Charles M. Blow on Enduring and Surpassing
To oversell the depth of humanity explored in Fire Shut Up In My Bones by New York Times columnist and writer Charles M. Blow would be hard to do. In his compelling, emotional, personal, revelatory, empowering memoir, Blow manages to paint each shared memory in such engaging detail and in such human terms that I could not help but to be drawn in and to want to listen further. Throughout the book, the echoes of a boy, and later a man, seeking acceptance in a world that doesn’t offer it freely come through in striking vividness. The episodic narrative, following the author fairly linearly as he grew older, paints the early life of a man overlooked by almost everyone he encountered, and who came to distrust people who did offer attention after a series of personal, tragic betrayals. These tragedies from those close to him hit home in a particularly, yet universally, human way. I won’t get into the personal, tragic betrayals because they are not as in line with my purposes here, but they are worth reading in the context of this memoir (so go buy it and read it. It’s seriously very, very good.). As formative human experiences, they are very relevant to Charles M. Blow’s life, but in terms of helping aid narratives in white communities, they do not bear a ton of actionable relevance.
Some of the stories he recounts about racism he suffered (much of which was at the hands of white people) can really be looked at. He is able to breathe such life into the scenes he details, that the impact of them is accessible and can really inform us about how these types of events can land. Much of what he is writing about happened to him twenty years ago or more, and so they stand as a testament to the enduring effect these kinds of events and observations had on Blow and, to some extent, to young men of color in general.
Early in the book, Blow delivers a description of a cemetery outside of a Baptist church in Mount Lebanon, Louisiana. The description covers discrepancies in the segregated burial grounds, especially in terms of the neatness of the rows between the two sections — one for white people, one for people of color — and the size and condition of the monuments erected to mark the graves of the dead. The section for non-white people was described as having uneven rows, with small gravestones marking the deceased, if there was any marking put at the grave site at all. Segregation, it seems, was meant to be carried into eternity. Blow writes this striking passage, which hit me in a powerful way:
The two cemeteries were separated by a chainlink fence, lest anyone, living or dead, forget the rules — say, someone like the “white trash woman” who hung around the West End and had a baby by a black man. The way it was told to me, the baby died and the woman wanted to bury it with her family on the white side of the cemetery. When white folks found out that the baby was half black, they refused her, so she buried her baby on the black side as close to the fence as she could.
This speaks to a deep history of racism. What purpose could a chainlink fence serve, really, besides to stand as a silent testament to the desire for total segregation, even after death? That the purpose for the fence is to allow for discrimination is plain — why else would the “white trash woman” have been denied the ability to bury her mixed-race child with her white family members?
And why was there any need to segregate the burial arrangements at all? Would the presence of bodies of people of color, as void of the life and spirit that had once animated them as any body of a white person, have really defiled the purpose or sanctity of the white side of the cemetery? No, this was simply white people being all-too happy to continue segregating wherever they could, with little to no regard for how it might impact people like this so-called trashy white woman. We need to consider the intent of our actions, in addition to the history of similar actions. If a divide serves no good purpose — as is so clearly the case here — then there is no need for that division; it will only ever cause grief and harm.
One description offered in the book for how Gibsland manifested its racism is very poetic
In Gibsland, our racial role-playing was subtle and sophisticated. We had an unspoken understanding: we simply danced around each other, moving to a tune that everyone knew but no one sang — warm smiles sharing space with cold stares, public platitudes dissolving into the ugly things that found voice behind closed doors. If people learned to hate, they also learned to hide it. I never heard or saw anything overtly unpleasant in public. That is, until the first time I was called a nigger.
I was walking on Main Street and a pickup truck with a flatbed filled with white boys about my age passed by. One of them stood up when he saw me and yelled “Nigger!,” the word trailing off as the truck sped by, salting the space between us with bitterness. We stared at each other until he was out of sight. I was stunned.
The setup in Gibsland, with the thin veneer of tolerance, sounds very familiar to me, and echoes of it are heard throughout the accounts of people of color. I couldn’t begin to discount these stories, because I have heard many white people say ugly things about people of color when there were none in earshot. We have works like “White Man’s Burden” by Kipling, and so-called subculture groups (read: hate groups) like the KKK, and a growing white nationalist movement, and continuing attempts to recapture the spirit of segregated schools, so to pretend that racism is either modern or extinct is simply not in line with recorded reality. Any appearance of its extinction is evidence of the subtlety, the “warm smiles sharing space with cold stares” that surrounds the ongoing problems of racism.
