Y? featured at Unity '99

Speech delivered by nationally syndicated columnist and author Leonard Pitts at the Unity '99 minority journalist convention in Seattle in July 1999. References to Y? are in boldface.

 

"Let me begin by telling you my story, if only so you’ll know what you’re getting yourself into.

I was five years when I told the people around me that I wanted to be a writer. Which naturally assured that there were soon a lot fewer people around me. They all went to hang around with normal kids. Me, I was the kind of kid who preferred reading the newspaper to playing tetherball. The kind who begged Santa Claus to bring him a typewriter when everybody else was dying for GI Joe with the King Fu grip. I remember in second grade how the teacher used to call me up to the front of the class to read stories I had written. She would praise me to high heaven -- such initiative, such creativity -- and then utter those fatal words: "Why can't the rest of you be more like Leonard."

You cannot imagine how popular this made me with the other guys. I became expert at slipping out of school unseen and running home just so I could avoid receiving their...congratulations.

Sometimes, of course, they caught me. Held me against a wall while expressing a sincere desire to forcibly re-arrange my facial features. Or they would suggest I perform certain anatomical impossibilities with the story I had just read in class. Or else, they might offer certain unsolicited opinions relative to my mother's choice in combat footwear.

Of course, I was not without a ready response on these occasions. "Some day," I would tell them, "you're going to be digging ditches for a company I own."

For some reason, I was under the impression that writing was a good way to get rich.

I read all the time, of course. Read Erma Bombeck's column in The Los Angeles Herald-Examiner. Read novels by Beverly Cleary. Read Stan Lee, the Marvel Comics writer, from whom I learned words like phantasmagorical, tintinnabulating, larruping and other terms I’ve never found a way to sneak into real life until just this second. When I wasn't absorbed in these masterworks of modern literature, I was writing, usually stories starring superheroes of my own devising. Chief among them, of course, was a fellow named Super-Leonard who had super strength, the ability to fly, and was never once forced to stand against a wall while some bigger guy insulted his mother's taste in combat footwear.

When I was 12, I discovered Writer's Market which, as most of you probably know, lists magazines that are looking for freelance writers. It seemed so gloriously easy to me -- you sent these people stories and they sent you money. I liked this, so I chose one of the magazines that offered the most money and wrote on a subject I knew very well. Which was ants. Carpenter ants, fire ants, soldier ants. I loved ants, so I put everything I knew on the subject into four very well-written pages and sent them off to this high paying magazine.

Then I camped out by the mailbox and waited for a reply. It came a few weeks later. I ripped the envelope open eagerly, unfolded the letter and...well, this is probably going to leave you shocked and surprised, but it turns out that Playboy magazine has absolutely no interest in articles about ants.

I was undeterred, though. Kept trying. Two years later, when I was 14, I had a poem published in The Sentinel, the black newspaper in Los Angeles. Four years after that when I was 18, I got the first of many bylines in SOUL, a black entertainment tabloid. Spent the next 18 years calling myself a music critic for that and various other publications. For the last four of those years, I was employed by The Miami Herald, where I covered everybody from Snoop Doggy Dogg to Barry Manilow. You ever try going from Snoop Doggy Dogg to Barry Manilow? From “smokin’ endo sipping on gin and juice” to “I write the songs that make the whole world sing?” You can get whiplash like that.

Pop music writing is a young man’s game. It requires a flexibility that, as I became older, I realized I no longer had. Suddenly, I didn’t get the same old thrill from clambering up on my seat to chant “When we party, we party hearty. When we boogie, we boogie woogie.” Suddenly, the stoned out guy puking near the elevator was young enough to be my son. Suddenly, I started feeling my age – which at the time, was 36. Although in pop music years, that’s…well, it’s dead.

So I asked my bosses for a new assignment, which is how I’ve wound up doing a column on family and social issues since 1994. And here I am. Or at least, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

When the good people at Knight Ridder asked me to address this august gathering, they told me I should try to be – and this is a quote – provocative and inspirational. Since they were paying for the plane ticket, I solemnly promised I’d do my best. But then, I lie a lot.

