Charles M. Blow’s columns for The New York Times are unfailingly smart and provocative, whether or not you agree with them. His ascent at the paper is unique, since he is the only graphics editor who evolved into a columnist. His first best-seller, Fire Shut Up in My Bones, has been turned into an opera that will open this fall at the Metropolitan Opera. His new book, The Devil You Know, is an impassioned plea for Black Americans to migrate from the North to the South, where, he argues, they have a better chance of effecting political change.
JIM KELLY: In your new book, you argue that the outrage following the murder of George Floyd last May evolved in many ways into a battle between white protesters and police over free speech and the right to assemble, leaving in the dust the main issue of state-sanctioned violence and injustice against Black people. Did this surprise you?
CHARLES M. BLOW: It did not. This was not the first time that the Black expression of pain was usurped by white-liberal grievance.
J.K.: You quote Malcolm X as writing, “If you are Black you were born in jail, in the North as well as the South. Stop talking about the South. As long as you are South of the Canadian border, you are South.” You grew up in Louisiana, and you say racism “isn’t geography-dependent but proximity- and scale-dependent.” How have you seen that in your own life, including during your time in New York?
C.B.: I see very little difference, regionally, in the quantity or prevalence of racism. The difference is in the flavor, the manner of expression.
J.K.: Much of your book deals with both the benefits and the costs of the Great Migration, the movement of millions of Black people from the South to the North that began during World War I and continued for another 50 years. You now live in Atlanta, and you end the book with an unambiguous plea for Black people to come home to the South, where the “promise of real power is made manifest. Seize it. Migrate. Move.” You see the historic shift of Georgia from a red to a blue state in the last election as evidence of this growing power, but do you have any concern that a robust liberal turnout depends on an opponent as reviled as Donald Trump?
C.B.: Turnout will fluctuate from election to election. You have to take the long view when you are talking about power and migration. The Great Migration unfolded over 60 years. The reverse migration has probably been happening for 30 years. The shifts are monumental and overshadow turnout in a particular election cycle.
J.K.: This fall, the vaccine gods willing, the Metropolitan Opera will open its season with a production based on your terrific memoir, Fire Shut Up in My Bones. Congratulations! Who first approached you with the idea of turning your book into an opera, and were you involved in the adaptation?
C.B.: The artistic director of the St. Louis Opera was my first contact about the opera. As for my involvement, I had a week of meetings with the creative team, but I understood that they are creating a new artistic work, based on my book but separate from it.
J.K.: Your career trajectory at The New York Times has been a tad unusual, given that you went from graphics director to columnist. What attracted you to design in the first place, and do you have a favorite graphic from your nine years in that job?
C.B.: I stumbled into design. My original majors in college were English and pre-law. As for a favorite, there are too many, so I would have to say that there were a few areas of coverage where we as a graphics department shined: the 9/11 attacks, the Iraq war, and the Challenger disaster.
J.K.: You are such a fine writer. Are there any writers that you found especially influential growing up?
C.B.: The first time I started to think of writers as role models was when I was in college, and most who appealed to me were Southern: Maya Angelou, Ernest Gaines, M.L.K.
J.K.: Bill Gates recently said that a permanent banning of Donald Trump from Facebook would be “a shame.” Agree or disagree?
C.B.: This question seems to hinge on whether social-media platforms have become the “public square,” and therefore being banned from them is an infringement on free speech. I believe that these platforms are only one of many squares, and that they are private companies, not public spaces. I see no problem with a permanent ban of Trump, particularly since he violates platform standards that other users are forced to follow, and because as a former president he has no shortage of ways to exercise speech.
J.K.: Since I consider myself lucky to have one interesting idea a month, I admire your ability to write two scintillating columns a week. Obviously, Trump was a subject of many of your columns. Now that he is receding into the dustbin of history, are you worried about losing such a reliable topic?
C.B.: No. There are so many things that I care passionately about—social justice, the plight of the vulnerable, historical reclamation—that had to take a back burner during the Trump years. Now I get to return to those subjects.
Charles M. Blow’s The Devil You Know: A Black Power Manifesto is out now from Harper
Jim Kelly is the Books Editor for AIR MAIL