“Writing in general by black men from the south is very slim. To the degree that it exists—it’s women.” It’s a Thursday in early October and we’re at The Lamb’s Club in Midtown, a high-priced food depository where hundred-dollar business lunches have become daily rituals. Amid the clatter of silverware and conversation, New York Times columnist Charles Blow opens up about his new memoir, Fire Shut Up in My Bones—a stirring testimony of growing up in Louisiana and discovering what it means to be a man.
Blow, in a tailored gray suit, cites Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, and Toni Morrison as his literary godmothers. And though Ernest Gaines has equally influenced his writing—Gaines is perhaps best known for The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and A Lesson Before Dying—Blow says the south is starved for more stories from black men. “The Black Belt still exists!” he continues. “There are all these men. Where are their stories? We just don’t have them.”
Now we do.
Gawker: The book opens with a terrifying and traumatic admission: that you had been sexually abused as a child, and by a family member no less. So why tell this story now?
Charles Blow: I always find that an interesting question, because the writing of the book is not now. It took nine years to get out. If you could time it better, that’d be great, but that’s not the way that it works. However, in 2009, was when I knew the things I was writing—personal essays that I thought I might sell to a magazine—should be written as a book. That was was when these two little boys killed themselves. They were both 11 years old. One’s name was Jaheem [Herrera], he was in Atlanta, and the other was Carl [Joseph Walker-Hoover], who was in Boston. They both hanged themselves—ten days apart from each other. And for the same reason: they both had endured tremendous amounts of homophobic bullying. Carl’s happened first, then Jaheem. I don’t even think he knew the other kid had killed himself that way.
I remember thinking, This can’t happen on my watch. I know that pain; I know that story; I know what it’s like to endure homophobic bullying and to think that suicide is the only way out of it. And I knew it from both sides: I knew it as the kid who felt that way and, as a parent, I could imagine that devastating sorrow of walking into a room and having to cut down an 11-year-old child. So I just said, They may not have had the language and the wherewithal to stop it, but I can write that story.
Speaking of your own sexual assault, you write: “Instead, the secret fed on my silence, morphing it into something more dangerous. It spread, consuming me, eating me hollow. In the fall, we went back to school, and I began to disappear.” You were eight when all this happened, and the thought of suicide entered your mind. A certain psychological and emotional trauma had taken its toll, maybe even more so than the physical trauma.
Well, I think that there is a psychological trauma of the abuse itself and when I made it clear to the abuser that I did not want to take part in it. In my case, what was even more traumatic was the bullying. Because at least with the abuse it had happened once in the middle of the night, and I thought I might be able to put that in some sort of context. I could say, Yes that was horrible and I’m not forgiving it. But bullying follows you into the daylight. The feeling of ostracism that is a product of the bullying—it feels suffocating. And all of that together was—not being able to tell anyone that this is the reason this person is doing this to me, that they’re trying to keep me quiet, that they’ve done something horrible to me —all of that becomes the big secret. It is a psychological weight. And trying to hold it as a child, not even knowing exactly what it is and how to deal with it, to have parents and professionals there to help you out with what is happening, was dangerous.
You said the writing of the book is not “now,” but looking at what’s recently happened with Ray Rice, Greg Hardy, and Adrian Peterson—instances of domestic and family abuse in the news—do you see the book as a vehicle for discussing abuse within families? I think it’s something we don’t always want to talk about.
I think there are two competing impulses. As a writer, you have a story, you feel like you’ve narrowed down what it can be, and you want to get it out—I think that lives apart from whatever sociological impulses there may be or benefits there maybe be. I’m not an advocate. I did not write as an advocate. But I fully understand that there are themes here that overlap with a lot of issues that I advocate on when I’m writing a column, and that advocates may be able to use the book in that way. And if they can, I’m more than happy.
Looking at the early years of your life, and the boys from Gibsland Elementary—Russell, Alphonso, etc— you write: I was “a boy full of life” … “I was a blank slate. I could be whoever I said I was, whoever they wanted me to be. I could transcend my life by transforming myself. And so I did.” This is interesting, because even as you are now being accepted, I also see this act of “transforming” as a form of suppression, of rejecting your agency, your selfhood.
I don’t know if identity is even forming—you’re so young. I come back to that school and I’m in the 4th grade. I don’t even know how much identity there is to express, but it’s the kind of common thing when you change schools. Nobody knows what you were like at the last school. So they assume I am someone I am not, and I realize you can simply be whoever people think you are. And that kind of plasticity to who you are as a person becomes very clear to me and a prominent feature of my life—the idea of reinvention.
The book is an unraveling of innocence and manhood, but there is this undercurrent of duality that is explored throughout—being and not being. You’re constantly fighting, it seems, with the man you want to be and the man others want you to be.
Life, if you truly live it, is a search for truth. I am trying to find what is truest for me—in all forms. Where do I feel most comfortable in the world? I do a lot of pendulum swings, swinging from one extreme to another, trying to find where the middle is for me. This book is about that journey to truth. That it’s not always pretty; sometimes it’s actually ugly. But eventually, if you search hard enough, long enough, and earnestly enough, you can find it.
Are you still on that journey?
