Author Writes About Black Fatherhood
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. In a moment, a few of our favorite men share intimate stories about their fathers. Father's Day, of course, is this Sunday, and it's a time to celebrate dads. But for those who grew up without a father, it can be an awkward occasion. Even absent fathers cast long shadows, and absent fathers have become the norm in the African-American community.
Leonard Pitts, Jr., a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Miami Herald, has written extensively and thought deeply about fatherhood, especially about what it means to be a black father. In 1999, he wrote "Becoming Dad: Black Men and the Journey to Fatherhood." He now has a new book out, a novel, his first. It's called "Before I Forget," and it, too, is about fatherhood. Leonard Pitts, Jr., joins us now in our Washington, D.C., studio. Thank you so much for coming.
Mr. LEONARD PITTS, JR. (Author, "Becoming Dad: Black Men and the Journey to Fatherhood," "Before I Forget"): Oh, it's my pleasure to be here.
MARTIN: How did you get so interested in what it means to be a father?
Mr. PITTS: Well, probably almost by accident. I'm sure it had been lurking somewhere in the back of my mind all along, but I actually wrote "Becoming Dad" at the invitation of a publishing house that wanted to, you know, see me write on the subject. And as I did, I, you know, started to see all of these things that the absence of father produces in the African-American community.
MARTIN: I want to talk about "Becoming Dad" for just a minute, before we get to the novel, because it's a book that I know a lot of men have mentioned to me as being important to them in thinking about - and surfacing a lot of these issues in a way that isn't always talked about. So you write: It's become so commonplace as to be unremarkable, this phenomenon of children and mother on their own and dad as an infrequent, drop-in visitor. What's your take on how we got to this point?
Mr. PITTS: Well, my personal theory is that it is an unintended and negative by-product of the feminist revolution and the sexual revolution. I think that one of the things that happened out of the feminist revolution was that we were taught that men and women are equal, which of course they are, but I think a lot of us took from that the other message, which is that men and women are the same. And I think that we have really bought into this myth in terms of the family, that if dad is not there, well mom is just the same, and there's nothing that kids will miss if dad's not in the household.
And the fact of the matter is, what we're finding out in statistics, what we're finding out through just reams of anecdotal evidence, is that when dad's not in the household, there are things that kids miss.
MARTIN: You also write: In families characterized by strong, black women and absent black men, it has given support to the disastrous notion that maybe fathers aren't really that necessary after all. And obviously, you've spent a very great deal of time writing about why you think fathers are necessary, but why do you think that they are?
Mr. PITTS: Well, the material answer to that would be that with father in the household, the family is less likely to live in poverty. It's a fact that we live in an economy where two incomes are definitely desirable over one. But I think above and beyond that, there are just all these intangibles that men bring to the household that have yet to be quantified.
You know, the examples that I like to use from my own childhood, of my own experience raising my kids, is that when my daughter, who is now 18, brought her first boyfriend home, it was not my wife's job to take that boy up to the office and have a quiet, man-to-man talk with him, to ask for his driver's license and let him see me scanning it into the computer and to explain to him, you know, all the stuff that he's not going to do with my daughter if he wants to live to see voting age.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. PITTS: That's not - you know, and it sounds like silly stuff, but it's important stuff. Because in doing that, one, I put him on notice, but two, I tell my daughter that she is valued, and that's a dad function.
MARTIN: But there are those who would say that there are men who play a destructive role in relationships and that families are better off if women have the ability to function without them.
Mr. PITTS: If the man is a clear and present physical or emotional danger to the family, obviously, get out. But those aren't the households that I'm talking about. I'm talking about the relationships where we have consciously devalued the presence of the man or just decided that the man is not necessarily necessary. And it doesn't mean that the woman and the man have to be together. What it means is that, assuming the father is of reasonably sound mind and character, should have access to his children because they need him, and they need him for more than just the financial benefit.
MARTIN: Do you think that the issue is that - you talked about the feminist movement - as an unintended consequence of feminist movement sort of pushing men out of the picture, causing them to believe that they're not as significant. But is it your view that women have pushed men out or that society has pushed men out or that men have not figured out a role other than being the provider that is satisfying for them?
