Leonard Pitts Jr. Biography
The syndicated commentaries of Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts are among the most widely read in the United States, appearing in about 150 newspapers. Pitts's columns offer insightful commentary on the American experience, particularly the African-American experience. Perhaps his most famous column was a stirring call to American unity penned the day after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Pitts drew on his own childhood as well as the lives of other African-American men in his bestselling book Becoming Dad: Black Men and the Journey to Fatherhood. After several nominations, Pitts was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2004.
Leonard Garvey Pitts, Jr., was born on October 11, 1957, in Orange, California. He and his three siblings grew up in the impoverished South Central section of Los Angeles, and his home life was far from ideal. His father drank heavily, let disputes escalate to gunfire, and was often unemployed. Yet Pitts remained philosophical about his upbringing, quoted as saying by reviewer Tim Engle in the Houston Chronicle that "I tend to think I was probably a lot luckier than some kids whose fathers weren't there." Pitts showed writing ability from the start. He whizzed through primary and secondary schools, skipping several grades, and entered the University of Southern California on a scholarship at age 15.
While Pitts was a student at USC, his father died of throat cancer. He majored in English and graduated summa cum laude in 1977. After finishing school, Pitts worked as a freelance writer and quickly found a market for his skills. He began writing for the Los Angeles magazine Soul even while he was still in school and worked as an editor there in the late 1970s. For much of his career, Pitts was a music reviewer for publications ranging from Musician to Reader's Digest. He supplemented his income by writing news and features for radio stations, working for Los Angeles station KFWB from 1980 to 1983.
In 1981 Pitts married the object of a crush he had had since elementary school: Marilyn Vernice Pickens. She had two children of her own by that time, and Pitts had fatherhood thrust upon him. The couple went on to have three more children. Pitts landed steadier radio jobs in the 1980s, serving as an editor for a program called Radioscope from 1983 to 1986 and as a staff writer for the music countdown show American Top 40 and its legendary host, Casey Kasem, from 1989 to 1991.
Pitts continued to take on freelance writing and production jobs, and as he navigated the complicated terrain of family life and began to reflect on his own background, his interests deepened. He wrote scripts for several documentary films in the late 1980s: King: From Atlanta to the Mountaintop (1986), Who We Are (1988), and Young Black Men: A Lost Generation (1990). These films garnered several awards, and Pitts was hired as a music critic by the Miami Herald, one of the best-respected newspapers in the United States, in 1991.
At first, Pitts continued his award-winning ways. He wrote enthusiastically about various kinds of music and linking music to the wider cultural backgrounds in which it arose. Pitts was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1992 after having won National Headliners and American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors arts criticism awards the year before. He was also, however, entering his late 30s, a watershed that few careers concerned with youth culture survive. Pitts's moment of recognition came when he was attacked by a group of drunks at a concert by the Irish rock group U2 in 1994. The following year he made the switch to a new columnist's slot at the Herald, writing about popular culture, race, and topics of general interest.
Pitts's new freedom as a writer once again brought him closer to his own roots. Addressing family life and the challenges he himself faced as a father of five, Pitts reflected on the conflicted status of fatherhood among African American men in a country where roughly half of black children were born to single mothers. Those reflections turned into Becoming Dad: Black Men and the Journey to Fatherhood, published by Longstreet in 1999. Because of his father, he wrote, "I am missing many things. Little pieces of myself that I ought to have." He mentioned, for example, that no one had ever taught him how to tie a necktie. Pitts traveled to his father's birthplace in Mississippi and interviewed numerous other African American fathers, successful and unsuccessful, in the course of writing the book.
Pitts wrote about race in about a quarter of his columns, but he was often identified with the issue after his column was picked up for syndication by the Knight Ridder News Service and became nationally popular. A liberal-leaning independent, Pitts sometimes made his column into a lively dialogue forum, printing letters from his detractors. The column that took Pitts to celebrity level, however, dealt not with American divisions but with American unity.
On September 12, 2001, Pitts faced the difficult task of addressing the terrorist attacks of the previous day. "It's my job to have something to say," His words were simple and galvanizing. "Did you want us to respect your cause?" he asked the still unidentified planners of the attack. "You just damned your cause.…Did you want to tear us apart? You just brought us together." He called the American people "a vast and quarrelsome family, a family rent by racial, social, political, and class division, but a family nonetheless." On that day, he wrote, "the family's bickering is put on hold. As Americans we will weep, as Americans we will mourn, and as Americans, we will rise in defense of all that we cherish."
Over 30,000 e-mails flowed in ("I stopped counting," Pitts told Editor & Publisher), and the columnist had to admit to mixed feelings on seeing the number of newspapers carrying his column jump by 10 percent. The column was circulated around the World Wide Web, reprinted in poster form, set to music, and widely quoted by politicians and television hosts. It brought Pitts an award for outstanding commentary from the American Society of Newspaper Editors and a Columnist of the Year nod from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.
Living in suburban Washington, D.C., with his family, Pitts broadened his activities in the early 2000s. After genetic tests by the widely publicized African Ancestry firm identified Mende and Songhay forbears in his background, he traveled to West Africa, writing about his experiences as he went. Back in the United States, he continued to earn awards from a host of leading journalistic organizations. In 2004 he served as Scripps Howard Visiting Professional at Hampton University in Virginia, and by that time he was riding high on a reputation as one of black America's most gifted communicators.
Pitts, Leonard, Jr., Becoming Dad: Black Men and the Journey to Fatherhood, Longstreet, 1999.
Editor & Publisher, November 26, 2001, p. 15.
Essence, November 1999, p. 100.
Houston Chronicle, June 20, 1999, Lifestyle section, p. 4.
Miami Herald, September 12, 2001.
"Leonard Pitts, Jr.," Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (June 19, 2005).
"Leonard Pitts, Jr.," Tribune Media Services, www.tmsfeatures.com/tmsfeatures/byline.jsp?custid=67&bylineid=97 (June 19, 2005).
"The Pulitzer Prize Winners: 2004," The Pultizer Prizes, www.pulitzer.org/year/2004/commentary/bio/ (June 19, 2005).
—James M. Manheim