by Leonard Pitts, Jr.
(available October 13th; From Leonard Pitts Jr., Grant Park. Copyright © 2015 by Agate Publishing. Reprinted by permission of Agate Publishing.)
"A novel as significant as it is engrossing." —Booklist, starred review
Grant Park is a page-turning and provocative look at black and white relations in contemporary America, blending the absurd and the poignant in a powerfully well-crafted narrative that showcases Pitts's gift for telling emotionally wrenching stories.
Grant Park begins in 1968, with Martin Luther King's final days in Memphis. The story then moves to the eve of the 2008 election, and cuts between the two eras. Disillusioned columnist Malcolm Toussaint, fueled by yet another report of unarmed black men killed by police, hacks into his newspaper's server to post an incendiary column that had been rejected by his editors. Toussaint then disappears, and his longtime editor, Bob Carson, is summarily fired within hours of the column's publication.
While a furious Carson tries to find Toussaint—while simultaneously dealing with the reappearance of a lost love from his days as a 60s activist—Toussaint is abducted by two white supremacists plotting to explode a bomb at Barack Obama's planned rally in Chicago’s Grant Park. Toussaint and Carson are forced to remember the choices they made as young men, when both their lives were changed profoundly by their work in the civil rights movement.
Bob Carson was an early riser.
He loved the dark silence of the hours before dawn. Being afoot before light and noise overtook the world gave him a delicious sense of being one up on the day, just that much ahead of all the folks still hugging pillows in the warmth of their beds.
So he was already awake, showered, shaved, and padding around his orderly kitchen, humming vaguely to himself as he assembled the ingredients for an egg-white spinach omelet, when his cellphone rang at 5:52. The electronic burring froze him with Ziploc bags of spinach and mushrooms in hand. The sound belonged to later in the day. In the stillness of predawn, it seemed almost an offense.
Bob sighed, put the bags on the counter, turned off the flame upon which a skillet had been warming, and picked up the phone just as it began to chirp again. The caller ID said it was Doug Perry. What could Doug want at this hour?
Bob touched the green button on the screen and spoke without preamble. “Doug. What’s wrong?”
“Have you seen the paper?”
There was something brittle in Doug’s voice that, for some reason, made Bob shift his weight. “No,” he said. And now he glanced with wary foreboding toward the kitchen table where four papers—the New York Times, the Tribune, the Sun-Times, and the Post—were neatly arranged, the Post on top, the nameplates of the other three peeking out, waiting for him to read them over breakfast and decaf.
“Go take a look,” said Doug.
“Front page. Go take a look.”
Lowering the phone, Bob went to the table and slid the Post from the top of the stack. He glanced at the images of Obama and McCain, made certain neither man had been misidentified, looked for typos in the headline. Then he flipped the paper over to look below the fold. And felt a dull thump against his breastbone.
“Oh my God,” he said, lifting the phone even as he dropped into a chair. “How did that happen?”
“I was hoping you could tell me.”
“I have no idea.”
“Are you sure?”
“Of course I’m sure.”
“Lydia called me from the gym just now,” said Perry. “She is fucking furious, you hear me?“
“I can imagine.”
“No, brother, you can’t. And she’s going to be demanding answers. You sure you have no idea how this happened? Something like this would require administrator level access to the system. It’s not something just anybody can do. Maybe you made a mistake somewhere along the way? Maybe you, I don’t know, pressed a send button when you meant to press delete?”
“Doug, for the third time: No. Have you spoken to Sam?” Samantha Welles was the night duty officer.
“Yeah, that was my first thought. She swears that when she signed off on the page, it did not have Malcolm’s column. It had the AP story on the undecideds.”
“Well, I didn’t do it,” insisted Bob. How many times had he said this now? He was conscious of protesting too much.
Doug grunted. It was a sound that could have meant anything. “Well,” he said, “there’s a meeting in the publisher’s office, 7:00.”
“I’ll see you there,” Bob told his boss. But Doug had already hung up.
Time was short, but Bob didn’t go flying to his bedroom to get dressed. Instead, he picked up the paper and, almost as if in a trance, began to read Malcolm’s column, the column he, Bob, had rejected emphatically and then personally spiked to the delete basket, the one that had somehow risen from the dead. It said:
Good morning, friends and neighbors.
What you read here today are the musings of a tired man.
“Tired from what?” you will ask yourselves. “What can Toussaint have to be tired about? He is a respected journalist, he is paid more than he deserves, he has two of the greatest kids in the world and he was lucky enough to be loved by a woman who was gracious and kind and smart and stunning and who stayed married to Toussaint for 27 years—until her death in 2006—despite the fact that he was none of those things and everyone knew she was far too good for him.
