Friday, September 26, 2014


“Fire Shut Up in My Bones” by Charles Blow is in its debut publicity wave and deserves close attention.  Blow is a strong, inspiring person who lives up to his intention of always being brave and honest.  What follows is not intended to discredit him in any way.  But I want to question the definition of his book as a “Black” book, his life as a “Black” life, his problems with intimacy as “Black.”  I think he is in danger of being ghettoized.  We already think of the "down low" and MSM as Black behavior.

Repeatedly “Black” is used as a way of pushing away issues that are really those of all of us.  But it is also an advantage for Blow because he is part of a solid community, the “Black” one.  Charles Blow is not named Gene Robinson, but he has that community behind him.  Other writers do not.  I’m saying there’s a camel coming into the establishment tent (for which I am glad) and that only the nose of the camel is black.  The rest is camel colored.

Charles Blow

It's not just a white problem.  In terms of demographics, Black keeps overwhelming red.  On the one hand, the AIM movement came out of the street Indians of Minneapolis observing Black Power and following their map.  On the other hand, the Native Americans -- because they are a decimated and diasporia/confined population -- is always on the graphs as a single-digit number.  In fact, there is probably a little Indian in all of us.  Looking at Charles Blow, knowing he grew up in rural Louisiana, I suspect that he’s got more than a little Native American blood in him.  Runaway slaves were given shelter by tribes, captured Indians were enslaved.  Being Native American is not so easily defined, esp. since sometimes death can only be evaded by hiding, even now.

Blacks contact me to ask how they could find out if they were part Blackfeet.  (Don't call -- there's no way unless you've got a family provenance.)  Almost always they are probably not, but it seems to them a way of ennobling their families and evading the Mandingo syndrome. Mandingo is another of those syndrome novels that I would never have read except that I found it as a much-worn paperback in a house I rented.  The building had stood open for several years so I don’t know who had been reading this raggedy copy, but it is about an exceptional slave who is tormented by whites.  Individual versus society.  Mandingo (it’s the character’s name) is forced into a pot and boiled alive, suggesting both the fate of missionaries in the world of cannibals and the proverbial frog in heating-up water.  I've never seen the movie.
from -- Black frats

Charles Blow has gone the conventional academic route, submitted to the group (Black frat) in “a trauma of cohesion” -- hazing -- which I presume was not quite like joining an LA gang, but on the same principle.  He has been a public journalist for a long time, a popular and appealing man.  His stories (I haven’t read the book yet) are supposed to be as much about manhood as about black.  Though he began this manuscript as short personal pieces, before he got to publication he had an editor/coach to help him make decisions.  He’s used to that, he can deal with it, he does not need to defy anyone.  Authority has been on his side.

The gay issue turns out to be a bit of a sidebar, but he firmly defends the right of individuals to escape the dyadic coercion of American white society which thinks it is the mainstream, but probably isn’t anymore.  Same as Britain.  We are at least bracketed by immigrants.  The extreme contemporary version is the right wing of the Islamists.  Even the gay movement is now various, and may have lost power because of lack of cohesion, which may be in part due to acceptance into the lives of young urban people.  They just say, "whatever."  Anal intercourse?  Oh, yeah.  Cheaper way than condoms to avoid pregnancies.  HIV?  "You can live a normal life, man."  (For a price.)

But there are still those out there who are not struggling with fire in their bones because their bones are already charred.  Their problem with identity is maintaining any kind of coherence at all.  They would be alone and unknown except for the efforts of a few dedicated people.  The ones I know work through  The idea is not for some major handsome strong figure to speak in retrospect about his suffering, but rather to let today’s suffering kids speak for themselves through video.  Many are poly-lingual in an oral world but illiterate in print.  Not all.  And they all speak image -- and dance.  And tech.

I’m not talking to Charles Blow, except to say, “Good on you, man!”  I’m not wanting him to turn into a flag-carrier for abused boys, black or any other color.  I’m talking to all the people who will read Blow’s book and say to themselves secretly the equivalent to NIMB (Not in My Backyard)  which is maybe NTDWM  (Nothing to Do with Me).  Sexual abuse of children, esp when intimacy between adults is described only in terms of sexual desire and violence, is so widespread -- we now realize reluctantly -- that the trouble is not just about the pervie deviants who live across town and don’t look like us.  It IS us.

Looking back over my 75 years I’m embarrassed and grieving over the times I failed to realize what was going on and why.  I probably intervened a couple of times, but nowhere nearly as much as I ought to have.  I’m finding that people are more and more anxious to go underground, actively scared of being identified -- even in the most conventional terms -- not anything they could be criticized or criminalized for being.  This is especially true of Native Americans. Every clue might be followed up by Seizers, the name the NA people gave to soldiers, and then the men who went by contract to grab kids and force them into boarding schools, without even telling their families.  Now they use Facebook.

What I’m saying is that the black nose on this camel can be followed -- I hope WILL be followed -- by the whole animal.  I want the tent to fold.  It’s like the tents put up over crime scenes while the technicians work.  At first it’s a protection but there comes a time to remove it, or it becomes only a way to hide things.  People get too used to it.  It becomes an illusion about polite society.

Blow’s title, "Fire Shut Up in my Bones," is intriguing. It's Biblical: 

Jeremiah's Complaint  Jeremiah 20:9
…For each time I speak, I cry aloud; I proclaim violence and destruction, because for me the word of the LORD has resulted In reproach and derision all day long. But if I say, "I will not remember Him or speak anymore in His name," then in my heart it becomes like a burning fire shut up in my bones; And I am weary of holding it in, and I cannot endure it. For I have heard the whispering of many, "Terror on every side! Denounce him; yes, let us denounce him!" All my trusted friends, Watching for my fall, say: "Perhaps he will be deceived, so that we may prevail against him And take our revenge on him."…

I don’t know whether Blow is aware that for people carrying the HIV virus, one of the most common problems is pneumonia.  One of the last ditch meds for pneumonia is prednisone.  It is generally effective, but in the case of those carrying HIV, it is more likely than in non-poz populations to trigger Avascular Necrosis, death of the bones due to lack of blood supply.  No one knows what causes it, no one knows how to cure it.  For those bones, the fire has gone out -- they don’t get the oxygen that supports fire.  Charred and splintered, they can be replaced by steel. 

I am entertained by the notion that the New York Times is riding on the coattails of their only Black columnist who is now surfing a big wave (I love mixed metaphors) by advocating unique and fluid sexuality in each person, esp. since his life has been an adventure in presenting deliberate and conscious conformity.  He learned table manners and a new voice, but couldn’t make his sexuality conform.  I still wonder whether he knows of any Native Americans in his family tree.  (I don’t see genealogy as legal categories and entitlements -- I see them as being like tree rings, marking good times and bad.)  So now we have three metaphors: coats, waves, trees.  Pay no attention to that camel.  It just wants in.

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