Fire Shut Up in My Bones is a stunning coming-of-age story that tracks New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow’s rise from a poverty-stricken childhood in Louisiana to the respected journalist he is today. An introspective and poetic memoir about race, masculinity and sexuality, it also reckons with the impact of childhood sexual abuse on the core of his identity.
The youngest of four sons, Blow is devoted to his mother, who struggles to support the boys on her salary as a home economics teacher. Her commitment to education and newspaper reading is a positive influence on young Blow, a corrective to his father’s drinking and emotional manipulation. The summer Blow is 7, his older cousin comes to stay with the family, and offers at first the attention the child is hungry for, an attention that swiftly turns abusive.
Blow’s portrait of the psychic and spiritual aftermath of that abuse is intensely honest. He describes the severing of body and spirit, the self-blame and self-doubt. As he grows older, he shows how the experience lay behind his drive to become invincible, a popular boy. But the legacy of abuse is subtle and pernicious, and in his role as fraternity president at college, Blow presides over hazing rituals, which are no less sadistic for being traditional. The moral conflict he experiences and choices he makes offer him a first step toward untangling his childhood experiences and moving into his future.
Blow nests his story within the life stories of other men and boys he knew, gay African Americans who challenged the culture of masculinity and bravado simply by existing, and who were met with community rejection or violence. Their untold stories, reflected in Blow’s, make Fire Shut Up in My Bones an essential work of autobiography.