Leonard Pitts: Opening up to women’s stories

(Mark Lennihan | AP Photo) In this June 1, 2017 file photo, author Jesmyn Ward speaks at Book Expo America in New York. Ward, Masha Gessen and Frances Fitzgerald are among this year’s finalists for the National Book Awards.

A few words about my sexism.

Nerd that I am, I keep a book diary, i.e., a list of the 40 or 50 books I read and listen to each year. In 2016, while perusing said list, I made a discovery that startled me: there were almost no women on it.

That year, I plowed through 46 books by the likes of Stephen King, Walter Mosley, Bruce Springsteen and Carl Hiaasen. But the only woman was Tananarive Due — and she's a friend.

Intrigued, I checked my diaries for other years and most showed a similar result: 40 to 50 books, one to three of them by women. This bugged me, so I began talking to women in the book world about it. A few pointed out that female authors are less likely to be reviewed or publicized, meaning that I, as a reader, was less likely to even be aware of them.

Maybe that explains some of it. But I still believe that at some subconscious level, I was also choosing not to read women. Understand: I feel no obligation to peruse novels about sexy vampires, kinky businessmen or any of the other stuff traditionally considered "chick lit." But when women write in fields that interest me — history, historical fiction, spy novels, biography, etc. — I should be reading them. And I was not.

Yes, there is a point here larger than my personal reading habits. Call it an argument for intentionality.

I never considered myself a sexist. I support equal pay, the ERA and reproductive freedom. I stand with the #MeToo movement. I took my granddaughters to see “Wonder Woman,” “Hidden Figures” and “Captain Marvel.” And yes, some of my best friends are women.

But sexism — like racism, like homophobia — isn’t just about what you consciously do or believe. It is also about — maybe even mostly about — what happens down in the substrata of self. It is about the assumptions you make without realizing you’ve made them, the attitudes you hold without realizing you hold them.

People tend to resist that idea. That's how you get a racist saying, "I'm not a racist" after doing or saying some completely racist thing. By his lights, he's telling the truth. He has no Klan robe in his closet, no Confederate flag on his car, and he listens to Jay-Z. But what he fails to understand, what we all too often fail to understand, is that it is possible to say the right things, feel the right things, do the right things, and still be wrong.

Like me, an inveterate reader (and avowed feminist) who didn't read women. I closed myself off from their stories, their perspectives, their voices, without even realizing I had done so.

You didn't know that until I told you and I suppose I could've kept it to myself. But I wanted to hold myself accountable. In confronting one's sexism — or, again, one's racism or homophobia — it is not enough simply to think good thoughts. No, there is a need to be intentional.

That's why, in the last few years, I've made it a point to add the likes of Jodi Picoult, Angie Thomas, Sally Field, Carol Anderson, Jesmyn Ward and Tara Westover to my reading list. It's up to about 25 percent women and I'd like to bump it a little higher (yes, recommendations are welcome).

Maybe it seems stilted and artificial to you to deliberately seek out women authors. Maybe it is. But the alternative is to trust my good intentions, and my book diary proves I can't. Indeed, the untrustworthiness of good intentions is a big part of the reason affirmative action remains a regrettable necessity all these years later.

Because good intentions don't change things. Purposeful people do.

Sometimes, they do it one book at a time.

Leonard Pitts Jr.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald. lpitts@miamiherald.com