The Light Must Be Bent

Charles Blow Speaks as D’Rita and Robbie Robinson Diversity Equity and Inclusion Speaker

New+York+Times+Columnist+Charles+Blow+speaks+at+Parker.

Photo credit: Irv Kagan

New York Times Columnist Charles Blow speaks at Parker.

“There is a phrase first coined by the 19th-century abolitionist Theodore Parker, and then paraphrased by Martin Luther King, and then repeated by Barack Obama. ‘The arc of the moral universe is long. But, it bends towards justice.’ But to me, that is an oversimplification that borders on neglect. It does not bend towards justice. It must be bent towards justice,” Blow said.

On Thursday, December 4th, Charles McRay Blow took to the Diane and David B. Heller Auditorium stage to address a crowd of students, teachers, parents, and alumni as the annual D’Rita and Robbie Robinson Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion speaker. Throughout his talk, Blow tackled issues such as racism, sexism, classism, gentrification, and focused heavily on ideas of citizenship and intersectionality.

Blow is a journalist, writer, commentator, and current columnist for ‘The New York Times’. Born and raised in Louisiana, Blow often appears on CNN and MSNBC to discuss themes of social justice, politics, and public opinion. In 2014, Blow published his memoir, ‘Fire Shut Up in my Bones.’

Blow has used his experience as a black, bisexual man from the South to both inform and drive his writing and the talks he gives to national, adult, and student audiences. “This career chose me,” Blow said, “I didn’t choose it. I’m no longer the only black columnist at The New York Times, but I was for years. I’m still the only Southern columnist, and that experience informs the way I think about things, the tone of the writing.”

I’m no longer the only black columnist at The New York Times, but I was for years. I’m still the only Southern columnist, and that experience informs the way I think about things, the tone of the writing.”

— Charles Blow

He addressed the crowd personally, and with humor. “So. Let’s start with this. I am a bisexual man, and I’m black. That brings its own, complex set of issues. But they are no more complex than if I were a Muslim woman. No more complex than if I were an immigrant woman. No more complex than if I were a poor, black man in Appalachia.”

Blow proceeded to educate the crowd on their own identities, reminding each member of the audience that they are each made up of privileging factors, and oppressive factors. He reminded the audience that lines around privilege and oppression are not neatly drawn, or binary.

“We can be both privileged and oppressed at the same time,” he said. “And therefore, we can be both the oppressors, and the oppressed at the same time. And that is why I urge you to think about this in a big picture. We live in a complex and even competing web of interactions. This web has come to be known as intersectionality.”

We can be both privileged and oppressed at the same time”

— Charles Blow

Throughout his talk, Blow preached love, tolerance, and acceptance for all people. He encouraged the audience to become more aware of their own identities in addition to those of the people surrounding them, and encouraged each and every listener to “never sit idly by.”

“Once you decide that another person is less than because of their race or their gender,” Blow said, “because of who they love or who they pray to, because of their country of origin or the wealth they have accumulated, it opens the door to make hierarchies of humanity in all of these areas.”

The various inequalities and inequities revealed in society today are often products of the ‘isms’ (racism, sexism, classism), according to Blow. “Jim Crow and Jim Queer are cousins,” Blow said. “And they kiss.”

With these words, Blow segued into a discussion of activism in the modern era. Many look to the past, wondering what it would be like to live during the civil rights or suffragist movements. In doing so, they neglect to recognize the significant civil activism taking place at this moment in time.

Blow attributes much of his growth as a human being, specifically regarding his worldview, to understanding and experiencing some of these movements of the past. “As a young man, I could connect my current circumstances and present societal conditions intellectually to previous ones,” Blow said. “I could form a long arcing narrative of undeniable progress. But, I had to develop that narrative largely in my mind.”

In terms of his own progress, Blow spoke of several moments of enlightenment that shifted his worldview permanently. “One came in 1991 when I was 20 years old,” Blow said. “Rodney Glen King was beaten on video by LAPD, and the four police officers charged in the beating were acquitted.”

“A gay cousin of mine was found murdered in a neighboring town,” Blow continued. “He was found naked, tied to a bed in a cheap hotel room. There was an investigation but it was brief, but the case quickly went cold. Five years after, Matthew Shepard, a young white openly gay man, was tied to a fence and killed in a small Wyoming town. While my cousin’s death barely made local news, I couldn’t even find an obituary for him, Shepard’s death provoked international outrage.”

The discrepancy was crushing for Blow. “It was like my cousin didn’t exist. Like he was worthless,” Blow said. “The underlying message, at least for me, was clear.”

It was like my cousin didn’t exist. Like he was worthless. The underlying message, at least for me, was clear.”

— Charles Blow

Although Blow is quick to praise the progress of society in the past fifty, thirty, twenty, and even ten years, he admits to a “nagging frustration.” Things have not progressed as fast as necessary––a motivating factor for young people.

“Change is often measured to the recent past as opposed to the distant past,” Blow said. “For children in their late teens and early twenties who first followed the election of a black president, followed by a female candidate, for children who have grown up taking a woman’s right to choose for granted, this is motivating. It is that moment in which the system has failed them, that they choose to learn how to change it.”