Sunday, May 27, 2018
Books

Review: In 'Freeman,' by Leonard Pitts Jr., freed slaves piece together shattered lives

Lincoln is dead. The Confederates have surrendered. After near self-destruction, a fractured country begins to put itself back together.

And in Leonard Pitts Jr.'s new novel, Freeman, newly freed former slaves set out to reassemble their lives, loves and families.

"I've always been fascinated by this period in American history," says the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and commentator.

African-Americans piecing together shattered lives: Freeman is a myth of what's humanly possible, a needed story about little-known heroism, and a shadow thrown forward to the struggles of American families in the 21st century.

Pitts says the germ of this, his second novel, was planted in the 1980s, when he read the book Been in the Storm So Long, by Leon F. Litwack.

"What tugged at my heart," Pitts says, "was all the things the slaves did to reconstruct their families, which had been torn apart by slavery. This was 1865, no computers, no telephones, no records of any use. Against all these odds, these people go through herculean efforts to get back to brothers, sisters, fathers, sons, loved ones."

Sam, of Freeman, is one such character. His quest begins in Philadelphia, where he has a secure job as a librarian. But he leaves in search of Tilda, the mother of his son. He hopes she is still in Mississippi, where they once made a home.

"Many Americans, I'm finding, don't know a lot about what people went through," says Pitts, speaking by phone from Washington.

What he learned from his research, he says, is that "these people honored the social institutions they had been denied, and they sought the dignity of things like marriage, the documents, even when they could not read."

Sam is not married to Tilda, slaves having been barred from marriage. "But the point is, he considers himself married to her," Pitts says, "which is what drives him to take these measures."

Pitts, 54, is a widely syndicated columnist for the Miami Herald. He won the 2004 Pulitzer for commentary. His column "From here we'll go forward," published the day after Sept. 11, 2001, is often cited as one of that decade's best.

Pitts is a writer who often thinks in terms of family. You can see that in his 2006 nonfiction book, Becoming Dad: Black Men and the Journey to Fatherhood. So does Freeman speak in those terms to the present moment?

"There's an implicit comment, I suppose, on what has become of family in the African-American community in the 150 years since the Civil War," he says. "The stereotype, and at times the reality, is dysfunction, difference, absenteeism, and when you put that against what the freed slaves did to get back together, it's hard not to feel that the past comments on the present."

Pitts extends that point to the uncomfortable, and broadly echoed, "disconnect, free-floating anger, between African-American men and women, particularly among singles. It seems in large ways we've given up on each other."

Tales of heroic efforts at reconciliation among former slaves act as contrast and reminder: "Here we have a man saying: 'I'm going to walk 100, 200, 600 miles to find this woman. We're not married, but I'm going to find her because I love her.' "

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