Every so often, a book comes along that hits your solar plexus so hard that it becomes a part of your DNA. That’s how it’s been for me since I read “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” the bestselling memoir by New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow.
In this searing, indescribably moving work, Blow writes of being a child and coming-of-age in rural, dirt-poor Louisiana. I’m not being metaphorical here. Blow, who is black, and his brothers lived in such poverty that, sometimes, they literally ate clay out of a ditch. In writing that is strikingly original, yet evocative of James Baldwin and Maya Angelou, Blow holds the reader spellbound with his stories. You hold onto his every word as he tells of his journey from his boyhood in Gibsland, La., where he attended schools still segregated 16 years after Brown v. Board of Education, to an Atlanta journalism jobs fair where he found employment with the New York Times in his 20s. Along the way, he struggles with the trauma of sexual abuse (at age seven, he was sexually abused by a male older cousin), his sexuality, and with societal ideas of masculinity.
From the moment I read the memoir’s opening sentences, “Tears flowed out of me from a walled-off place, from another time, from a little boy who couldn’t cry,” I couldn’t put “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” down.
When I was 10, I remember my Dad, a Jewish veterinarian in a small South Jersey town, telling me how he’d stayed up all night, glued to the page, reading James Baldwin. “Everybody should listen to him,” he said, “he’s saying what needs to be said whether people want to hear it or not.”
Blow is the James Baldwin of our time. Using his gifts as a storyteller, he writes of poverty, race, bullying, gender and sexuality – the issues, struggles and process of self-discovery of our era. From an early age, Blow felt that he was different. Though he liked girls, Blow sometimes felt attracted to male images. As a youth, he was called “punk,” a local anti-gay slur. His mother worried that Blow didn’t run as a boy should run. One of his older cousins is tied to a bed, beaten and murdered because he dares to be openly gay. This hate crime against a black man, unlike Matthew Shepard’s murder, didn’t receive media attention.
“Black bodies…were not valued by society as much as others,” Blow told me in an interview when asked about growing up with racism and society’s stifling definition of masculinity. “On top of being black, being poor and from a rural situation…amplified the devaluation. Being different, not part of heterosexual normality…you had to be alert.”
We wouldn’t want to pretend that there’s been no improvement since the pre-Civil Rights era, Blow said, “but that said, there is still disenfranchisement, mass incarceration, inequities in terms of poverty and treatment by the criminal justice system.”
If you look at the sociological data, he added, this difference in treatment ranges all the way from preschool through adulthood. “In terms of worse treatment for black and brown people – in particular black and brown men,” he said.
Because a child’s mind isn’t completely formed, and because a kid is pre-sexual before he or she is sexually abused, Blow said, “you can understand how they can bring together ideas of abuse and attraction.”
The anti-gay forces would like for there to be an environmental cause of being gay because then there could be an environmental cure, he said.
“The better way to think about it,” Blow said, “is that children who will likely identify as different later in life may be more prone to be victims of sexual abuse.”
Often, we’ve been too rigid when we talk about sexual identity. “Human beings are sexual beings,” said Blow, who identifies as bisexual. “Sexuality expresses itself in myriad ways. These ways are not hierarchical but part of a spectrum. Some people are fixed at…points along the spectrum and some are fluid.”
Wherever you are on this spectrum, check out Blow’s memoir. Its fire will burn through your bones.
Kathi Wolfe, a writer and a poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.