Mr. PITTS: All of the above, I think. I think that one of the biggest problems, and one that's not necessarily discussed a lot, is that there is no social stigma or social sanction for the man who is not involved with his family. But a woman who does that, a woman who abandons her children we hold in - we hold as something shameful, we hold as scorn. So I think that's sort of the trick that the sexual revolution played on women.
You know, we - the sexual revolution was all about, you know, you don't have to be hung up on these roles and you don't have a ring. And, you know, if it feels good, do it. And that's lovely. I - you know, except that when you do that thing that feels good, occasionally, there are consequences to it. And what happened what we found when those consequences came was that women were stuck holding the bag and men were still out enjoying the fruits of the revolution, you know, which was inherently unfair.
And I think that one of the things that I'm waiting for is for women to stand up and say, hey, wait a minute. We celebrate, rightfully so, the strong -particularly in the African-American community, but in all communities, really - the strong women without whom a lot of these families would be in worse shape than they are. But at some point, you've got to say okay, thank you for celebrating me, but enough celebrating me. How about some help so I don't always have to be the strong, you know, woman?
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with, Leonard Pitts, Jr. about fatherhood. We're talking about his first book, "Becoming Dad." And we're also talking about his latest work, his first novel. It's called, "Before I Forget." The novel's protagonist is a aging R&B crooner, Mo Johnson. He's struggling with early onset of Alzheimer's, a dying father, a son who just participated in an armed robbery that goes very wrong. And Mo decides to take his son to see his own father with whom he has a very difficult relationship. How did this story come to you?
Mr. PITTS: I knew that thematically - and the theme was probably the first thing that came - thematically I wanted to deal with fatherhood. But with that said, you can't write a novel. You can't make a novel a theme. A novel has to be about people going through things. So I came up with this idea of Mo Johnson and put him in. You know, Stephen King said somewhere that what you ought to do as a writer is put your character in absolutely the last place, the last situation they want to be. For me, I think if I have to die, and I only reluctantly and grudgingly accept that as a reality, if I have to die, the scariest way that I can think of to die is with Alzheimer's, because Alzheimer's takes your life before it kills you. You have years where it just, you know, it's taken away everything that you are. So I gave that to Mo to deal with.
MARTIN: His sense of self is so strong…
Mr. PITTS: Exactly.
MARTIN: …that the idea of losing that self…
Mr. PITTS: He loses who he…
MARTIN: …is devastating.
Mr. PITTS: He's facing the idea of losing who he is. And also, frankly the fact when you get that sort of death sentence of a medical diagnosis, I think that it causes you to really reshape your priorities and look at what you've done in your life. And Mo looks at what he's done in his life and realizes that, you know, he has failed in all the most important relationships. He's been a big star. He's got a lot of money. You know, he walks the street and people recognize him and want to shake his hand.
But he's been a very poor father to his son. He's got this estranged relationship with his own father. The woman that he loves, he has never really - he was never really able to commit himself to her because there were always all these other women and there was his drugs, and there's, you know, I got a concert here and a concert there. So he's really beginning to look at himself in a new light. And the book, and particularly the title, "Before I Forget," you know, deals with obviously the Alzheimer's, but also the fact that he wants to fix some of the broken places in his life, you know, literally, before he forgets, before his time runs out.
MARTIN: In many ways, the themes of this book are ones of the characters - the situations that they find themselves in will be familiar to some people. Like, for example, there's a storyline that I was particularly interested in where some of the other characters who participated in the robbery with Mo's son and their lives…
Mr. PITTS: Right.
MARTIN: …and what brought them to where they are. One of the things that I was attracted to about that and one of the reasons that was very meaningful to me is that you got a family where one of the sons is trying to get out of his situation. They don't have a lot of money, and one of the kids, very attracted to crime and kind of the thug life, and one of the other brothers wants out. You know, and there's a question about whether the mother really wants him out.
