Leonard Pitts Jr. brings “Freeman” characters to life

Mar. 01, 2014 @ 06:48 PM

Sam had a compulsion to find his wife.

The last time he and Tilda saw each other, he was tied to a tree, getting whipped for attempting to run away and regain his freedom from the Mississippi plantation. Their only son had died on the journey, shot by a slave catcher. Tilda could only scream at the realization of her son’s fate.

The characters are trying to make their lives whole again after the end of the Civil War and Lincoln’s assassination. And for Leonard Pitts Jr., a nationally circulated columnist and 2004 Pulitzer Prize winner, these characters have been 30 years in the making.

Pitts shared excerpts from his recent novel, “Freeman,” at Durham’s main library on North Roxboro Street Saturday, about Sam, Tilda and a wealthy white war widow, Prudence, whose paths converge in the same Southern town.

Years ago, while Pitts was researching African-American history for a radio documentary, he came across the book “Been in the Storm So Long” by Leon Litwack. The pages within detailed what former slaves went through to reunite with their families, human details that are glossed over in history class.

African-American history, as Pitts had learned in grade school, had been the end of slavery and the goodness of Abraham Lincoln, Rosa Parks taking a seat at the front of the bus and Martin Luther King Jr. having a dream.

“If you look at the history books, black folks kind of disappear until 1955,” he said.

When former slaves tried to find loved ones — a sister who had been sold 15 years ago, a mother who was separated from her children, a love interest who had never been forgotten — they began to walk across the country looking for clues. They walked hundreds of miles with hope and courage, treading through the torn South still angered by the results of the war.

Pitts said he considers “Freeman” to be a love story above all else.

“You go back 150 years and there was a stereotype that African-Americans, that there was not love,” Pitts said. “That there was lust, but there was not love, and that we didn’t have access to a higher, finer emotion.”

History tends to repeat itself, he said. Blacks took to walking to find their families after slavery was abolished. Families did the same after the Holocaust.

That history “wasn’t written in pen and ink,” Pitts said. “It was written with feet.”

An audience member asked him if African-American history has been romanticized rather than laid down as hard fact.

Pitts agreed, saying stories of slavery have been hard to swallow, and that blacks need to deal with their residual anger and whites with their guilt, and that power will come from that.

“We have been in denial of our shared history for a number of years,” he said.

He also encouraged the audience to read about slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction and to recognize historical patterns that persist.

Pitts said he links the Trayvon Martin case, where a 17-year-old was shot and killed in 2012 by a neighborhood watch captain, with the case of 14-year-old Emmett Till being brutally murdered in Mississippi in 1955 after supposedly flirting with a white woman. Pitts links recent changes to voter ID laws to questionable voting rights practices years before, when people would place cannons outside of polling stations to discourage blacks from voting.

Pitts said all people need to do is pick up a book and start reading.

“If you do that, and you look at what’s going on right now in this country, you see it with different eyes,” he said.