Reviewed by Norwood Holland
Fire Shut Up In My Bones is Charles Blow’s memoir about growing up a black male in the American South; it depicts a spectrum of rural-life experiences in which coming-of-age involves leaving behind a secret past. On a mural-sized canvas with deft brush strokes, Blow’s memoir paints a picture of complicated sexuality, brilliantly revealing colorful glimpses of black male virility in its various forms: straight, gay, and bisexual. Blow spent his formative years in Gibsland, Louisiana, and tracks his journey to New York Times columnist from his youthful social struggles.
The art of the memoir is to engage the reader in a stroll back in time. Blow’s begins by introducing his extended family and community, relating tales of a philandering father and an armed mother who shared a capacity for love. He was the last of five boys and his mother, throughout his childhood, was the steadfast object of his affection while he viewed his father with suspicion:
By the time I came along, my mother was a dutiful wife growing dead-ass tired of working on a dead-end marriage and a dead-end job. My father was a construction worker by trade, a pool shark by habit, and a serial philanderer by compulsion. My mother was a stout woman with a man’s name—Billie. She was plain-faced with honest eyes—no black grease by the lash line, no blue power on the lids, eyebrows not plucked up high and thin. She used only a stroke of lipstick, dark like a fig, and a little powder to cover the acne that still popped up under the balls of the cheeks that sat high on her face.
My father was short for a man, with a child’s plaything for a name—Spinner. He had flawless dark brown skin and a head full of big, wet looking curls, black as oil. And he had the smile of a scoundrel—the kind of smile that disarmed men and undressed women.
Blow’s father is not an ideal, but the author understands and accepts him. Blow’s mother never drank or danced in her life but readily admitted to favoring the man “who had a pinch of the devil in him.”
The consequences of Blow’s father’s philandering are relayed in stark detail, after a Thanksgiving dinner, when the father’s mistress makes an anonymous call to Blow’s home, hangs up, and then cruises by the Blow household in her car. Infuriated, Blow’s mother instructs him to get her gun, and he does, and then mother and son hop into the family car to chase down the mistress.
Young Blow is so caught up in the revenge that his mother pauses for a moment of reflection. She realizes the effect her actions have on her son and abandons the chase.
There were other incidents involving the “just in case gun.” According to the Blow, like his mother’s brass knuckles stashed in a glove compartment of the car, her gun was ever present, often “tucked in her purse nestled amongst the peppermints and pencils.” He shares an incident he witnessed from his bedroom window. The scene is both comical and sobering. His father flees through the back door, half-dressed, clutching his pants with his belt dangling under a hail of his mother’s gunfire:
But there was something in his gait that did not suggest a man whose life was in danger, but rather a rascally boy who’d been caught being devilish. It was a casual quickness, not flat-out running, that pushed him across the field, something in him that knew that something in her wouldn’t do it.
In rural Southern communities gunplay is a big sport with sometimes regrettable consequences. Blow himself would struggle with revenge and the “just in case gun.” It was his molestation by an older cousin and the attempted molestation of him by an uncle that broke his spirit and his heart, leaving him a damaged, guilt-ridden child forced to grow up before his mind is capable to come to terms with it all. Coping with an unspoken, suppressed avoidance of male emotions and ridiculed for his unconscious display of feminine traits, he becomes a target for predation by older males. Confused, he turns to God for help.
Despite gossip and others’ efforts to label him, Blow learns about himself and his capacity to love through normal heterosexual relations, though he is continually preoccupied with male images—a blessing and a curse, as he puts it.
At Grambling State University, Blow escapes the small-town gossip and betrayal. A resourceful college freshman, he has the temerity to approach a local bank for a donation to finance his campaign for class president. The bank officer, surprised and pleased with the young man’s gumption, donates money to Blow’s successful campaign. Women and sex come to him often and freely, he being not just a frat man but the class president. He becomes “a burn out of sorts,” an “out-performing hick, with a self-assured manner not moving out of his element but into it.”
Blow plots his escape from the hostile south by way of a job fair in Atlanta where he purports to be a visual journalist. Though a The New York Times interviewer was impressed with Blow, Blow was turned away. Overnight, however, the idea takes root in the mind of the interviewer, who, the next day, offers Blow an internship.
At The New York Times Blow threw himself into obsessive work to make up for his muddled social life. He embraced the serenity prayer and married the “champagne colored girl” from Grambling.
Blow ultimately overcame the rage he felt after his childhood sexual abuse, concluding that it would not be accurate to blame his abusers for his sexual identity. He learned to let go of the past and forgive those who hurt him. Although his marriage failed, he continued (and continues) to find purpose and fulfillment in his children.
Fire Shut In My Bones is a piece of modern literary art that addresses a misunderstood, and seldom openly discussed, topic—not just by blacks but by all Americans. Blow has done much to dispel commonly held notions of straight or gay; he illustrates the linear gradations of sexuality. His memoir is eye opening and profoundly moving.
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