Hugs and Hammerlocks
I spoke with Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. about the Lucius Gantt rant. From his home in Bowie, Maryland, where he lives with his wife and five children, he said that he's used to being attacked, from within the black community and outside of it.
"This is not something I take terribly seriously," Pitts said of Gantt's vitriol. "I won't lose any sleep over it. You get something like this today and then six weeks from now you're called a fire-breathing black militant. I like to tell people that I have been condemned by people from the Nation of Islam and folks from the Sons of Confederate Veterans. When people on all sides are pissed off, I think I might just be doing my job."
Pitts, who has been a columnist for the Herald for 15 years and won a Pulitzer Prize in 2004, said he decided long ago that he's going to write what he thinks, not what others think he should write.
"You don't get to tell me how to write this column based on how black I'm supposed to be," he says. "I am not black in the sense that I am not 38 million black people. This is one black man's voice.
"When I first started doing the column I called it 'adjust the negro.' That's what readers and even editors were trying to do, adjust the level of black in me. And you're starting out and you're eager to please, but after you've gotten battle scars and all these people have built these preconceived ideas that are not based on who you are, you have to just stop listening. At some point you have to tell them all to go to hell, the editors, the readers and whoever else who wants to tell you what you need to be as a black columnist."
Pitts often writes about general topics -- in the past month he's done columns about global warming, the Cuban book ban, Bill Gates, and Ann Coulter. But he regularly tackles difficult racial issues -- and in those columns he isn't shy about calling fault on the black community. I asked him about the use of terms like "Uncle Tom" and "Buckwheat," terms that had been used against him before Gantt hurled them.
"They are words that are used as ways to enforce group-think," he said. "They are used to keep you in line. You have to understand the rules of group-think. I have said that belonging to a group can be nice, but that it's a hug that can turn into a hammerlock. You get embraced, validated, redeemed -- but if you step beyond what the consensus says is right, you are going to be questioned and your credentials are going to be questioned. I'll take the hug but I won't take the hammerlock."
"And that kind of group-think doesn't just exist in the black community. It's everywhere. Fundamentalist Christians, the NRA ... if you go to an NRA meeting with your Tupac t-shirt on, you might have some explaining to do."
He said the hammerlock can come from unexpected places. When he wrote a column about trying to buy his wife a luxury car for her 50th birthday, a white reader wrote him to say it was irresponsible for him to tell of such a thing.
"She said I shouldn't have written it because there are black kids killing each other over luxury cars," he recalled.
As for the column that elicited Gantt's bile, in which Pitts defended Oprah Winfrey against rap musicians, he said he doesn't regret a word.
"The tone of the piece was snotty and it was intended to be snotty," said Pitts, a former music critic. "The artists in question [including Ludacris and 50 Cent] believe that Oprah Winfrey owes them sanction. She doesn't owe them anything."
I asked him if he believed that mainstream media should ignore rap, an idea that seemed to have been hinted at in his column.
"Rap music could be the most profound and important musical development in the past 30 years -- obviously you can't ignore it," he said. "My complaint is that so much of it has squandered its potential. Hip Hop has sold itself out and that really troubles me. What bothers me is that the values that are being espoused here are antithetical to anything that is healthy or life-affirming, particularly for black people."
He said that his thoughts on rap were recently affirmed by a legend in the industry, Chuck D, a rapper best-known for overtly political themes. At a recent panel discussion in Austin where Pitts and D shared the stage, they basically came to a consensus that rap music, in general terms, is blowing its potential on the cult of materialism.
But saying such things out loud doesn't always win Pitts friends in the black community -- and the hammerlock comes into play.
"In group-think, you are not supposed to do a lot of things," he told me. "You are not supposed to date white women, or white men for that matter. You are not supposed to aspire to certain professions or to want certain things. Screw that. I got one life and if the choice is you're going to live it for me, or I'm going to live it for me, then I'm going to live it."