Columnist Leonard Pitts says change starts with small acts
By Deirdre Parker Smith
Turning 50 brought Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Leonard Pitts to a mid-life crisis.
But instead of the little red car and a sweet young thing, Pitts wanted to change the world.
Start by planting a tree.
As he wrote a series of columns on “What Works” to relieve problems such as poverty and violence among African-American youth, he saw a Greek proverb: “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they will never sit in.”
This is his mantra.
In his life, he has seen the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., the Civil Rights era, the Watts riots and the moon landing.
Fifty years ago, the world was “a bloody mess,” Pitts said.
Now, people are raped, maimed, starving in Sudan, we’re in the middle of a “useless war in which lives are being lost” and huge amounts of money are being spent. North Korea, India and Pakistan have nuclear weapons, and global warming is setting us on a path of catastrophic consequences.
“And our discussions are shallow, shrill and poisonous.”
It’s only human to ask what the point is. “Is it selfish to look at the world where … good guys finish last … and want to see some change?” Pitts asked.
“I get frustrated,” he said. “If we know what works,” even on a small scale, “… if we can pay on the front end and see it as an investment in change” then why are we paying for abandoned children, incarceration and crime?
Pitt cited numerous small programs around the country that lift youth out of poverty and despair.
In Atlanta, for example, a once-blighted community has been revitalized with new homes for the middle class and poor. “Crime is down. Test scores are up,” and many more of the children are going to college.
“We’re not talking about brain surgery,” Pitts said. “We’re talking about smaller classrooms, longer school days, longer school years, parental involvement … letting children know there is someone who cares about them.
What is missing is the vision and the will to do it. … We’re not willing to get angry and stay angry about the children. … Loss is not preordained,” he said. Just because a thing is doesn’t mean it always has to be.
That’s where the tree comes in.
“We are not much for patience … all we want is quick fixes, fast changes.” But we sit in the shade of the trees planted by others. Pitt sits in the shade of the World Wars, the Civil Rights movement, people like Jackie Robinson and Rosa Parks.
“How can I not plant trees?”
We get disgusted, Pitts said, and depressed. The tasks are too daunting, so we become paralyzed. We can’t plant trees. It makes us feel small.
Plant trees anyway.
“Do a good thing because it is a good thing.” Do it for the balance of time, for what might happen.
“It’s ironic,” he said, “that this generation of young people” with all the technology available at their fingertips, feels “impotent to make change” when the “generation of megaphones and mimeograph machines did it.”
“Instead of doing what we can, we allow ourselves to be drugged by popular culture. … We spend too little time thinking and acting on changing the world.”
A controversial column last summer outraged white supremacists, and a Neo-Nazi group posted Pitts’ home address and phone number on the Web. Hate mail, harassing calls, even stalkers and death threats followed.
“I already had my pity party. … It was quite an event.
“The reality is, race is not over … It’s a battle that’s never quite won.”
But it’s not race, it is difference that divides us, Pitts said.
“We want to be superior … others are subhuman” and we base that on a lot of different things ó race, creed, religion, gender, beliefs.
“Over and over and over and over we see the inevitable outcome,” Bosnia, the Holocaust, Darfur, a “mountain of bones” of people who “had names and faces and DNA who were kidnapped, raped, sold, slaughtered by the nature of their differences.”
By 2050, Pitts said, white people will make up less than 50 percent of the U.S. population.
“Diversity offers us a choice … all men and women were created equal … or we can be a warning of what happens if we are not.
“We must have a compass, we must learn to see humanity, to forgive and be forgiven … or I shudder to think what the next 50 years will be like.
“Plant a tree.”
His book, “Becoming Dad: Black Men and the Journey to Fatherhood” is a story of his childhood with an alcoholic father. “I realized, when I became a father, I had no role model. … And the world is full of men like me.”
Father absence is a major problem in our culture. Children raised without fathers, Pitts said, are more likely to be poor, go to jail, become teen parents, smoke, drink and do drugs.
“Men and women do not relate to children in the same way. … You’ve heard the term father figure? Have you ever heard mother figure? Why is it so hard to understand children need their fathers?”
Pitts said fathers need to be held accountable, need to “teach boys that making a baby is a lifelong commitment, teach girls that it’s better to be alone that with someone who only wants one thing.”
Plant a tree.
And as far as political discussion goes, “I’m sick and tired of the shallow, shrill noise machine that passes for political debate.”
Once, there was more interest in substance than in winning the argument by any means possible. “This red and blue is a load of fertilizer created by the media …”
“I feel like I’ve fallen through a funhouse mirror and truth is whatever you have the nerve to say with a straight face and unblinking eyes.”
Bush preached “stay the course, stay the course,” Pitts recalled, and then he was on ABC’s “This Week” with George Stephanopoulos in October 2006, and Bush “said with a smile, ‘We have never been stay the course.’ ”
“America’s head should have popped off America’s neck,” Pitts said.
“Now we have red truth and blue truth … It’s what you believe and what challenges your belief. What about some real truth?
“If we can’t agree as a country, instead of a party or an ideology, if we can’t abandon blind loyalty, if we can’t lower the volume and raise the substance, if we can’t demand honesty and accountability,” where are we?
Plant a tree.
“Maybe you are sick of other things … Find a tree and plant it.
What if we all planted a tree and encouraged others to do it, too?”
Pitts said kids think nothing of value happened before they got here. But “life did not begin when we got here, nor will it end when we are gone.”
Instead, we are “cells in a larger organism.” We have to ask, “What do you have the guts to believe and the will to achieve?”
During Pitts’ travel in Africa, he was struck by the immensity of the need. “There’s not enough of you to go around,” Pitts said.
He met a woman in Sierra Leone whose needs overwhelmed him. But he thought about it. He went to the one university in Sierra Leone and learned the cost to attend. He went back to the woman and told her he would pay for her daughter to go to college.
“Will it change the world? Maybe, maybe. Maybe she will safe a life that will save a life that will change the world.
I am here to plant trees no living eye will ever see.”