As attendees settled in, filling into the former home of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Jennifer R. Raab, President of Hunter College welcomed the crowd to the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute. President Raab acknowledged how apropos it was to have two of the world’s most influential journalists present to discuss a book which illustrates critical issues of race since Eleanor and Sara Roosevelt strenuously advocated for racial equality.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, co-author of numerous New York Times bestsellers and Assistant Professor of Film & Media at Hunter College, Karen Hunter moderated the discussion centered on themes of race, gender, poverty and abuse.
Fire Shut Up in My Bones written by New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow’s is a captivating memoir documenting Blow’s childhood in Gibsland, Louisiana, a small, segregated town, in the 1970s.
The Memoir described by Karen Hunter as “eloquent, compelling and beautiful”, begins with “ a car speeding down a highway…,” says Hunter,”and at that moment I’m saying where are we going?” (5:47)
Throughout the past two years Charles Blow has appeared on television shows discussing the shootings of young African-American males like Travyon Martin, and more recently Mike Brown. Hunter inquires about what ultimately compelled Blow not to react with violence.
In the book Blow writes, “once that bullet left the chamber there was nothing I could do to bring it back.” (6:57) “At the root of it is why you’re at that moment anyway which was unresolved issues of sexual abuse” (7:37)
At 7 years old, Charles Blow was sexually abused by a teenage relative and never told anyone about the incident until adulthood. “Young children don’t always have the agency, they don’t always have the language, they don’t have the avenues to discuss what happened,” (8:38) explains Blow, these things “have a way of not staying buried and they can manifest themselves over and over again until you deal with them in a proper context” (7:50)
As a columnist, Blow feels a moral obligation to tell his story especially when he sees children, “particularly young boys killing themselves because of some sort of pain.” (10:52) Blow cites the suicides of two 11 year old boys who killed themselves two days apart in different geographical locations because of school bullying in 2009. “When I see that happening it becomes more of a moral imperative that someone say ‘I understand your pain’” (11:12) says Blow.
Hunter points back to a time in Blow’s life when he contemplated suicide as a child at a skating rink. (14:28) In the moment, his intentions were to take a few pills for his headache and then a more daunting idea came to his mind. It’s these quick impulses that flash in a child’s mind– “the powerful thing in that moment is how sadness lurks around children when they are hurt and even when they are at their happiest sadness is still their companion.” (15:28) Blow mentions that Fire Shut Up in My Bones was written as a note for child suicides. He adamantly believes that “no one has the power over you to take away the life God gave you.” (14:18)
In order to aid children who have been abused, Hunter asks, “What should parents be looking for?” (35:09). Blow believes that is the role of the parent “to create spaces and opportunities for children to always say things and to elicit conversation” (35:53) “and the child knows that they will always have an audience and that you [the parent] will create the audience.” (37:15)
In recent years Charles Blow has publicly identified as bisexual. Hunter asks, “are the labels important?” (32:02) “Labels become frayed with issues of power and gender and all sorts of things you may not be bringing to the label”(32:32) responds Blow. “What you call me can never change me” (32:51) Blow says. What Blow acknowledges a positive effect of labels is acknowledging “this person is not the same as me but we can share experiences.” (33:48)
Blow asserts that what the gay rights movement has taught the entire world is that “it is important to be seen” “truth and visibility beget truth and visibility” (23:50) In Fire Shut Up in My Bones Blow likens bisexuals to the literary “tragic mulatto” figure, a mixed race individual, who is unable to find acceptance in either culture. In the same respect, Blow has witnessed how “people of dual attractions suffer the same fate” within the gay and straight culture. (29:00)
The book is meant to “illustrate how dangerous and lazy this binary is because it does not match up to the human experience” Blow says. (29:24) He explains that human sexual expression is not hierarchical but spectral and along that spectrum people are at different positions.” (29:42)
The night’s concluding discussion hinged on Hunter’s question of how Blow overcomes the damage from his childhood. “We are always working on it. Hopefully as long as we’re living we’re learning something about ourselves for all of us” (40:14) He mentions throughout the discussion a number of ways people process pain, whether it is religion or therapy. For Blow, he has a realization that he “didn’t have to live in the eyes of a 7 year old boy.” (41:28) From there he was able to build a live of love, as Blow calls it. “You have every right to mourn but you also have the ability to soar” (43:34)
Following Karen Hunter and Charles M. Blow’s discussion was a Q&A segment which allowed audience members to ask Blow questions.