Charles Blow is The New York Times’s visual op-ed columnist. His memoir, Fire Shut Up in My Bones, tells of growing up poor and black in rural Louisiana.
JW: The opening scene of your book is unforgettable.
CB: I am a 20-year-old college student away from home. My mom calls and says, “Someone here wants to speak to you.” A voice says, “How’s it going, boy?” It is the voice of the older cousin who had sexually abused me when I was 7 years old. He followed that with bullying that was meant to keep me quiet. It had caused all sorts of torment for me. So I jump in the car, I have a gun in the car, I’m racing down the Interstate—to kill him. And I don’t. I pull off and turn around. I say, “You have to let this go. You can’t keep looking at the world through the eyes of a 7-year-old boy. You can’t give him that much power over your future.”
JW: A lot of us liberal middle-class white people are sort of shocked that a 20-year-old kid in Louisiana could get a gun so easily.
CB: In Louisiana, everybody had guns. I didn’t know of a single house in my little town where people didn’t have guns—rifles. We hunted, we shot snakes in the grass. Over our beds there were gun racks. My mother gave me a gun when I went away to college—“just in case,” she said. I wasn’t the only person to come to Grambling with a gun. I kept mine in the car.
JW: You grew up poor in rural Louisiana—we usually think of poor young black men today growing up in the projects in big cities.
CB: If you look at the counties that have the highest percentage of African-Americans, they are still in the black belt of the South. They are still where they have always been. At my grandmother’s in Kiblah, Arkansas, after the slaves were freed and the plantation owner died, his son gave a large proportion of the land to them, so they stayed. In the black South today, history isn’t so far away—the Civil War isn’t that far away.
JW: You went to college at Grambling in Louisiana. How did that go?
CB: I joined a fraternity, and that was another tremendous exercise in violence. The hazing of pledges is masculinity run off the rails. It’s an obscenity. It takes advantage of young men wanting to prove themselves physically—by submitting to abuse and enduring it—and then keeping it secret.
JW: When you were in college at Grambling, the CIA recruited you. How did that go?
CB: The CIA came to school to recruit. I applied for an internship. I thought it would look good on my résumé. They flew me to Virginia for a battery of tests, including a lie-detector test. Everything was going great until they asked me if I had ever had sex with a man. The child abuse from when I was 7 years old immediately flooded into my mind. I did not know how to answer the question. He wasn’t a man at the time; it wasn’t intercourse—so I said no. And the needle went crazy. I knew I had failed. I told the guy what I had never told anybody. He was not interested in hearing it—not at all. But he let me take the test over. This time, when he asked that question, I said yes. And the needle still said I was lying. I realized in that moment there was not a yes-or-no answer to that question. Which meant I would never be free of it. So I did not get an internship at the CIA.
JW: How can we protect LGBT young people today from predators?
CB: The data show that people who are LGBT have had a higher than normal prevalence of sexual abuse when they were younger. There are two schools of thought on this. One of them I completely disagree with: child sexual abuse is simply making people LGBT. There’s a dangerous and corrosive argument here: if there’s an environmental cause, then there must be an environmental “cure.” The other argument—the one I believe—is that children who will eventually identify as LGBT are more likely to be targeted for child sexual abuse. That means we need to create spaces where they can talk about what is happening to them. We need to make it safer for them to be vocal about what may be going on in their lives. Because predators depend on silence.