Truth is, I don’t know what it would take to provoke or inspire you. Heck, as journalists, we fancy ourselves immune to both. So instead, I figured I’d just talk to you about this job we do everyday. I figured I’d talk to you about telling stories.

There are days – more of them than we’d like, unfortunately – when this job is like getting root canal with a chain saw, except not quite as much fun. Days when the words won’t start and the meetings don’t stop. Days of wrestling headlines, deadlines and budgets smaller than Pat Buchanan’s heart.

But you know something? On the worst day you ever did, this is still the best job you could ever want. Because it allows us the opportunity – the high privilege – of giving voice to those who live otherwise in silence. Of making a place for the telling of stories that would not otherwise be told.

If we don’t do it, if we don’t engage our cameras and computers, our minds and hearts in this work, who will? Where will these stories go?

These are good questions to keep in mind when terms like “diversity” threaten to become mere catch phrases, abstract concepts to which we are supposed to aspire if we wish to consider ourselves enlightened. The truth is that achieving diversity is often a difficulty some folks in our business could do without, requires tough calls and extra effort they’d rather not make.

Hey, I can understand that. Diversity forces us to face some demanding questions. How do you create this new environment? How do you manage it so that you welcome the widest variety? How do you avoid marginalizing people? Can we envision an editor wearing his hair in corn rows? A publisher whose religious obligations require him to pray several times a day facing the East? How much should the work place change to accommodate such people? And how much should they change to accommodate the work place? Can we all just get along?

If you’re looking for easy answers, don’t look at me. And yet, one thing I know: The need to open our newsrooms, pages and airwaves to those with different colors of skin, ways of belief or orientations of sex ought to be – has to be – more than vague obligation or perfunctory burden. It has to be our highest work, one of the primary engines that drives us.

I wasn’t at the last Unity, but I’m told that the opening ceremony was a stirring sight. I’m told that drummers from the four families of humanity represented here entered the room from different directions and raised rhythm together. Man, I wish I’d seen that. I find the symbolism of that moment…inspiring.

Some years ago, I interviewed a drummer born in Jamaica who spent years touring West Africa and learning his craft. His name was Kofi Leo and he played one rainy night in Liberty City in Miami. The dancers were dancing, their faces shining with honest sweat, and his hands were alive, now blurring against the taut skin of the instrument, then caressing it softly like a lover, coaxing rhythm from his family of drums – the resonant junjun, the deep and mighty djembe, the sharp and demanding congo.

It’s hard to explain what I felt as I listened to him that night. It was like standing naked before the very first dawn. Like wading in the water of a river that human eyes had seen. Like catching whispers form a time when Earth was new and Africa was still home to us all.

Suddenly I understood, better than I ever had before, why it was that when West Africans came to these shores as slaves, one of the first things owners did was take away the drum. The drum was the way we spoke to one another. The way we thwarted and exhorted and wept and prayed and praised and raised ourselves from the pit of our own despair. The drum was the way we told the stories that reminded us of who we were.

Not that black people are the only ones with a legacy of drums. All the children of the African continent, when they left, took drums with them. Kofi Leo told me quote, “The Irish people have their drums, the Scottish people have their drums, the Indians of America, the aborigines of Australia, the rastas in Jamaica, the Hindustani people from India…”

We all have our stories. We all have our drum.

In the United States of America in 1999, the sound of those drums is brought to us via Channel 10 Action News or the Podunk Express Times. And you and I, we are privileged to be the gatekeepers, the women and men who determine whose drums are heard and how. So whose stories shall we tell?

For most of the years of media’s existence, the answer has always been the same. We would tell the stories of white males from the middle class. Other stories would be as invisible as if they didn’t even exist, or would matter only to the degree that they impacted upon the lives of those white men. But the change Sam Cooke once prophesied has, in some small measure at least, come, as evidenced by our presence here today. We stand here representing the racial rainbow and find ourselves expected, obligated, encouraged, to tell stories that have, historically, never been told before.

We are asked to bring the drums.

But there’s a problem, isn’t there? You cannot bring the drums to ears that refuse to hear them. Too often, as a profession, our ears are unwilling. I’m not even going to get into statistics, not going to deal with the fact that so-called minority journalists are still underrepresented in our newsrooms. I’m not going to talk about the crying need to bring in more journalists of color. I just want to deal with our inability to figure out what to do with the ones we already have.