And I wondered a couple of things. Did you worry that some people will just find this all too operatic and will not think that this is the real stuff? Did you ever, you know, worry that people will think, gee, that doesn't really happen? And did you ever think about the whole airing dirty laundry piece? I know I ask a number of artists that who are of color, but it does come up where people say, I don't want to hear about all that. Why is that, you know, the foot that we have to place forward? So…
Mr. PITTS: Right. Neither of those first two concerned me. And in terms of airing dirty laundry, there's a couple of things I'd probably say. The first off is that I have decided as an African-American that to the degree that our fear of quote-unquote "airing dirty laundry" keeps us as African-Americans from having necessary discussions in our community, things that we need to do to save ourselves, to that degree, then that fear is insupportable. Like every community, you know, we have issues, except that we are the community that has decided because we are held to this standard where if we are not perfect, then we are garbage.
You're either Sidney Poitier or you're, I don't know, Snoop Dogg or whomever. You know, and because we bought into that standard, we tend not to have the discussions that we need to have. That's the first thing. The second thing is that the character that you're talking about, Mary Willis and her son's - Dog, which is Raeford's nickname, and Fury, which is Cedric's nickname, these aren't representatives of the African-American community. I'm sure you could find them in the African-American community, but you can also find a million other different kinds of people in the African-American community.
So I really was determined and intentional and purposeful about the idea that none of these characters would be anybody's types, and that I would be fearful or hold back in my writing because I thought that somebody was going take them as a type. They're not types. They're people.
MARTIN: That is so. But there are those who question whether, you know, middleclass writers…
Mr. PITTS: Right.
MARTIN: …such as yourself, which you are now…
Mr. PITTS: Yes.
MARTIN: …can, you know, write about characters who are living this hard-edged existence. And some people just say, well, it's, you know, it's just inherently patronizing.
Mr. PITTS: That's why it's called writing. I'm pretty sure Gene Roddenberry was never on a spaceship and Tom Clancy had never been on a submarine when he wrote "The Hunt For Red October." And, you know, I've been a woman and there are women characters in the book that I fancy that I render at least, you know, reasonably well. So, you know, I can imagine myself into that. So if I can imagine myself into those things, I think that I have the ability and the right to imagine myself into, you know, African-Americans from, you know, the rougher side of the street, let's say, especially given that that's where I was raised.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. PITTS: You know, frankly, there's less imagining involved in that than in some of the other things that take place in the book.
MARTIN: You said you started out with the idea, but you can't write a novel about ideas. It has to be about people…
Mr. PITTS: Right.
MARTIN: …and the things that happen to them. But there are ideas in the book…
Mr. PITTS: Oh, yes. Yes.
MARTIN: …very much so, about what happens to boys, particularly when the men in their lives who are supposed to be important to them aren't around. And I do have to say that there are do-right men in this book, men who are trying to do right and women who are trying to do right. But is there something overall that you like people to get from "Before I Forget"?
Mr. PITTS: I would like from - not just "Before I Forget," but also from "Becoming Dad," I would be grateful if people would go away from that rethinking their assumptions about how important it is that dads are there. I think a lot of times as dads, as fathers, as men, we don't realize our own importance, or we believe that our importance stops when we write the check for the rent. And I think that it would be a great compliment to me if a lot of us would begin to, as men and women, would begin to reevaluate and would begin to say, you know what? No. There's more to it than that, that when that man is not present in the life of that family, something invaluable and irreplaceable is lost.
MARTIN: Before I forget, what do you want for Father's Day?
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: Any hints that you want me to drop?
Mr. PITTS: I don't know. I'm probably the hardest person in the world to buy for. A DVD would be lovely. Or a tie, but, you know, not the socks. Let's avoid the socks this year.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: No socks.
Mr. PITTS: No socks.
MARTIN: Okay. Leonard Pitts, Jr.: columnist, novelist and father. His latest book is "Before I Forget." Happy Father's Day.
Mr. PITTS: Thank you very much.
MARTIN: To hear Leonard Pitts, Jr. read am excerpt from his book "Before I Forget," please go to our website at npr.org. Click on the TELL ME MORE tab.
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