I See Fire
The world is quite literally on fire. The flames blaze consistently, continuously, and in some morbid way, courageously. I don’t think there was ever a time where the world wasn’t on fire, the more that I consider it. It seems as though decades pass and we look on the past with a clouded, misguided sense of nostalgia to distract ourselves from the mess that is our current reality. We, as a society, have never been committed to putting out the flames, either. Individual martyrs come to mind, but they are martyrs indeed: the Moses figures of history that audaciously lead us into the future, but do not reap the benefits of their efforts. Perhaps we’re all aware of this grim fate and that keeps us all in line. Maybe The Man wanted us all to see the examples he’s made of our leaders and discourage us from daring to be The One. The Malcolm, the Huey, the Martin, the Baldwin, the Nina, the One.
Being Black is an experience I would compare to being on fire all the time and becoming so used to the sensation that it only especially hurts when I am reminded that I am on fire. These reminders often manifest themselves as police brutality, pointed remarks from white peers like “what if we got rid of affirmative action?”, seeing the effects of mass incarceration in real time, and Walmart locking up the ethnic hair products. A lot of my people go through life in dull pain, many never stopping long enough to realize that their skin is burning and their mom’s skin is burning and their son’s skin will burn, and ultimately their entire neighborhood is ablaze. I don’t blame them at all.
Perhaps if I hadn’t accidentally discovered my condition, I would have preferred to become numb to the pain, myself. But I have discovered it. And it seems as though my people are aware and they’re screaming to the world to stop setting matches.
I think it is because my skin is charred that I recognize the burn marks left on the Earth’s surface. I know what true fire looks like. It is not what comes from a heater: “racism is bad, slavery is bad, segregation is bad.” It is not what comes from an oven: “police brutality is wrong, bad cops are the problem.” It is searing, it is destructive, it is massive, it is wide spread, it is all- consuming: “crack flood the streets of progress and killed our mothers, the War on Drugs kidnapped our fathers, the school system evicted our brothers, and negligent hospitals murdered our sisters.” True fires leave behind ashes and carnage and destruction that can only be understood by someone who knows what it feels like to burn.
We all know phoenixes rise from ashes. We’ve seen them clear paths for us to follow, lead lives not in spite of their scars, but because of them. We aspire to be phoenixes in this world and to adapt to its sickly condition. It is what we are taught—if we are lucky—and it is to this standard that we are held by the very beings who light the matches. We kill ourselves trying to shine brighter than the flames working to engulf us and those who succumb to our wounds are shamed, belittled, and tossed away (some without ever realizing they were burning in the first place). It has always seemed preposterous to me to set a million families afire and expect all of them to turn their scorch marks of trauma into tattoos of success and status. Perhaps it is preposterous because that was never the expectation in the first place.
I burn today, I will burn tomorrow, and everyday following so that my children and their children will feel more soothed in their lifetimes than I ever did in mine. I will burn with my people in the streets, in corporate America, on paper with my words lighting up every page, and eventually I hope we learn to put out matches before they see the light of day. One day, we will look back on today and the world will still be ablaze in some way or another, but I hope we never stare at these history pages with nostalgia, but rather remembrance for the fire an entire people endured for generations.
REPORTER: Jasmyne Hinson
THE VOICE, Gravity Magazine, 2020