But this is really a book whose center is violence, the violence of growing up poor, rural, isolated and Black, in addtion to being bisexual, in Louisiana in the 1970s and 80s. Charles Blow is a miracle -- maybe we all are, but this vital book makes a strong case that he's a particular one to whom we'd all do well to listen.
Some of the violence was at home.
His mother had opened herself to his father after they'd broken off; evidence of his further betrayal led to the shooting. She missed, perhaps on purpose. She also refrained from blowing away one of his lover's who dared to come around when he was seeing his children.
In a family beset by betrayals, Blow was further betrayed by the older cousin who molested him, awakening sexual feelings he had no way to interpret in a place and situation in which he had no one to turn to for explanation. To be labeled "punk or "sissy" would have been to risk his life, literally. He struggled to find a safe way to be a man, in the sight of others and to himself, not always successfully.
There's not much evidence of a successful civil rights movement in this story. Gibsland, where Blow grew up, had a segregated cemetery then; in interviews about the book, he reports that it still does.
Quite likely, Blow is a columnist at the Times today because he saw one humanly decent relationship between whites and blacks in his segregated youth.
Amidst all the violence Blow describes, I found most disturbing the tale of the physical hazing that he and other fraternity pledges at Grambling chose to endure to be admitted to the brotherhood. I am lucky enough to have come of age in a time and place in which the Greek system was viewed as a regressive artifact of a dying social order. (Would that we'd been right!) I've since come to understand that for some African Americans, these organizations provide support in a foreign and hostile white culture. But beating the shit out of each other seems kind of sick. He explains its rationale:
Blow eventually rejected the practice after having been elected president of his fraternity chapter. Blow does not explicitly address this, apparently preferring to speak of bonds within the fraternal group, but I cannot help wondering: was this violence through which young Black men sought to prove themselves yet another warped residue of our country's original sin, of slavery? That verdict is there in his language, intentionally or not. And he's a pretty darn intentional writer.