Of course, these days racism seems to have percolated back up to the surface. There is a growing sense that it is okay to be openly racist. The flip side to this is that other white people must become openly anti-racist. And vocally so. We cannot allow the noise from one section of white people to drown out those who want to find a truer end to racial issues by working, from the ground up, to create an atmosphere of acceptance. Essentially, we need to do that intracommunity policing we are always hollering for Muslims to be doing. When we see someone espousing racist ideals, we have a responsibility to call them out. It is usually very simple, because there is yet to be any enduring evidence that anti-black racism has basis in objective reality and not just as a means to maintain the current pro-white social structure. Pointing to this lack of evidence in conjunction with the overwhelming evidence of the harm racism causes is a good way to keep the conversation focused on the human suffering this causes, and not the arguments (which are invariably fallacious) in favor of existing racist paradigms.
He goes on to describe a scene where a white classmate repeated an instruction from a parent that she was not to bother learning anything being taught to her during Black History Month. In his school classroom, Blow found himself hearing that word yet again.
Hearing that word made me reconsider everything I thought I understood about my life. The hills we drove over on our way to church, the hills that hid the oil — maybe these were the hills that would have been ours if white folks hadin’t taken them from one of my great-grandpas. Or the bad white man who’d forced Great-Grandpa Columbus to choose between the land he’d earned and the woman he loved. The white teachers in Ringgold who’d never tried to reach me when I was drifting away, but instead moved me to the slow class at the first sign of trouble, a class filled with other black children, mostly black boys.
I thought about how older black people tried to pass a fear of white men on to us. “If you don’t act right, the police gone get you.” “Police” was just a term of art for white men. Sometimes they dispensed with the euphemisms altogether and just said, “That white man is gone git you,” pointing to any white man in sight. You could see the fear in their eyes, like they were remembering things they weren’t saying. It was real, the fear was. And that is what they hated, being afraid.
A lifetime of observing and experiencing racism, where the white aggressors almost always went entirely unpunished, led to a natural suspicion and fear. That is called a conditioned response, and it is common to all people. These accounts are so common, and I am not able to believe that each of them is fictitious. That every black person called the n-word has misunderstood, somehow. Racism is real, and its effects follow people around for long after what, as the privileged white person thinks of it, a “minor transgression,” has occurred. To the white person it seems minor. But that white person is not being reminded that their skin will be judged over and over again, and that they will suffer increased hardship simply because of their skin. They are less likely to get a loan, or a job, or housing, or any number of acts of goodwill. They are less likely to find a sympathetic jury. Really, the list goes on. And to minimize the reality of what people of color will be made to suffer because of their skin is simply callous. We can’t allow anyone to continue using racist language, not even when there are no people of color around to hear it.
In terms of the pendulum of racism, Blow presents a view of how the shift in public perception and acceptance of blackness has impacted him. Racism for white people can seem simple. People of color are hassled by people not of colorα. As Blow seems to present it, and as I have seen in other media such as Ashley Akunna’s (IG, Twitter) video series, The Grapevine, in fact, there are waves of sentiment about hair, and skin, and eyes, among other things of course, within the various communities of people of color. Charles M. Blow describes noticing that when he hit the 7th grade, he noticed that darker-skinned, chocolate brown people were becoming absent in popular black culture. This disappearance affected his inner sense of pride in who he was negatively, and he puzzles over some cultural events as having contributed to this cause. Whatever the cause might have been, he has this to say,
The cultural currency of skin tone had shifted. The pendulum had swung back from the black-is-beautiful 1970s. “Bright” skin. Light eyes. “Good” hair. Having any of those was now a plus. Having two was better. Having all three as the color-struck trifecta. Black, as I knew it, and as I was, no longer seemed beautiful. I had mostly dodged the racial war, but now find myself in an intraracial one… This was a new day, an age of more lightening cream and less Afrosheen. The Black Power of the 1960s and ’70s was being crushed into a beige powder
Whenever dark-skinned blacks appeared on television, they were assimilators, cast in fish-out-of-water sitcoms as back-talking butlers and maids (Benson and Gimme a Break!), irascible orphans (Diff’rent Strokes and Webster), and new-money-up-from-nothings (The Jeffersons). And they were surrounded by all-white casts, like bubble wrap, I assumed to cushion the impact of their presence.
He mentions that there is an intraracial (i.e. among people of color) discussion about skin tone, and eye color, and hair “quality,” but also points out the roles he saw people of color playing in media. This lack of comfortable, successful, happy characters (all at once, that is. Characters who seemed to belong to the communities they found themselves in.) couldn’t help but to trouble Charles.
His mention of the media must be addressed. It would be so easy for us to create more representative television. People argue and complain that it isn’t what people want to see, but I just don’t buy it. There are beautiful people of all skin tones, hair textures and colors, eye colors, etc. This stigma that people must look a certain way to be good-enough looking for television is so bizarre to me. We can easily get rid of the stigma by simply casting more people of diverse backgrounds. Any homogeneity we think is, somehow, empirically necessary for good TV or movies is completely fabricated. People might not be used to seeing so many diverse people on TV, but they would acclimate very rapidly and it could do a world of good by offering every group a fair mix of representation.
