Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Leonard Pitts Jr. A Different Choice for Black History Month

Once again Black History Month is upon us here at the library and I was all fired up to make my usual complaint about our seeming inability to make space for a meaningful black history display. I can think of twenty or thirty books right off the top of my head that should be featured front and center for the edification of our diverse adult population. However, the wind was taken right out of my sails because the space that I would have used was hijacked this past weekend. There's a display there alright, but guess what the subject matter is? Me!

Imagine my shock to discover that my dear co-workers decided to honor my six years of reviewing for Library Journal with a display of the many books I've read and had opinions on over the years. I truly almost came to tears and my loyalty to black history flew out the window!

One book that's too new to be displayed but that had a deep effect on me is Eleanor Morse's White Dog Fell from the Sky. I accidentally came upon a copy of my review on the front page of the author's website. What a compliment! I'm going to have to work a bit harder if I'm to keep my head from swelling.

But, back to Leonard Pitts. He is one of my favorite syndicated columnists. A Pulitzer Prize winner, Pitts is always reasonable, cogent, and even humorous when it comes to his take on race relations in America. When he's angry, he's righteous. His essays are an editor's dream.

So I was surprised to find that he had published a fiction work this past year, a big, fat, historical called Freeman. I snapped it up immediately but will admit that it took me a while to adjust my thinking to this new Leonard Pitts. The voice of historical fiction is such a radical change from the voice of an activist journalist.
The novel takes place shortly after the end of the Civil War, at a time when many southern soldiers and enslavers refused to believe that their cause was lost. Enslaved people were kept ignorant of their freedom, especially if they could not read or had no access to newspapers. And of course, there was the problem of what to do with this new found freedom. Where to go when you've not been allowed to earn money, to own property, to get an education. How do you just pack up and go?

It was in the cause of education that Prudence (who was anything but), a white widow from Boston, came to Buford, Mississippi with her adopted sister, a mixed race woman named Bonnie who was by far the more practical of the two. Together they intend to honor Prudence's father's past as an abolitionist by opening a school in a building he owned and to teach the freedmen and children of Buford, enabling them to make lives for themselves as free people of color.

A parallel story involves Sam, who escaped from slavery to join the Union forces, finding work after the end of the war in a library. He's safe and employed but his life is empty. He left his wife Tilda behind. Is she still working on the same plantation? Is she even alive? Though fifteen years have passed, Sam realizes that he can't move on unless he makes the dangerous trip back south, on foot, to look for her.

By the time Sam's story joins Prudence's there's been more tragedy than you'd believe one book or heart could hold. Freeman is not a novel for the faint of heart. You've read in your history books of the plight of African families, brought here against their will, bought and sold like a sides of beef, tortured and worked to death with no recourse. Pitts doesn't pretty up the horrific treatment of human beings in the post Civil War south. He does succeed at telling a story of the resilience of the soul, the yearning to be free, the strength of women, in particular, to go on living in the face of unbearable loss. It was a time of shame for our country and yes, a real part of our black history. Read it and weep.

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