You want to know something? The truth is, where diversity is concerned, I rather like the company I work for. Please understand that nobody asked me to say this, nobody is paying me to say this. More to the point, nobody could pay me enough to say it if I didn’t believe it. But I like KR because I tend to believe they just might be serious about the slogan on this button they’re passing out: Diversity, no excuses. If that slogan didn’t accurately reflect the corporate culture, there’s no way they would have put up with me for the last eight years. There’s no way I would look up the corporate ladder and see so many faces that looked like mine.

And yet even here, you sometimes get this sense that sometimes, they don’t quite know what to do with you. I mean, Lord knows I enjoy writing about black things. But I also enjoy writing about things, period. There’ve been too many occasions where I had to meet with my editors to remind them of this: “Hey, you know, there’s this movie coming out about the ship that hit the iceberg in 1912. I know there’s nothing ‘black’ about it, but the story has always fascinated me. When you’re assigning pieces, would you keep me in mind, please?”

I once had several of my editors tell me that I was not black enough. Six months later, these same folks came to me and complained that I had now become too black. Not that they were the only ones. Periodically, I’ve had readers also take it upon themselves to advise me on my need to become blacker or less black. I’ve come to feel like that TV set in the corner of the den, the old one where you can never quite get the color fixed so that everybody is pleased. I seem to be at the center of this new parlor game: Let’s Adjust The Negro!

I finally had to tell them all to get off my back. I will be just as black as I feel like being on a given morning.

As a minority journalist in a white-owned company, you live for a long time with this sense of having to “represent” something, of carrying the burden of other people’s expectations. Then, there’s the sense of being always on probation, always having to prove yourself. Like everyday is the first day. Like you’re never more than one slip from the unemployment line. It gets tiring.

Before our business can truly achieve diversity, it has to learn to value diversity. Has to learn to manage, embrace and exploit the advantages that come with having a variety of peoples on staff. Has to learn that even a 6’1” black guy can be moved by Titanic.

We need to do this because it will be key to our survival in the nation the Census Bureau now forecasts, one in which the idea of racial majority will soon be obsolete. More simply, we need to do this because it is the right thing to do.

And here, I’m guided again by my one time mentor, Stan Lee, the guy who, you will recall, taught me words like phantasmagorical, tintinnabulating and larruping.

Stan also taught me this axiom: With great power comes great responsibility. We have great power. We have the power to find the common humanity in the faceless other, the power to move people beyond stereotype and into thought. This is crucial work. I find that even now, in the supposed enlightenment of the 1990s, there is a yawning ignorance about the tribes of humanity who make up the American people. And at the same time, there’s an almost desperate curiosity.

Perhaps you’re familiar with the Yforum -- www.yforum.com. It’s a Web site started by Phil Milano of the Florida Times-Union for people different races, religions, age groups, sexual orientations or what have you to ask questions of one another. His idea was to create a place where people could learn about one another, ask intimate and maybe even offensive questions in a non-threatening environment. And other people, just everyday folks, would answer.

A very simple idea. Yet there was a hunger for it.

Phil tells me he’s been inundated with questions and answers, so many hundreds of thousands that he can’t even keep up with it. The YForum has been featured in, among others, The Cleveland Plain Dealer, CBS This Morning, the Detroit News, the Denver Post, the Boston Globe, the Atlantic Monthly, Associated Press, AsianWeek magazine, the West Australian, the Colorado Springs Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, LeMonde, Paris, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, the DesMoines Register, the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the Akron Beacon Journal, the Orange County Register, the San Antonio Express News, the Houston Chronicle and the Miami Herald where, I am exceedingly proud to say, my column was the first in the country to spotlight Phil’s forum.

I looked in on the site a few days ago. At the risk of ruining your afternoon, here are some of the questions I found. Is it true that black people have an extra muscle in their calves? Why does it seem that most male hairdressers, florists, entertainers, decorators and clothing designers are gay? Is there a way to tell the difference in Asian nationalities? Is it true that the direction the eyes slant is an indicator? Why do Jewish people eat Matzoh? Why is it that Caucasians seem to spend so much time on lawn care?

