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Charlotte Amalie
Sunday, June 26, 2022
HomeNewsArchivesPITTS TALKS OF BLACK FATHERS, AND HIS OWN

PITTS TALKS OF BLACK FATHERS, AND HIS OWN

Leonard Pitts Jr. has good timing. Less than two weeks after the publication of the "Kids Count" survey that found that nearly half of all children in the Virgin Islands are growing up in single-parent households, the Pulitzer-nominated syndicated columnist came to the territory to talk about African-American fathers and his recent book, "Becoming Dad: Black Men and the Journey to Fatherhood" (Longstreet Inc., 1999; $22).
Granted, Pitts had been invited by the civic group Virgin Islands Advocacy more than a year ago to visit and discuss the book, which was published in 1999, but the occasional hurricane and other things kept him away until this weekend. It is just as well, given the heightened attention being paid now to V.I. kids in crisis.
As he relates in the book, when Pitts told an old friend on the phone he was writing a book on black men and fatherhood, his friend laughed and said, "What does the one have to do with the other?"
Tall, soft-spoken and with little about him of the "nerd" he says he was as a child, Pitts said Friday before speaking at the Windward Passage Holiday Inn that he has discovered "the themes of the book are fairly universal" and not only pertinent to black men.
"If I didn't know that before," he said, "I certainly knew it afterward when the book came out and all these white guys came up to me with tears in their eyes, saying 'that's my father as well.'"
Pitts' own father, he said, was an alcoholic, a sometimes abusive, sometimes charming man who died nearly 25 years ago but has remained an ambivalent presence in his son's life.
"My father made our lives hell," he writes. "And yet, for all of that, he was one thing many other fathers were not. He was there."
Pitts said, "I wasn't the kid my father wanted, and you have to qualify that by remembering that he was a farmer's son with maybe a seventh grade education, and I was a little nerd: 'Dad, I want to read a book!'
"Once, he wanted me to go outside and run around and play, so he took away all my books, and I grabbed something, a tube of toothpaste, and proceeded to read everything on it out loud, the ingredients, everything. Like, 'you can't make me.'"
And while he said fatherlessness is up across the board in the United States, regardless of race or heritage, the problem is much more acute in the black community. Pitts traces its roots all the way back to slavery days, when black children were usually given their mother's name because the men were more likely to be sold.
The problem is exacerbated by economic issues as well.
"For a lot of black men, there's the difficulty of living up to the standards by which we define fatherhood—especially in terms of providing financially," he said. "Black male unemployment even today is still two or three times that of white unemployment. And I think for a lot of us, we've used the same historical inclination to turn a negative into a positive and say, 'I can’t be a father? Fine, I didn't want to anyway.'
"It's a defense mechanism, this 'I'll be a player—a player can't be hurt.' But it's ultimately self-defeating, not only for the men but for the children."
Especially for the children too, Pitts exhorts black men to see domestic violence for what it is—a purely destructive force that has nothing to do with being macho.
"If you think you're proving yourself as a man by raising your hand against a woman, you need to check your definition of what a man is," he declared. "Go find Shaquille O'Neal and take a swing at him. And then run.
"A man should think about the effect it will have not only on the woman but on the kids. For boys, I know that feeling of frustration of wanting to protect someone, wanting to do something and just being too darn small. And for girls, it tends to make it very difficult to eventually go into a relationship and ever really trust a man."
Through talks with dozens of black men across the country, sprinkled with a few good handfuls of statistics and illuminated by his own reminiscences by turns painful and humorous, Pitts has drawn in broad strokes a portrait of black fatherhood or the lack thereof. Writing and talking about the book has also helped him come to terms with his own efforts as a father—three children, two stepchildren, a long, steady marriage to wife Marilyn—and with Leonard Pitts Sr.
"I certainly don't feel as alone as I once did and I don't feel as ambivalent to my own father as I once did," he said, "but when it comes to raising kids, I tell you, it's a day at a time.
"You have to realize at the end of the day that if you've done the best you can possibly do, then there's no way anybody can do more. And at the end of the day, I usually know that."
Pitts' appearance in the V.I. was sponsored by the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands and V.I. Advocacy Inc.

