He begins the story of his father this way:
The first time he held us at gunpoint, I was nine years old. The second time, I must have been about fifteen. I don't remember what triggered it, either time. I just remember his livid eyes and the length of the rifle barrel separating us--his wife and his four children--from him. The first time it happened, I was so afraid. The second time, we had been fighting and I don't remember feeling any fear at all. Just rage.
Which pretty well sums up my childhood journey with Leonard Pitts Sr. From fear to rage.
That's Leonard Pitts Jr. talking. The 41-year-old Bowie resident and syndicated columnist for the Miami Herald has written a new book, "Becoming Dad: Black Men and the Journey to Fatherhood," which hit the bookstores just in time for Father's Day.
Pitts wades through his muddy relationship with an abusive, alcoholic father and shares his own struggle to become the kind of dad he wants to be to his five children. He introduces the readers to an array of black men who speak candidly about their failures and successes as fathers and the role models they had--or didn't have.
"The stereotype is that as men, we don't talk about our feelings. We tend to grunt," Pitts said. "The men I was speaking with surprised me by being very open and very articulate about their pain. It sort of shook my stereotypes about it."
Before anyone jumps on the defense, you should know that this isn't a woe-is-me memoir dogging black men as fathers. The focus is quite the opposite. It is about the many black men who push through the suffering inflicted on them by fathers who were abusive or absent to become fathers worthy of their children's love and respect.
Pitts doesn't shy away from writing about his own shortcomings as a parent. He regrets that he is not closer to the reticent stepson, now 25, and insecure stepdaughter, 21, who became his family in 1978 when he fell in love with their mother, Marilyn.
The stepdaughter got pregnant at 18 and, despite her parents' best efforts, remained unreachable. The father's agony is palpable:
Watching her slip away over the years had a devastating impact upon me. Made me painfully conscious of the limits of parental power. But at the same time, it made me more determined than ever not to lose another child. Never to lose another child.
This isn't a man who has the parenthood thing all figured out, which makes Pitts more real to readers who take the journey with him. But before the end, he pauses to offer advice extracted from the lessons he learned on the way to becoming a dad.
The book didn't start out as a memoir. After reading Pitts's column in the Atlanta paper, a publisher proposed that Pitts write a feel-good book about parenting in the 1990s. But Pitts offered a counterproposal.
"I felt that if I finally had a chance to deal with fatherhood in a book, I wanted to tackle some of the issues that had concerned me and challenged me as a father," he said.
Of course, a black man can't write honestly about fatherhood without exploring the burden that race heaps on black children. In the blunt, honest style that has made Pitts a respected columnist, he goes there. He shares his attempts to cushion the blow for his youngest daughter, now 8, before anyone could call her a racist name she didn't understand.
And he talks about trying to prepare his sons, now 16 and 14, to soar with the weight of race on their wings. One of the disturbing incidents Pitts describes happened in Prince George's County.
Pitts says that his son Marlon was involved in an ongoing dispute with a white girl at school. Three different times, the girl's boyfriend swerved a car in Marlon's direction while a passenger yelled racial insults from the window.
Things didn't get any better when Pitts's wife, Marilyn, went to discuss the matter with the girl's parents. A group of white students jeered at her from the front porch. Then, the mother stepped off the porch and declared herself "tired of you people."
The incidents surprised Pitts, a three-time winner of the National Headliner Award and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1992, who moved to Prince George's because he wanted to live in a place with a thriving black middle class.
There is resolution to Pitts's personal story. His book ends on a hopeful note--with a heart-rending letter of forgiveness to the father who died without making things right with his son.
"I feel a lot lighter," Pitts said. "It's like spring cleaning. You clean a lot of junk out of your soul."
Writing the book helped Pitts to heal. For others who still seek such healing, reading the book may be a good place to start. Pitts will discuss and sign copies of his book today at 7:30 p.m. at Borders Books Music & Cafe, in Bowie, 4420 Mitchellville Rd. He also will appear at Karibu bookstore, in the Prince George's Plaza, in Hyattsville, on Saturday from 3 to 5 p.m. On July 14, Pitts will be at the Oxon Hill Library, 6200 Oxon Hill Rd., at 7 p.m.
To comment or suggest a story idea, feel free to write me at 14402 Old Mill Road, Suite 201, Upper Marlboro, Md., 20772; send me an e-mail at frazierL@washpost.com; or call me at 301-952-2083.
CAPTION: Pitts says writing the book helped him to heal.
CAPTION: Writer Leonard Pitts Jr. lives in Bowie.