Author Charles Blow takes center stage with his story of self.
Writer Charles Blow wasn’t born at the New York Times, though he admits playfully “I’ve been there pretty much my whole life.” In his own way, Mr. Blow is an institution in the media business, with a fan base that’s unquestionably growing thanks to the release of his new book: Fire Shut Up In My Bones.
But long before the spotlight was aimed at him and crowds of people became his calling card, Mr. Blow was a quiet and thoughtful kid who spent most of his time alone reading iconic figures like Maya Angelou and James Baldwin.
Born in the middle of nowhere at the opening of 1970s, Mr. Blow, who was the youngest boy in his entire neighborhood, recalls his earliest memory as watching a close family friend, a woman named Ma’am Grace, pass away.
“When she left the room she took the air with her. No one could breathe, they could only scream,” he said, while being interviewed onstage by award-winning journalist Solomon Jones at The Free Library of Philadelphia.
Mr. Blow’s next major memory—or at least the one which he’s made public—came when he was molested by his male teenage cousin at age seven.
Though there was no penetration, the act of sexual abuse—and the “homophobic bullying” that followed once young Charles “found the language” to tell his cousin “I don’t want you to do this to me ever again”—was enough to cause serious trauma and severely blur the lines between sex, intimacy, attraction and identity.
“People who prey on younger children are gifted at recognizing the difference in children before they can recognize the difference in themselves,” said Mr. Blow, who acknowledged that child sexual abuse takes away your right of natural development into the person who you would most naturally become. “The predatory behavior depends on isolation,” he continued, “and it depends on silence and darkness—he was able to see those things in me.”
While he still labels his cousin as an abuser, Mr. Blow wants it to be part of the conversation that “he was a kid, too.”
That sensibility seems to have come with age. When Mr. Blow was still in college and received a call from his mother’s number and heard his cousin’s voice on the other end, he jumped in his car half dressed, with a gun, ready to kill him.
It was also during his college years that his life, again, drastically changed … this time for the better.
The business editor of the Shreveport Times, where Mr. Blow worked as an intern, encouraged him to go to Atlanta for a job fair where the New York Times was expected to have a booth.
A little reluctant, Mr. Blow eventually made the trip—driving down with a friend and sleeping on an associate’s sofa—only to be told by the guard at the door that he “needed to register.”
Upon learning of the requirements, Mr. Blow pulled out $40 bucks for the entry fee, borrowed a pencil, and wrote up and the required essay—he made it in. However, once he got to the booth for the New York Times, they informed him of their registration policy—of course he wasn’t registered for that either—but he choose to wait patiently for six hours, hoping someone who was on the list wouldn’t show.
As the crew was breaking down, they gave in and listened to his pitch.
He remembers them calling his presentation “very impressive.” At this point he wasn’t too concerned with getting the position, as he was in awe that the NYT called him and his unique set of visual journalism skills impressive.
The next day he went to the job fair to hit the booths he missed because of his six-hour stint with the NYT. As he was making his rounds, people informed him that representatives from the NYT were looking for him.
“I thought I had picked up someone’s pen,” he said.
He made his way back to the booth and was told that while the NYT didn’t currently have a graphic internship, they made one for him: Charles Blow, a black man, became the first-ever graphic intern at the New York Times, the largest metropolitan print newspaper in the United States.
The internship grew into a paid position when Mr. Blow suggested to the C-suite that they take the freelance budget and pay him a salary to do the Op-charts on staff.
Once he was a hired, the suits suggested adding words to introduce the charts—400 words to be exact.
With the addition of text, Mr. Blow questioned his title. The decision maker, on the phone and shooing him out of the room, called him a columnist.
It took a moment for him to grasp the significance of that word: columnist—he needed to go outside for air.
He soon adjusted to his new role and quickly rose to prominence. But still, even with the high-profile gig, Mr. Blow—not including a small essay he wrote for Essence about doing his daughter’s hair—hadn’t done any real writing, in terms of narrative building, since he was in college—he had just been “writing scenes.”
But upon hearing the news of young boys who committed suicide because of homophobic bullying, Mr. Blow knew he had to aggregate the essays he had written over the years and write his book because he “knew the pain.”
Touting James Baldwin and Maya Angelou as lifesavers because he could see himself when reading them as a child, Mr. Blow reveals his reasons for printing, bounding and promoting his story is due to the fact that not a lot of literature by men comes out of the rural south and that he wanted to make sure some kid who was growing up where he grow up had at least one text where they could see themselves.
“Diversity in art is so incredibly important,” he notes.
Out from the shadows of his lively older brother James—the “golden kid” everyone adored—Mr. Blow has traveled from the middle of nowhere to the center of it all and now is taken center stage with his story of self.
Mr. Blow should be celebrated, as he’s a real-time, real-life reminder of the transformative power of storytelling.
Thanks for reading. Until next time, I’m Flood the Drummer® & I’m Drumming for JUSTICE!™