I know I would have felt such comfort from seeing more people like me on television, instead of yellowheaded and and brownheaded (that was for my personal amusement; I hate being called redheaded.) who had died their hair red, or instead of straight guys playing effete homosexuals who are either the modelest of our minority, or else completely effete and useless in their sex-mania. I can relate to this and see its merit, and if one were scientifically inclined, there are studies showing the effects that our current culture has on minority children of all varieties. By not making a proper place at the table, you make it clear that we aren’t welcome to dinner. And as a six-year-old, there is only one place to take that shame: inward.
He writes that “grew less confident in” his skin, and had to turn to finding his confidence in his remarkable intelligence.
But even that would prove to offer a somewhat tenuous hold on self-confidence and feeling in control, as we will see. There seems to have been some truth in what the elders of his life had tried to impart on Charles; the police were going to take their turn at trying to “get him.”
During Blow’s college freshman days, he and his classmate, Brandon, were pulled over and reminded that racists, more easily than people of color, find their way into positions of power. They were pulled over for failing to signal for a turn — despite the fact that they had not made a turn — and the officer mistook a plastic switchblade comb as a weapon. He continued to refer to it as a weapon after being shown it was a comb.
This officer decided to pull out his gun, and to threaten these two young black men. After making Brandon, who was driving, exit the car, he protested against them being pulled over for a turn they had not made, Blow had this to say of the events that followed:
Then the officer said something I will never forget: that if he wanted to, he could make us lie down in the middle of the road and shoot us in the back of the head and no one would say anything about it. With that, he walked back to his car and drove away.
By suggesting that he could kill us right then and there, he wanted to impress upon us his power and our worth, or lack thereof. We were shocked, afraid, humiliated, and furious. We were the good guys, we thought — dean’s list students with academic scholarships. I was the freshman class president. This wasn’t supposed to happen to us.
There is a lot to process here. Before the story picks up with the lights and sirens, the boys were simply driving back to Grambling college after a night of studying in a mostly white-populated area of Ruston. They had taken several cars, and Charles M. Blow ended up in Brandon’s car. They stopped at a store for snacks, and it was from there that the officer had followed them. It wasn’t until they were almost out of town — and thus his jurisdiction — that the officer turned on his lights and had the above confrontation with Brandon and Charles.
This kind of overt dehumanizing by people in authority has got to stop. We hear this account from Blow from what must be the late 80s or early 90s, and we have accounts going back as far in American history as you care to look, and we still see it today. This abuse of power to try to maintain a racial hierarchy is unacceptable.
This is obviously a difficult problem to address, but what we need is for white people to really understand and join in the outrage. These accounts very often lead to someone — almost never the police officer — ending up hurt or dead. And then, usually, we have just the word of the surviving officer. These cases are rarely investigated thoroughly, and the officer is nearly never held responsible for the life he chose to take.
By enforcing the law, the officer becomes convinced that he is the law and that, therefore, he is above the law. The bottom line is that too many unarmed people of color, and particularly black men, are targeted by law enforcement. The numbers are simply unapologetic in pointing out that people of color are harmed or arrested (incidences of violence/death equalize [mostly] after being stopped, but people of color are more likely to be stopped and thus, more likely to be harmed, killed or arrested. Also note some speculation on the presence of a weapon being a cause for the violence, because often enough the young black man killed is later discovered to have been unarmed), and given longer sentences.
The bottom line is that we have got a lot of stuff to do. We can make a more fair and equitable society, but we have got to stop this pernicious perpetuation of racist narratives. We need to be talking about systemic abuse of power against people of color. We need to be talking about the effect of proper representation in the media can have. We need to stop allowing the white need for representation to overpower the need for every other group. Yes, it is good for white people to see white people on TV. But we don’t have to consistently be looking at 95% white people. We will manage to find happiness and success in life despite sharing equal airtime with people who are not like us. It is a big, beautiful world if you can keep an open mind. Let’s keep listening, keep repeating, and keep working for change.
Stay engaged and stay woke,
Footnotes and Miscellany
α – I chose this expression in response to the use of “Non-White” that I hear (mostly from white people, if I think about it)… People Not of Color. Non-Black or Brown People. Strange to be referred to by what you’re not, isn’t it? I can’t help but feel that strangeness whenever I say “non-white.” I don’t know if non-white is offensive, and I wonder if it is or not. Since I have a feeling I wouldn’t like being called “non-straight,” but I don’t want to project my feelings over that onto people of color, I will simply let the question rest here for now, and I will shy away from the term whenever until I know more.