My absolute favorite, though, was a man who, in the first week of the Web site’s existence asked, “What would take place during a typical week night in a black family?

Hearing that, part of me wants to make bad jokes about roasting white babies on a bonfire of Michael Bolton CDs while eating chicken and drinking 40s. And part of me just wants to cry because the question, like so many others to be found on the site, is heartbreaking in the very mundaneness of it. It tells me that we are still mysteries to one another. So much so that even the most minor details are cause for wonder.

I had a white colleague spend the night in my house one time. He was so excited by it, must have mentioned two or three times that this would be his very first time staying overnight in a black person’s home. And I’m saying to myself...does he figure he’ll be sleeping on a red, black and green pillow case? Does he think the cornflakes are going to taste any different in the morning? I mean, what is it he’s looking for or expecting?

But by the same token, I understood what it was he was trying to say. These are lines we do not cross. And as a result, we live by myth and supposition. As a result, we live in ignorance.

Worse, that we don’t know one another well enough -- trust one another fully enough -- to have the sort of dialogue that might end the ignorance. Meaning not the feel-good town meetings President Clinton sponsored awhile back, but the honest and painful and informative discourse that might ultimately lead us to some sense of community. And worse than that, the overwhelming success of YForum tells us that people want to have that discussion, want to end their own ignorance, want to hear the stories...want to know.

I’m reminded of the white guy I knew in college back in the ‘70s who was dying to touch my hair because he wanted to know what an Afro felt like. I’m also reminded of how, in 1905, a white man named Alvin Borgquest wrote to the great black scholar W.E.B. DuBois, explaining that he, Borgquest, was doing research on the subject of crying as a release of emotion. Specifically, Mr. Borgquest wanted to know, “whether the Negro sheds tears.”

And the thing that saddens me is that it’s not so hard to imagine that question showing up on Yforum next week. Not difficult at all to believe some guy might write in to ask what a black person’s hair feels like. What’s that tell you about the job we haven’t done? What’s it say to you about the stories we haven’t told?

In the face of our failure, ignorance flourishes. And gaps widen. It’s telling that, objectively speaking, I might have more in common with the white guy who lives next door to me in the suburbs than I might with a black man who lives in the heat and hardness of the city. But that doesn’t matter – not to them, not to me, not to the police officer who might be tailing one or the other of us some dark night. Race becomes the difference that obscures all others.

So people tend to say black, Native American or Hispanic when they mean other things. When they mean poor, or ill-educated, or criminal. As if we held the patent on this stuff. As if doing bad were genetic predisposition, something in the blood. It’s like Chris Rock once said: A black man is born a suspect. The same is true for a Native American man or a Hispanic. An Asian man, of course, is born making straight A’s. And if the stereotype is intended as a compliment, guess what? It’s still a stereotype, still a noose around the neck of individuality, still a constriction of character, still a denial of uniqueness and personhood.

These words – African-American, Hispanic, Asian, Native American – have so much power. They confer identity, a sense of place, a pride of purpose, a grounding in historical trial, a connection to something larger. They confer roots.

But for all that, the power of those words carries an important limitation that uninformed minds and small hearts sometimes forget. If you tell me that you’re Native American or Hispanic or whatever, I might be able to infer some general things about you, about your beliefs, maybe about your experiences. I can make some educated guesses. But I cannot know who you are. That’s the mistake people keep making – looking at a people while trying to fathom a person.

I can’t know who you are, what you think and feel, until I look into your eyes and learn your name and hear your story. Your individual story. That’s our job. We are the story tellers. We are the ones who put skin on stereotypes and faces on fears. We are the ones who carve individual lives from the anonymity of monolith.

When we learn to do this, we create a product that is accessible to more people. This makes good business sense.

In opening ourselves to more people we create an understanding that “America” comes in many colors and is spoken in many accents. This makes good social sense.

Finally, in helping to foster this understanding, we accept the responsibility that comes with the power. This makes good moral sense. But we cannot do any of these things effectively until we get our own house in order, cannot get the nation to pay attention to drums we ourselves are unable to hear.

Our job is to introduce America to itself. To remind us that we are many people from many houses come by many paths to this one place.And we all have our drums.

Listen.

Listen.

Listen."