As long as you’re alive, on some level, you’re on some journey toward some deeper understanding of truth. There may be a basic truth that you can come to understand, but you don’t necessarily always know the depth of it. And we’re always learning a bit about ourselves. And we’re also always changing a bit in who we are, and giving ourselves flexibility to change. To understand that growth is a permanent feature of life allows you to continue that journey.
Given you were so young when a lot of this happened, when did the weight of everything—the sexual abuse, the ostracism, and so on—hit you? Was there an “Oh shit” moment? Because when you’re young you don’t necessarily have the tools to process what’s going on.
I think, and that’s why this is the climax of the book, that moment when I’m at the CIA building when everything collapses—all of the artifice I’d built up around myself, this idea that I could be whoever I wanted to be. No, actually. They hook you up to this machine, and you don’t even know what the truth is. And this machine won’t lie back to you. In that moment, everything fell apart.
The book challenges static representations of what manhood should be or look like or talk like. I’m curious, what does being a man mean to you?
I believe that we have drawn masculinity in this incredibly narrow, rigid, dangerous way. We think of it as a peak, and I think of it as an ocean.
Dangerous in what sense?
Dangerous in the sense of—writing a note to a song so high only a few people are meant to hit it, and nobody is meant to hold it. And so, boys are constantly confronting this notion of failure because they cannot live up to idea of people saying to them, Man up! Be a man! And they don’t know what that is because they’re just trying to be human. And being human is sometimes fragile. I believe we have to redraw our collective concept of what masculinity is so that it includes the possibility of difference and variation. And once we do that we free these kids up to be kids, and to be human beings. Also, allowing them to be honest about things they are experiencing, things people don’t traditionally identify with masculinity. Because there’s no way to be a real man without being an honest man. So when we force these boys to lie and suppress, we’re robbing them of truth and honesty and all the real things we would like an archetypical real man to be.
How does your understanding of masculinity inform or shape how you raise your children?
I try to give them latitude. Nature does a lot of things. There is testosterone. I have two boys and a girl, and there are differences there. And that’s nature doing whatever it’s going to do. But I’d want to not overlay onto that a kind of societal pressure—to make you perform and to make you be something. If you cry, I don’t say No, don’t cry. I say, Get it out. It’s just a different way of looking at what it means to be boys and grow into men.
Was there any hesitation in telling this story and having to face them?
When I finished the first draft—we have family meetings—we sat down at the dining room table, and it wasn’t even a bound book at the time, so I printed out and bound three versions of it. I said, You guys should read this, and I explained to them in broad outlines, but they were kind of nonplussed about it. They started talking about their own issues of bullying in school, and I thought, Did they hear me? Are they really understanding what I’m saying. So, a year later we had a bound copy, and I wanted to have another family meeting. I went back through it again, and they were still like, Dad who cares? My oldest read it in one night, and the only thing he really asked me was, Why didn’t you develop my mom’s character more? It was like he was being an editor or something [laughs]. It just doesn’t phase them in that way.
I guess it’s a testament to your parenting.
Perhaps. Or maybe it’s just the times, or a generational thing.
I want to shift conversation to what’s been transpiring in the news—regarding the killing of all these young men and women. Reading your book, and having previously read Jesmyn Ward’s book last year, Men We Reaped, which considers the deaths of five men in her life who all pass within a four-year period, one of which is her brother, what do you think it is—this sort of worthlessness the world finds in black life? There are these obstacles we can’t seem to overcome. Or, maybe not overcome, but we keep coming up against them, right? Is there a way we can begin to get past that?
First comes the recognition that we are devaluing black and brown bodies. And that that is not even a new phenomenon, that that is an extension of an American phenomenon, in fact it is even a world phenomenon. There is a mountain of social science that ranges from doctors not prescribing pain medication to black kids at the same rate as they do for white kids with similar illnesses to spanking being more prevalent among black boys. When you think about that body, and the violence that it must endure—
Right, like the word Ta-Nehisi Coates’s constantly used in his reparations essay, “plunder.” It’s similar to what he was getting at. I keep thinking about how there is not only always something coming at us, but something being taken from us.
Right. And endurance becomes this ambient thing in your life; it becomes your constant. It is not just to play and grow up and fall in love, but it is to endure. It becomes the paramount motivation in your life. The tragedy when you hear young men say, Oh I never thought I’d be 18 or 21 without going to jail or being in the grave. I’ve heard this too much. If that is being drilled into your mind, what kind of psychological damage does that do to you, and to your relationship to society? And in addition to that, whatever damage is being done, society is amplifying the damage by misconstruing the data and concepts so that we overestimate black crime, we overestimate black hostility, we overestimate black aggression. We ascribe it everything dark and negative. In that kind of hostile milieu of black bodies that have been tortured in a way, in a system that is designed to destroy it, these concepts of black being dangerous and wrong, you can have the unfortunate crossing of those wires and you get shootings. I don’t know how to fix that. I don’t know if I’m equipped to answer that.
Maybe not “fix,” but you’re in a very powerful post at the Times. You have a platform every week to talk about whatever you want, or at least what’s topical in the news, do you—
Well, my job is to shine a light. Illuminating and educating as best I can is the tool that I have. Other people have different tools. And hopefully they can use what I do in their advocacy, in their boots-on-the-ground sort of work in neighborhoods, changing minds person to person. Other than that, I’m not sure how it changes.
[Photo via Beowulf Sheehan]