In the aftermath of this summer’s racially motivated mass murder in Charleston, South Carolina, by an avowed white supremacist, there’s near-eerie prescience in Pitts’ historical novel, which juxtaposes events 40 years apart in the lives of its characters.
On Election Day 2008, Malcolm Toussaint, an African-American columnist for a Chicago daily, sets his career on fire by hacking an incendiary column about how he’s “tired of white folks’ bullshit” onto his paper’s front page the day the country’s about to elect its first black president. (Malcolm, embittered by a police shooting of an unarmed black man, is convinced Barack Obama’s going to lose, no matter what the polls say.) His white editor, Bob Carson, whose computer was used without his permission to post the column, is fired, and he sets off to have it out with Malcolm. But that confrontation may have to wait because Malcolm’s been abducted by a pair of white supremacists who plan to use the columnist in a terrorist attack on the eponymous park where the Obama campaign plans to celebrate its triumph that night. This Hitchcock-ian suspense story is interspersed with flashbacks to 1968, when a younger Malcolm, then a militant college dropout, encounters Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights leader's ill-fated trip to Memphis to aid striking garbage workers. There are also scenes during that same year of a younger, more idealistic Bob, whose interracial romance is sorely stress-tested by events in Memphis leading up to King’s murder. Pitts, a Pulitzer Prize–winning columnist making his third foray into fiction (Before I Forget, 2009; Freeman, 2012), sometimes seems to strain for effect while moving two very different narratives along. And the book's setup seems almost too prefabricated. (Yes, there were older black activists who neither liked nor entirely trusted Obama that year, but hardly any of them doubted toward the end that he’d win.) Yet the novel’s lapses are all but overwhelmed by its breakneck momentum, and it's infused with vivid characterizations and canny verisimilitude, especially in the ’68 passages. For example: in the relative hagiography of the present day, it’s hard for younger readers to believe that King didn’t enjoy unilateral support from all African-Americans, especially at the time of his death. Hence the sardonic labeling of MLK as “De Lawd” by Malcolm and other Black Power advocates.
Whatever its melodramatic excesses, Pitts’ novel, with urgency and passion, makes readers aware that the mistakes of the past are neglected at the future’s peril.