Leonard Pitts, Jr.: 'Becoming Dad'

Farai Chideya talks with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Leonard Pitts, Jr., about his book Becoming Dad: Black Men and the Journey to Fatherhood.

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ED GORDON, host:

I'm Ed Gordon, and this is NEWS AND NOTES.

This Sunday is Father's Day, but not everyone will be celebrating. People who have absent fathers or abusive fathers may see the holiday as a painful reminder of a troubled present or past.

Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Leonard Pitts grew up with a disappearing, alcoholic father, but he's gone on to be a role model for his own children. So, what makes the son of an absent or abusive father into a good dad himself? That's the theme of Leonard's book, Becoming Dad: Black Men and the Journey to Fatherhood."

Pitts spoke with NPR's Farai Chideya.

FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:

Tell us first about your father. Was he ever kind to you?

Mr. LEONARD PITT (Author, Becoming Dad): Few and far between, I guess were his kindnesses. And not - I don't remember kindnesses specifically to me, but there were times when he would come in when he was not drunk, and he was not in a mood. And the house would be a lot lighter than it would otherwise be. He would be - he would be very fun to be around. He'd be, you know, laughing and cracking jokes. And, you know, he'd make you laugh. So, in that regard, yeah.

CHIDEYA: Did you ever want to kill him?

Mr. PITTS: Yeah. I remember probably the last major fight that, you know, went on in the house was the one where he - it's detailed in the book - the one where he pulled a gun for the second time - a rifle for the second time, and where I wound up with a cut across my face. And I remember jumping on his back and pounding the side of his head. And I really wanted to, you know, at that point, I really wanted to take him out.

I was a little older then, you know, and I think, you know, as you get older, you've got all these pent up resentments and emotions and you're older now; you can do something about it. So, you know, yeah, I think at that point, I would like to have done that, in that moment.

CHIDEYA: So how did you heal those wounds when you became a father and were you afraid to be a father?

Mr. PITTS: I think I was afraid to be a father, but the thing is that I was a father before I had a choice in the matter, really. I fell in love with a woman who already had two kids. As for healing, I think writing the book was my way of healing, to tell you the truth. I don't even think that I'd realized that there was something that needed to be healed until I got into writing the book and dealt with a lot of these men and their unresolved feelings towards their father and the realization that I had a lot of those same feelings and needed to do something about it, or else see it carried forward into the next generation, which I did not want to do.

CHIDEYA: You profile a series of men who had absent or abusive fathers, some of whom went on to abuse other people in their lives...

Mr. PITTS: Mm-hmm.

CHIDEYA: ...some of whom became exemplary fathers like yourself...

Mr. PITTS: Right.

CHIDEYA: Give us an example of just two of the men that you spoke with.

Mr. PITTS: Oh, my goodness! There was a gentleman that I met in Yonkers. This guy, in another life, you know, could have been president of the United States or could have been chairman of the Federal Reserve or something, because he just had this magnetism about him. And yet, the fact that his father - I believe his father was abusive, if I'm recalling the story correctly. And, you know, the life that he had lived with his father just sort of sent him on this downward spiral of drugs and of misdeeds.

And he had wound up abusing the woman who he said was, you know, life and breath to him. And he was in recovery when we met and was trying to salvage his life. But I just looked at this guy and then, it's like, what could you have been, had your life not taken, you know, this detour?

There's another gentleman that I interviewed - a guy named David - who, at first, assured me that he didn't want his father's approval, you know, it didn't matter that his father had ignored him and mistreated him. And, you know, we sort of left the interview there. And then, at the end, as I'm walking out, he says - he whispers almost to himself - even now, I want his approval, even now. And it's sort of like, you get this sense of, you know, of how he has lied to himself about this so much and for so long that I don't think even he realized how much he was hurt by the fact that his father had not been there for him.

CHIDEYA: This book focuses on African-American men. And you have pictures and descriptions, and interviews with people...

Mr. PITTS: Mm-hmm.

CHIDEYA: ...from many different walks of life. What are the special challenges that face African-American men and African-American fathers?

Mr. PITTS: The challenges that face us as African-American men and as fathers are multifold. And I guess they all, you know, many of them spring from the same place that a lot of other African-American woes spring. It's, you know, from racism in the society. But then I think what's happened is that we, you know, our families have sort of mutated in response to this to where it has become the norm that dad is not home; it's not an exception. What's an exception, what's "weird," and several people in the book reference this, is when dad is home. When mom and dad are married with children, I think that's regarded as outside the norm, as something that's weird.

I think the challenge that we face as African-American men is to reclaim our place in our families and in our communities. The challenges that we face is to understand that our value to our communities and our homes goes beyond the monetary, which is where everybody always stops, you know. But that we as men bring something special to a household that cannot, by and large, be duplicated by women.

CHIDEYA: Can you tell us about Mark(ph) and Germaine(ph), both of whom ended up dealing with unexpected pregnancies when they were teenagers...

Mr. PITTS: Yeah.

CHIDEYA: ...and you talked to these two young guys.

Mr. PITTS: Yeah, I interviewed them. I had not planned it that way, but they basically book-ended one another. Germaine was a kid who grew up with, you know, essentially no father and with a mom, who, you know, was rather abusive, as well. And he, you know, was in and out of trouble and suddenly he's expecting a child. And he's saying that, I don't know, you know, I don't know what kind of father I'm going to be. I want to do better, but I don't know.

Germaine was a teenage father, also from a stable, you know, two-parent home in Los Angeles. And he faced, you know, fatherhood with a lot more confidence, with a lot more of a sense of, you know, knowing the territory, knowing the lay of the land and knowing that this was something that he could do.

What was really troubling to me was that after - toward the end of working on the book and after the respective children had been born, I went looking for both of them to find out, you know, how things were going. And Germaine, you know, was good and was progressing along and was upbeat. And Mark, I couldn't even find. It really spoke to me of the power of, you know, being raised in a stable environment versus, you know, sort of raising yourself on the streets.

CHIDEYA: At the same time, though, you come from a household where you had to deal with this abuse...

Mr. PITTS: Mm-hmm. Right.

CHIDEYA: Not absence, but abuse, and you became a good father. So what gives people like yourself the ability to transcend that?

Mr. PITTS: I tell people I was fortunate enough to have been raised by Wonder Woman. And I know that every boy idolizes his mom, but my mom was really something else. And I think the determining factor was that she had a way of instilling in us this fact, this idea that she had expectations of her children. There were certain things that you just did not do if you were Agnes Pitts' son or daughter.

CHIDEYA: Can you give us a Father's Day message for anyone who may have had a difficult father or an absent father; maybe someone who is a young father who's looking for inspiration.

Mr. PITTS: I think that as the children of father's who are either absent or abusive, there's - we are one of two things: we are either a reflection or a rejection of dad. And I would encourage, particularly that young father, if your dad was not the father that you wanted him to be, then you obviously got to be a constant rejection of him. But the thing that you have to remember is that you are not there to be to that child the father that you didn't have. You're there to be the father that that child needs and wants.

CHIDEYA: Leonard, happy Father's Day.

Mr. PITTS: And happy Father's Day to you, too. Thank you very much.

CHIDEYA: Leonard Pitts Jr. won the Pulitzer Prize in 2004 for his syndicated column. His book is Becoming Dad: Black Men and the Journey to Fatherhood.

GORDON: That was NPR's Farai Chideya.

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