I'm sick and tired of white folks' bullshit."
So says Malcolm Toussaint in Leonard Pitts Jr.'s latest novel, Grant Park. Or rather, that's what he writes as a respected columnist for the fictitious Chicago Post newspaper. The column was not meant to be published, and, once it is, Malcolm is neither respected nor a columnist any longer.
The events that lead up to his downfall begin in Memphis in 1968 as a college-aged Malcolm returns home from school to a city atop a powder keg. His father is a sanitation worker on strike, yet the radical Malcolm sees the "I Am a Man" placards and philosophy of nonviolence as ineffective. The present-day action is in Chicago in 2008 as Barack Obama, the nation's first African-American president, is being elected into office.
But what happened in those 40 years? The evolution of a radical into a person who, in effect, has become part of the establishment is explored through characters such as Malcolm and his white editor Bob Carson, who long ago fell in love with Janeka Lattimore, a black woman with whom he attended college and fought on the front lines of the civil rights movement in Mississippi. She spurned him because of race all those years ago, yet has returned during the aftermath of his prize-winning columnist imploding his own career and going missing, kidnapped by two bumbling white supremacists with much larger plans for Obama's rally in Grant Park on election night.
The question of civil rights during those 40 years after the assassination of King was also explored at story booth last week by Pitts and moderators Terrence Tucker, coordinator of African-American Literature at the University of Memphis; and Charles McKinney, director of the Africana Studies program at Rhodes College.
Pitts is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist at the Miami Herald, yet he insisted that Malcolm is a purely fictional character while allowing that "Malcolm's frustrations are definitely mine," and that the racist email that finally pushes Malcolm over the edge is "cobbled together from emails I've received." With the white supremacist characters, particularly, Pitts said he was going for a certain sense of absurdity in the racist overtones to exemplify a day and age where things are not as rosy as they may seem just because there is a black man in the White House. "I had to explain to [New Jersey Governor] Chris Christie that 'Black Lives Matter' is not a terrorist movement," he said, adding that he gets at least one phone call a week with someone telling him, "Racism is gone if you just stop talking about it."
Racism of today and yesterday ("There was a seriousness of purpose in the 1960s," Pitts said. "Even hatred was of a different quality.") is explored in his book through historical fiction.
The day after his story booth appearance, and arranged by story booth director Nat Akin, Pitts visited Northside High School to speak with students who had been given a copy of Grant Park. He was peppered with questions by eager readers and hopeful writers. Though he'd visited Memphis numerous times before, when it came to writing the book, he came with purpose to the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library to peruse newspapers from the 1960s and look at photographs and maps. He needed to envision a Beale Street and Hernando without the FedExForum to imagine how the marches for the sanitation workers might have taken place. "There are two kinds of truths," he told the small audience gathered in the school library, "factual truth and emotional truth — a novel strives for that emotional truth. Martin Luther King came to Memphis in 1968 to lead a march, everybody knows that, but what did it feel like to be an 18-year-old in Memphis then? What did it smell like? What did it sound like?"
He told his own story of becoming a writer — he was first paid for writing at the age of 18 by Soul magazine and became a music critic and stringer at that point — about rejection and the fact that, though he'd been a successful journalist for years, it wasn't until 2009 that his first novel, Before I Forget, was published. "You've got to have a certain amount of discipline. ... It has to be something you need to do, not what you want to do."
As for the timing of Grant Park coming out and the real-life, present-day stories coming from places like Ferguson, Missouri, Charleston, South Carolina, and even Memphis, Pitts told the assemblage at story booth that night, "History is your story, history is your biography, and, as African Americans, we need to know our history. Our history is being swiped from us. ...There's a need for us to be more vigilant caretakers of our history."