What in the world does Toussaint have to complain about? Well, it’s simple, really: I’m sick and tired of white folks’ bullshit.
I know the language catches some of you by surprise, but there you go.
Two weeks ago, I wrote a column. You may remember it. It was about Donte Stoddard, the 22-year-old African-American man, father of three, who died in a hail of bullets—52 shots were fired, 27 struck home—when he was confronted by Chicago police late one night outside a McDonald’s restaurant. Police say they shot Stoddard because he reached into his pocket and produced a wallet that officers mistook for a gun. Witnesses said that was a lie. Security camera footage backs them up. It clearly shows Stoddard with takeout bags of fast food in each hand. He transfers them both to one hand and begins reaching toward his hip pocket to produce his ID. But before he his hand even reaches the pocket, much less pulls anything out, the shooting begins—and continues for 12 excruciating seconds.
After all that, police said the man they were looking for when they stopped Stoddard on suspicion of armed robbery actually bore no resemblance to him—10 years older, 50 pounds heavier, and with a medium Afro where Stoddard wore dreadlocks. The only thing they had in common is that they were both black men; apparently, that was enough. In the column, I called the cops out for the execution of yet another black man under dubious circumstances and demanded a Justice Department investigation.
In response, I just received the following email from a man named Joe MacPherson, which I present to you now in its entirety:
“Toussaint, your so stupid. Do you really expect us to shed tears because this guy is dead? Your just another whiny, brainwashed lib who doesn’t have the brains to see the truth or the balls to tell it. Fact: niggers committ the majoraty of the crimes in this country, so dont blame the PO-lice for this man being dead, blame yourselfs. If you really want to help your people why dont you tell them to stop committing all the crimes? This guy Stoddart had a record for drug dealing and domestic violence. I notice you didnt write about that. Or you could tell them to stop making babys they cant take care of. Stoddart had three kids with three diffrent women and he was only 22! Thats something else you didnt say. No, you always want to put everything on white people. Your hatred of white America shines through with everything you write. Your such a racist nigger. Always playing the race card. Always stirring the pot. Its race baiters like you who are destroying this country. And its people like me who wont let you. This is America, pal. Love it or leave it.”
Now, I don’t present this email to you because it is particularly outlandish. It’s a rare day when I don’t get a half-dozen or more just like it, or worse. No, I present it to you because it represents that final drop of water that makes the bucket overflow.
I repeat: I am tired of white folks’ bullshit.
In the first place—and I realize this is petty, but this is my rant, so humor me—does this email not tell you everything you need to know about declining educational standards in this country? Can you appreciate how truly frustrating it is for an educated man such as myself to have his intelligence impugned by someone who failed to master fifth-grade English?
“Your so stupid”? Really? That may be the single most maddening sentence I have ever read in my life—although “Your such a racist nigger” would also have to be in contention. And would someone please buy this man a box of apostrophes?
As to the rest of it, well…I don’t propose to go through it point by point. I have already said what I had to say about the execution of Donte Stoddard and, for that matter, about black crime, black babies, and the criminalization of black existence. You may look it up if you care to.
I didn’t write this column to say any of that. I wrote it only to say, I give up. I surrender. Uncle.
As many of you know, I once met a great man—his name was Martin Luther King, Jr.—who counseled me to have patience and faith where the people he called “our white brothers” are concerned. I was a young man, with a young man’s impatience and rage. My father was a Memphis sanitation worker, one of the men Dr. King had come to town to help, one of the men who paraded through downtown everyday with a sign that said “I AM A MAN,” because white folks needed the reminder.
I didn’t want to march. I wanted to burn. I wanted to destroy. I wanted to tear down the world until everybody in it felt my impotent fury.
Dr. King told me not to waste my life that way. Patience and faith, he said.
Well, here we are 40 years later, friends and neighbors, and I am out of patience and I am out of faith. I don’t want to burn or destroy or tear down. I just want to surrender, to publicly divest myself of the foolish notion that white people can be redeemed, that they can be influenced to once and for all give up the asinine delusion that melanin correlates to intelligence, morality or worth.
I no longer believe they can.
And yes, someone will point out that 40 years after Dr. King spoke to me, here we are with a black man running for president. What about that? they will say. Doesn’t that prove patience and faith have paid off?
Well, what about that? Barack Obama has faced not just the ordinary political questions about his policies, his plans and his experience but also a series of extraordinary questions unique to him: Was he really born in the USA? Is he secretly a Muslim? Is he secretly a terrorist? Does he hate whitey? White people ask these questions because they can’t bring themselves to ask what they really want to ask: Who is this nigger to think he should be our president?
