Leonard Pitts Jr. knows a few things — or a few million things — about racism. The Pulitzer Prize-winner writes regularly about the issue with passion and intelligence in his syndicated newspaper column. Now he examines the topic in his latest novel, the hard-hitting Grant Park, in which he channels the rage over the state of racial affairs in America into one character in an eloquent and provocative way.
This timely work focuses on African-American newspaper columnist Malcolm Toussaint and his white editor, Bob Carson, both of whom were involved in the Civil Rights movement as idealistic young men. The novel moves smoothly back and forth from the tumultuous 1960s to the modern day.
Life may have been idealistic in the ’60s, but these days, award-winning Chicago columnist Toussaint “just gets tired” when he learns that yet another unarmed young black man was fatally shot by police. At 60, he’s tired of a lot things: the demise of the responsibility and respectability of daily journalism, being alone after his wife’s death, of not being able to talk to a real person at the other end of the phone. But what tops that list is that he’s completely fed up with the fact that 40 years ago, he thought he and others could “change the world” — and they didn’t.
So Toussaint pens a scathing column before Election Day in 2008. “I’m sick and tired of white folks’ bulls---.” He includes an email response he received from a white man about an earlier column about the shooting of a young black man, who calls Toussaint an unprintable epithet.
The column notes that Toussaint met Martin Luther King Jr. during the Memphis sanitation strike — Toussaint’s father was a sanitation worker — and King had advised him to have patience and faith (the novel also flashes back to poignant scenes of Toussaint’s meeting with King.)
Toussaint’s column continues: “Well, here we are 40 years later, friends and neighbors, and I am out of patience and I am out of faith. … I just want to surrender, to publicly divest myself of the foolish notion that white people can be redeemed, that they can be influenced to once and for all give up all the asinine delusion that melanin correlates to intelligence, morality or worth. I no longer believe they can.”
Carson rejects the piece out of hand, but Toussaint, unhinged, uses Carson’s password to get into his computer and get the column into the newspaper anyway — on the front page, no less (an unlikely scenario, even in these days of reduced staff, but Pitts makes it plausible). Toussaint gets fired, and so does Carson, who also must come to terms with his youthful idealism and confront what that means to him today.
Then, the story takes an even darker turn: Toussaint is abducted by a pair of white supremacists who plan a suicide bomb attack at Barack Obama’s appearance at Chicago’s Grant Park on the night of the election. “It’s getting so a white man doesn’t have a chance in his own country. I wouldn’t expect you to know what that means,” one of them tells Toussaint, who tries to reason with them. Pitts has a great flair for depicting the pair and their grievances, using them to hammer home his disturbing point: that there are far too many Americans who share their twisted vision.
Grant Park will keep you on your toes as Toussaint deals with his abductors as Election Night plays out. But the novel isn’t merely a work of suspense: It also examines the history and philosophy of Martin Luther King Jr., up close and personal. Pitts has said of the novel that he wanted to portray “a fuller portrait” of King, and he successfully does so while also examining the difficulties of interracial relationships, the bonds between fathers and sons and the upheaval and impact of the times, both four decades ago and now.
Grant Park is not an easy read. Sometimes Pitts comes off as heavy-handed — he basically takes a smack-you-over-the-head approach regarding the racial divide in this country —but it is an important book, one that honestly examines the current, tumultuous racial divide in our country and demands we not turn away from its harsh realities. And that’s, after all, what Pitts is all about.
Amy Canfield is a freelance writer in Portland, Maine.
Meet the author
Who: Leonard Pitts Jr.
When: 4 p.m. Oct. 25
Where: Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables
Info: 305-442-4408 or www.booksandbooks.com
Pitts also will appear at 5 p.m. Nov. 22 in the Chapman Conference Center, Miami Dade College Wolfson Campus, as part of Miami Book Fair. Visit www.miamibookfair.com for details.