Being the father that his never was

Author: In `Becoming Dad,' columnist Leonard Pitts tries to right the wrong of his own alcoholic, inattentive dad.

June 18, 1999|By Robert Guy Matthews | Robert Guy Matthews,SUN STAFF

BOWIE -- Leonard Pitts was never that good at street ball. But today, he's throwing caution, and perhaps a little pride, to the wind during a spirited game of one-on-one.

Pumped, the 41-year-old takes it to the net, barely brushing past his opponent, and slams the ball in for two points. But seconds later, his opponent swipes the ball away and drops it back into the bucket.

The opponent is his grandson, a 3-year-old beanstalk of a boy named Eric. And Eric is winning.

"Come on in, honey, it's getting hot," says Pitts' wife, Marilyn, perhaps looking to salvage her husband's battered pride.

"It's not that hot," says Pitts, sounding more winded than he'd like. "I'm just getting old."

Something so simple as a game of basketball in the driveway doesn't mean a whole lot to Eric, or to any of Pitts' children who regularly played ball with their dad. To them, this is how dads are supposed to be with their sons and grandsons.

But for Pitts, it's his way of righting a wrong; of relating to his children in a better way than his father did with him.

In his new book, "Becoming Dad: Black Men and the Journey to Fatherhood," Pitts chronicles how his volatile and often empty relationship with his father affected his ability to raise his own children.

Pitts wants to be everything his father wasn't: Dependable, open, strong and, above all, a good role model.

It is a book about fathers and sons, but more specifically it is about how black fathers can make or break a family.

Pitts, a syndicated columnist for the Miami Herald whose column appears in The Sun, sits in his two-story home in Bowie, surrounded by the photos of his five children. Their karate trophies and certificates almost clutter the tables, walls and window frames of his modest sitting room.

"Father's Day with my father," says Pitts, "I can hardly remember them. I suppose we gave it a good show."

Pitts' father died 23 years ago. He doesn't remember if he cried at the funeral. "Probably not," he says.

Today, Pitts revives his father's memory again. The first time was a couple of years ago when he decided to write the book. He needed to come to terms with whether he hated his father or loved him. He still doesn't know, but the journey has been cathartic and, he says, he has forgiven him.

The elder Pitts was an alcoholic, an alternately abusive and charming man. He settled arguments with shotguns and boldly cheated on his loyal wife. His relationship with his four children was abysmal. He didn't play any sports with his son and, in fact, chided his wife for trying to make a "punk" out of Leonard.

"But, he was there," Pitts says.

Too many African-American children can't claim the same. Nearly 60 percent of the black families are headed by single-family households. Nearly all are headed by the mothers.

So in a sense, Pitts says that he had it good compared to a lot of the children today.

"In the short term, we would have been better if he were not there," says Pitts. "But in the long term, this causes an emptiness in the black family that is destructive."

For sure, Pitts is not breaking new ground with his book. For decades, scholars, actors and others have called for the resurrection of the black family. Pitts says that he is simply adding his name and experiences to the list.

"I am so appalled by the materialism that has crept into the black culture," Pitts says. "As fathers, we value ourselves by how much money we bring into the household."

Too often, black fathers are being allowed to pay the bills or pay child support and not being held to a higher standard for child-rearing, he says. Black men have to know that their children need the money and the involvement that only fathers can provide.

Curiously, says Pitts, black women have unwittingly let their men off the hook.

"It is the myth of the strong black woman," says Pitts. "Too many black women are saying that they can do it all. That they don't need a man."

But he warns black women: "You may be strong black women and your children may be very good, but there is still something that they don't have without a father in the house."

He says that black women should hold their men's "feet to the fire" and insist that they see moneymaking and child-rearing as equally important.

Pitts, a father of five (two stepchildren and three biological) is also rearing his grandson Eric.

He says he doesn't worry about whether his two sons and grandson will be good fathers. They will be, he says.

"I don't think you can ignore the importance of a good example," he says. "Seeing your father be a good father is the best thing."

Leonard Pitts will discuss and sign "Becoming Dad" at 6: 30 p.m. Monday at Enoch Pratt Free Library, 400 Cathedral St.

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