And when Obama gets his ass kicked and he makes that call tonight to congratulate John McCain on winning the presidency, when the social scientists start talking about the “Bradley Effect” and the hidden racism polling did not detect, ask yourself: could it really have ended otherwise? Could white people have done anything other than what they did?
If you think that, then you don’t know white people.
I do. That’s why I have given up on them.
So Joe MacPherson, thank you for being that one drop and for thereby helping me to clarify something I have been struggling with for a very long time. Now please, go to hell, and take America with you.
Bob sighed. He sat looking for a moment at the paper, Malcolm smiling a smug little smile and looking younger than he was in a sig photo that was probably ten years out of date. Finally, Bob stood and went about replacing the bags in the refrigerator, putting the skillet in the sink. There would be no breakfast this morning.
As Bob was absorbing that minor disappointment, his telephone chirped again, this time the tone alerting him to the arrival of an email. Bob resented the slightly Pavlovian way the little device had trained him to pick it up at the ringing of a bell to see some ad for erectile dysfunction or plea for help from a distressed Nigerian. For a brief moment, he thought of allowing the chirp to go unanswered—didn’t he have more important concerns?—but in the end, he surrendered as he had known he would, picked up the phone, and clicked open his email.
“A name from your past,” read the subject line.
Bob opened it. What he saw put him back in the chair.
Old friend, you cannot imagine my delight at running across your name while doing some research on the Post website. Well, not just your name…there are a million “Bob Carsons” in the world, after all…but also, your picture. That’s what sealed it for me. Even after all these years, I’d have known you anywhere.
I have always regretted the way it was left between us, the things I said to you so long ago in all my youthful self-righteousness and ideological purity. I’ve thought of you often and wondered what became of you.
These past few months, I have been working in minority outreach for Senator Obama. I am on a plane right now and will land in Chicago at 10:30. I will be homeless for a few hours, unable to check into my room until this afternoon. I know this is criminally short notice and I will understand if you can’t do it, but if at all possible, might we have lunch today?
I’ve missed you, Bob. I’d love to catch up with you. More than that, I’d simply love to see you again.
Let me know.
It was signed, “Janeka Lattimore.”
He said it in a whisper just to hear it being said, just to have the words on his tongue and the sound in his ear. All at once, Bob realized he had stopped breathing. He breathed.
He was a trim and orderly man in wire frame glasses, pink scalp peeking through the thin canopy of hair at the crown of his head. Once upon a time, back when his hair had fallen to below his shoulder blades, back when he was another man in another life, he had loved Janeka Lattimore.
Helplessly, that was how he had loved her. Completely.
And she had broken his heart.
No, that wasn’t quite right. She had not broken his heart. She had broken him. She had left him lying in pieces on a dirt road in Mississippi and for the longest time, he had not known if—or even cared if—he could put himself together again. And even when he finally decided to get on with it, even when he did manage to put the pieces back together into something that vaguely resembled Robert Matthew Carson, it had never quite been the same. He felt like a piece of china glued back together by a sixth grader. The pieces didn’t quite fit. The break still was visible.
Bob had never loved again—never allowed himself to. There had been relationships, yes. He had even lived for a couple of years with a free-spirited painter in a crummy little apartment in Soho, and she had borne him a son he adored. But he had never married, much less immersed himself in a woman that way again.
Now he was 59 years old and after all this time, here she was, blowing through town, blowing back into his life and wanting to get together…for lunch?
Bob felt anger kindling in him at the nerve of her, to show up 40 years later as an email in his inbox, blithely inviting him to catch up on old times. As if what had happened had never happened, as if she had not told him they had no future because he was white and she was not. As if he, with an icepack to his head and blood dripping off his chin, sitting in the back of that ambulance, had not begged her to stay. As if she had not turned away from him—literally turned away from him—to be with “her people.” That’s how she had put it in that self-consciously melodramatic way of college radicals of the 1960s for whom the revolution was a foregone conclusion. Her people.
“I thought I was your people, too,” he had said, his voice wounded and confused, as the ambulance door closed on him. He had always wondered if she heard him and, if she did, if she had answered. He didn’t know. The door had closed like finality and he had never seen nor heard from her again.
Then his phone had chirped and there she was, inviting him to lunch. There was an absurdity to it that almost wrung a bitter laugh out of him. Almost.
Bob glanced at his watch. It was a few minutes after six. He needed to hurry if he was going to make the meeting. He pressed a button and the screen on his cellphone went dark. But it was an effort just to get up out of the chair.
“Janeka Lattimore,” he said, walking down the hallway toward his bedroom.
From Leonard Pitts Jr., Grant Park. Copyright © 2015 by Agate Publishing. Reprinted by permission of Agate Publishing.