

A moment later, McLarty came in, wiping his greasy hands on a greasy rag.

“What’s going on?” he said.

“They’re about to call the West Coast,” said Pym. “I think this is it.”

Malcolm looked at the screen. He blinked. He blinked again. Obama had 207 electoral votes, McCain, 135.

The white-haired anchor faced the camera. He looked drawn and sad, like a surgeon after a long night in the operating room about to tell a mother that her son has died on the table. “With results coming in from some key western states,” he said, “we are now ready to make a projection. Polls are closed now in California, Washington and Oregon and it appears — ”

The screen went black.

The screen went black!

Malcolm caught himself straining toward the dead computer.

“Fix it!” he told Pym.

“Battery died,” said Pym with a shrug.

The two of them stared at one another helplessly, silently. Then Malcolm heard it. It was a sound so faint that at first he wasn’t even sure it was a sound, wasn’t sure it wasn’t just his mind playing tricks on his ears. Then he saw Amy’s eyes and Janeka’s eyes, saw Pym looking meaningfully at McLarty, and he knew they all heard it, too. Distant and dim but real, carrying across the night and through the door of the old warehouse.

A roar of delirious joy lifted from Grant Park.

In that moment, something rose inside Malcolm that he had not expected and could not name. Something proud. Something with gnarled roots and feathered wings. He felt unexpected tears massing behind his eyes. He felt the painful warmth of dawn breaking behind his sternum. He saw Janeka, tears wetting her face, put her forehead to Bob’s and whisper something Malcolm could not hear. From somewhere deep within the cavern of his own suffering, Bob smiled.

It had happened.

Holy hell, it had happened.

Barack Obama had won the election. Barack Obama was going to be president. Of the United States. A black man, president. Holy hell.

“I guess that settles that,” said McLarty. “No turning back now. Time to do this time to do this time to do this. Go get the suits, Sergeant. Let’s get dressed. Let’s do this with style.”

Pym did as he was told, using his lantern to light his way to the other side of the cavernous room.

McLarty lifted his own lantern, casting harsh light upon his four captives. He grinned a malignant grin.

“I guess you n----rs and n----r-lovers are happy now. You got what you wanted. Your socialist n----r was elected. Old Hussein Obama goes up on the wall next to Ronald Reagan and all those other great men. Well, I wouldn’t celebrate too much if I was you. Because tonight is the night white Christian America finally wakes up and starts to take its country back.”