New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow’s Fire Shut in My Bones looks back at his childhood in the out-of-time African-American Louisiana town, Gibsland, where he grew up in the 1970s — a segregated, impoverished place where slavery’s legacy felt astonishingly close, reverberating in the elders’ stories and in the near-constant wash of violence. The first review of the book, in Publishers Weekly, was a rave, and called the memoir of a town “barely touched” by the civil rights movement “brave and powerful.” Blow, one of five sons (of a mother who worked plucking poultry at a nearby factory.) He was sexually abused by an older cousin when he was 7, and in the memoir he describes the isolation and depression that resulted, even as he succeeds as both student and athlete. Yet the memoir is also about the ways in which the pain of his past continued to haunt him — and the surprising turns this legacy takes as he grows into manhood. The PW review calls the book “a singular look at a forgotten America.”

Mr. Blow was interviewed by Karen Hunter, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, co-author of numerous New York Times bestsellers and Assistant Professor of Film & Media at Hunter College.


Charles M. Blow  

Charles M. Blow is The New York Times‘s visual Op-Ed columnist. His column appears on Monday and Thursday.

Mr. Blow joined The New York Times in 1994 as a graphics editor and quickly became the paper’s graphics director, a position he held for nine years. In that role, he led The Times to a best of show award from the Society of News Design for the Times’s information graphics coverage of 9/11, the first time the award had been given for graphics coverage. He also led the paper to its first two best in show awards from the Malofiej International Infographics Summit for work that included coverage of the Iraq war. Mr. Blow went on to become the paper’s Design Director for News before leaving in 2006 to become the Art Director of National Geographic Magazine. Before coming to The Times, Mr. Blow had been a graphic artist at The Detroit News.

Mr. Blow graduated magna cum laude from Grambling State University in Louisiana, where he received a B.A. in mass communications. He lives in Brooklyn with his three children.

Follow Charles Blow on Twitter

Karen Hunter  

Karen Hunter is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. She has been a Distinguished Lecturer at Hunter since 2005, where she has taught everything from Basic Reporting to Intro to Publishing

Hunter is also President of First One Publishing (, which focuses on publishing books in every digital format, and co-author of numerous New York Times bestsellers, including Ladies First with Queen Latifah, I Make My Own Rules with LL Cool J, On the Down Low with JL King, andWendy’s Got the Heat with Wendy Williams.

As a publisher of Karen Hunter Publishing, the former journalist, has produced New York Times bestselling Mama Dearest with the late E. Lynn Harris, as well provocative titles: Why Black Men Love White Women, Don’t Bring Home a White Boy, Why Men Fear Marriageand Stop Being Niggardly. In addition, she has published Romare Bearden-inspired epic griotsong Children of Children Keep Comingand Patti Labelle’s latest cookbook, Recipes For The Good Life.Karen Hunter Publishing produced pop diva’s, Janet Jackson’s, first book True You released February 2011.

As an author, Hunter has collaborated with Sandy (Pepa) Denton, Mason Betha (the rapper Mase), Donda West (Kanye’s mother), and Rev. Al Sharpton on his critically acclaimed political manifesto Al on America. A former sports and news reporter with the New York Daily News for 12 years, Hunter served for four years on the editorial board of The News, where she was a member of the 1999 Pulitzer Prize- and Polk Award-winning teams. She was also the paper’s first African-American female news columnist. Karen, a New Jersey native and Drew University graduate, is an MSNBC contributor.

EVENT SUMMARY – Charles M. Blow: “Fire Shut Up In My Bones: A Memoir” (recap)

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.


Meagan Washington is a student in the MFA Creative Writing program at Hunter College.


Charles M. Blow: “Fire Shut Up In My Bones: A Memoir” | Posted on August 19th, 2014 | Book Discussions, Public Programs