Charles Blow had just held a probing, powerful conversation with the Washington Post opinion writer Jonathan Capehart in front of a packed room at the Aspen Ideas Festival. He had spoken about some of the rawest material in his memoir, Fire Shut Up In My Bones—about being a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, about being a false father and then a real one, about picking up a gun with the intent to kill. And I wasn’t going to ask him about any of that. I was going to ask him about diversity.
Capehart and Blow had managed to keep the conversation light, even while probing some of the darkest traumas recounted in Blow’s memoir. Painful stories gave way to moments of levity and bursts of laughter. During the audience Q&A, a young man approached the mic, sounding somewhat discomfited by the tone of the room. He asked Blow how it felt, being black in a room “full of people who laugh at the oppression you wish to share with them.”
“The laughter part doesn’t bother me,” Blow replied, “because it is such a part of me that is never going to be—that I’m never going to suppress. I always tell people that true diversity means showing up, being who you are as a diverse person. That I show up every day this same guy. And I am going to kind of exhibit myself in the same way with you as I do with my friends in the barber shop. You’re going to get a little laugh. Sometimes I’m going to be pissed off. All of that’s me.”
“But it’s important to me that I understand all of my diversity,” Blow went on. “A lot of people will say to me, Charles, you’re the only black columnist at The New York Times. And I say, no, I’m the only Southern columnist at The New York Times.”
“I don’t picture myself at the intersection,” he said when I asked him about being both Southern and a Times columnist. “Although that may very well be where I am. I don’t look at New York City and see a vast metropolis, I see a collection of small towns … You only see people who see things in the same way that you do and take the train the same places you have.” Blow grew up in a small, rural town in Louisiana. Even if you live in New York City, if you’re going to the same drugstore and office and coffee shop and grocery store every day, he pointed out, you’re more-or-less living a small-town life.
I asked Blow whether the different facets of his identity ever allowed him to view his own experiences from a critical distance. Being from the rural South, he replied, “does provide a certain remove from what I’m experiencing, the life I’m living in New York.” In terms of his writerly voice, he said, “it implies a tremendous remove, because it’s a different way of talking, and a different way of structuring language. It’s more about colloquialism and wisdom than it is about learning and intellect.” Not that those things aren’t valued just as much where he came from, he hastened to point out. It’s just that “the way we think about what it means to be wise is different.”
Given Blow’s statement about “always showing up as the same guy,” whether at work or in the barber shop, I wondered about his experiences of code-switching. Adjusting one’s self-presentation or patterns of speech to fit different contexts is a natural, near-universal human behavior. Even at The New York Times, Blow said, he doesn’t look around and see a storied institution, a place where he feels pressured to assimilate. He sees the place he grew up professionally.“There’s no conscious code-switching,” he said. “If it’s happening, I’m not necessarily aware of it.”
“I came into these spaces so young, not even knowing [code-switching] is something that you should do,” he said. “I grew up in a small town. I went to a school that had been the first college for African Americans in all of Louisiana. … My sense of what blackness was was so different, polishing oneself did not feel like switching at all.”
Blow mentioned the scene from Do the Right Thing where Buggin’ Out asks Sal the pizzeria owner why there are no pictures of black folks hanging up on the wall:
“There were only black people on my [school’s] wall,” Blow said. “Betterment was never constructed in relation to whiteness. It was just, we are Coleman kids. … Every room I’m in, black people are the smartest people in the room. So the idea that black people wouldn’t be the smartest people in the room never dawns on me.”