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Leonard Pitts Jr. has good timing. Less than two weeks after the publication of the "Kids Count" survey that found that nearly half of all children in the Virgin Islands are growing up in single-parent households, the Pulitzer-nominated syndicated columnist came to the territory to talk about African-American fathers and his recent book, "Becoming Dad: Black Men and the Journey to Fatherhood" (Longstreet Inc., 1999; $22).
Granted, Pitts had been invited by the civic group Virgin Islands Advocacy more than a year ago to visit and discuss the book, which was published in 1999, but the occasional hurricane and other things kept him away until this weekend. It is just as well, given the heightened attention being paid now to V.I. kids in crisis.
As he relates in the book, when Pitts told an old friend on the phone he was writing a book on black men and fatherhood, his friend laughed and said, "What does the one have to do with the other?"
Tall, soft-spoken and with little about him of the "nerd" he says he was as a child, Pitts said Friday before speaking at the Windward Passage Holiday Inn that he has discovered "the themes of the book are fairly universal" and not only pertinent to black men.
"If I didn't know that before," he said, "I certainly knew it afterward when the book came out and all these white guys came up to me with tears in their eyes, saying 'that's my father as well.'"
Pitts' own father, he said, was an alcoholic, a sometimes abusive, sometimes charming man who died nearly 25 years ago but has remained an ambivalent presence in his son's life.
"My father made our lives hell," he writes. "And yet, for all of that, he was one thing many other fathers were not. He was there."
Pitts said, "I wasn't the kid my father wanted, and you have to qualify that by remembering that he was a farmer's son with maybe a seventh grade education, and I was a little nerd: 'Dad, I want to read a book!'
"Once, he wanted me to go outside and run around and play, so he took away all my books, and I grabbed something, a tube of toothpaste, and proceeded to read everything on it out loud, the ingredients, everything. Like, 'you can't make me.'"
And while he said fatherlessness is up across the board in the United States, regardless of race or heritage, the problem is much more acute in the black community. Pitts traces its roots all the way back to slavery days, when black children were usually given their mother's name because the men were more likely to be sold.
The problem is exacerbated by economic issues as well.
"For a lot of black men, there's the difficulty of living up to the standards by which we define fatherhood—especially in terms of providing financially," he said. "Black male unemployment even today is still two or three times that of white unemployment. And I think for a lot of us, we've used the same historical inclination to turn a negative into a positive and say, 'I can’t be a father? Fine, I didn't want to anyway.'
"It's a defense mechanism, this 'I'll be a player—a player can't be hurt.' But it's ultimately self-defeating, not only for the men but for the children."
Especially for the children too, Pitts exhorts black men to see domestic violence for what it is—a purely destructive force that has nothing to do with being macho.
"If you think you're proving yourself as a man by raising your hand against a woman, you need to check your definition of what a man is," he declared. "Go find Shaquille O'Neal and take a swing at him. And then run.
"A man should think about the effect it will have not only on the woman but on the kids. For boys, I know that feeling of frustration of wanting to protect someone, wanting to do something and just being too darn small. And for girls, it tends to make it very difficult to eventually go into a relationship and ever really trust a man."
Through talks with dozens of black men across the country, sprinkled with a few good handfuls of statistics and illuminated by his own reminiscences by turns painful and humorous, Pitts has drawn in broad strokes a portrait of black fatherhood or the lack thereof. Writing and talking about the book has also helped him come to terms with his own efforts as a father—three children, two stepchildren, a long, steady marriage to wife Marilyn—and with Leonard Pitts Sr.
"I certainly don't feel as alone as I once did and I don't feel as ambivalent to my own father as I once did," he said, "but when it comes to raising kids, I tell you, it's a day at a time.
"You have to realize at the end of the day that if you've done the best you can possibly do, then there's no way anybody can do more. And at the end of the day, I usually know that."
Pitts' appearance in the V.I. was sponsored by the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands and V.I. Advocacy Inc.