Matters of race at the Texas Book Festival

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Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Leonard Pitts Jr. jumps back and forth from writing newspaper columns and writing fiction, and he says there’s a big difference. A column has length requirements, and you have to stick to the facts, he says. But in writing fiction, you’re trying to “figure out who you are” and get to “the truth.” He says that’s what he was trying to do in “Grant Park,” which jumps back and forth between 1968, the year of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and 2008, the year of Barack Obama’s election as president.
Despite what some saw as incredible progress since the civil rights movement, Pitts says the theme running through “Grant Park” is “the disillusionment of people of came of age in the Sixties and to see things they thought were won for all time steadily eroded.”

“There’s been a chipping away of rights,” he said.

At the same time, in the C-SPAN2 Tent, author Ari Berman was discussing just that. The author of “Give Us the Ballot” contends that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 has been steadily under assault by people who “have set their sights on undoing the accomplishments of the 1960s civil rights movement.”

Berman contends the assault has come through the Supreme Court, which has tended to hold a conservative view that the act simply provides “access to the ballot,” rather than the broader view that the act should “police a much broader scope of the election system,” including “greater representation for African-Americans and other minority groups.”

At his session, Berman noted that new barriers to the ballot box have been established in various states, including the voter identification law in Texas and cuts in same-day registration and early voting in North Carolina.

Racial matters also played a key role at another panel on Sunday, but it was a more lighthearted affair. Margo Jefferson, author of “Negroland,” talked about her memoir, which examines growing up as a privileged African-American in Chicago. Jefferson was asked by a member of the audience whether her parents, who imposed rigorous codes of conduct on her, were approving of the rise of African-Americans in pop culture, people like Chuck Berry. She said her parents were never fans of rock ‘n’ roll and preferred jazz. Jefferson was then asked what her parents thought of Elvis Presley. She just smiled and said: “They were very disdainful.”


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