Health and Inclusivity: Sparking “The Fire Within” with Pryor, Kambadais, Birch, Franklin and Stewart

This Black History Month hit a little different. There was a new spirit, and it’s hard to put a name to or to hold, but I could see it in the bright eyes of my skinfolk, in people’s determination to not just celebrate but spur on change. I know so many people in my community who do amazing work, and comics is certainly no exception. So, when I read this one, I knew I wanted it to be the next thing I covered. 

First, a caution: I am going to discuss domestic and intimate partner violence, so please read and peruse at your own safety and if you feel you can remain intact by the end, even if affected.

From there? Why don’t we get into The Fire Within by Shawn Pryor, George Kambadais, Justin Birch, Tee Franklin, and Justin Stewart.

The Fire Within is a short story about a young Black boy’s experience witnessing domestic violence, perpetrated by his mother’s husband. Starting from a stark reality that the happiness of marriage or a wedding does not mean monsters are gone, we see Andre abused by “Jim” through an act of terrorism in the home: turning out the lights… in the room of a boy scared of the dark. “Jim”’s actions, his violence toward Andre’s mom and eventually toward Andre himself, are rage and harm captured in a bottle, leaving Andre to wonder if there is an escape and what it looks like.

Andre’s mind is occupied as he considers what to do, how he can help, how anyone can help. And his solution? Starting a fire, something which is brave, bold, and incredibly developmentally appropriate. Andre’s plan leads to “Jim” attacking him, which prompts Andre’s mom to fight back, a story not uncommon when there is an abuser in the family. She protects Andre because he can’t do much to protect himself, and it prompts her to leave, sparking a journey of healing that Andre himself points out takes years, and maybe is still taking years.

This short story captures so much within its pages, and the art is laid out in a poignant, transformative way. The space between the doors as “Jim” threatens Andre’s mom, the shift from Andre as a child to an adult, all speak to the rifts and lingering pain when abusers dole out their harm on their families. There’s so much in this story because it speaks to turbulent experiences within and among Black families, and that’s exactly why I wanted to talk about it.

According to a 2011 report from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Deliquency Prevention, 1 in 15 children are exposed to intimate partner violence (IPV) annually, with 90% of them being eyewitnesses to the abuse. Experiencing abuse, even witnessing it, is enough to create significant psychological issues for children, and, just like Andre, can create circumstances where the mind is occupied by the stressors of home, interfering with school, social interaction, and other important parts of life.

The National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, in a state report spanning 2010-2012, point out that 45% of Black women have experience violent, sexual, or stalking IPV in their lifetimes. These statistics, coupled with systemic racism, misogyny, and misogynoir, as well as a justice and healthcare system that doesn’t listen to the needs of Black women, highlight dangerous circumstances for many women in our community, especially considering that Black men can be and are particularly dangerous to them.

I appreciate The Fire Within for prompting important discussions around IPV among Black families, because it’s easy to sweep that shit under the rug. From systemic barriers and intra-community factors involving interactions with police to cultural issues like the impact and role of secrecy in abuse (by no means unique to Black people, though the impact may be different than other marginalized communities), there are so many barriers to Black women getting protection or help from their abusers. And there is no way for us to have the vital conversations we need to around liberation without addressing these factors.

In all about love, bell hooks discusses how men seek to dominate because we live in a patriarchal, white supremacist, and classist world that denies men care and connection in pursuit of power. Or maybe that men deny themselves. Or both. All these things said, we come back to the reality that patriarchy among Black people is not new, and it has always been harmful. Cecily Johnson of the Domestic Violence Network points out how the systems around us create and compound conditions of abuse in Black families. There is a necessary re-education and eschewing of patriarchy that men have to pursue in order for us to understand how wide and deep this pain and abuse goes, and without that knowledge we willingly keep ourselves away from and out of the reality that we harm Black women every day, that abuse and harassment are more common than not, and that is it on us, not the people we harm, to change in order to reduce abuse.

This comic painfully highlights the impact of abuse on Black families, and through these brief pages we can begin to form an understanding of what many people live through, the harm Black men can dole out on Black women, and the lingering impact on our children. And, sad as it may be, we are not going to get anywhere without looking abuse in the face and doing something to protect people and/or limit the power and reach of abusers (here, I encourage you to think of this outside of carceral means like calling the police).

Further still, The Fire Within also brings us to the reality that Black men abusing Black women is but one piece of the IPV or domestic violence puzzle. 

The National Center for Injury Prevention and Control also point out that 40% of Black men experience IPV across a range of modalities, indicating that as we navigate the gendered power dynamics negatively impacting Black women, abuse happens to, sadly, more of us than we realize. And the aforementioned systemic factors place different barriers in front of men that preclude us from seeking help, whether it be patriarchy and misogyny within ourselves, denying the pain, or in the system, which only sees women as victims (word used very specifically here). 

On top of that, IPV is prevalent among queer relationships, too. While it is not always easy to find information on the direct intersection of Blackness and queerness when it comes to IPV, a 2015 report from the Williams Institute points to 57% of bisexual women and 40% experiencing IPV over their lifetimes, and 37% of bisexual men and 25% of gay men experiencing IPV over theirs. These rates are startling, and they, too, originate from systemic factors of harm and erasure, allowing abuse to proliferate and abusers to sometimes have a cover that we don’t always see among cishet relationships and gendered power dynamics. All these statistics lead us back to the reality that IPV happens far more often than we think, and affects marginalized communities not just through abuse itself, but being rendered invisible by various systems.

The Fire Within prompted me to consider how all these stories and experiences weave together, and what we are able to do about them. It’s never as simple as leaving, considering that, according to the Battered Women’s Support Services, 77% of homicides connected to domestic violence happen around the abused partner leaving, and there is a 75% chance of violence increasing within two years of their leaving. So, there has to be something else, other resources we can offer (we will come back to this).

And, coming back to the reason I wanted to write this at all, these are experiences that abusers create for Black women, Black kids, Black queer and trans people, and Black men. This comic is a discussion of the challenges people face in getting out, and consider that Andre and his mom have a happier ending than many other people. Abuse within the Black community in particular is tied to the same systemic factors that limit our economic, educational, and vocational growth, but we cannot solely blame the system without addressing how Black men benefit from patriarchy and are able to dole out violence, or how Black abusers can use racist systems to dismiss or deny their behavior.

Comics as a medium provide so many opportunities to learn and see. And, though there is a separation for the reader from abuse, unless abusers are active in their lives, there is something we can take from The Fire Within. Leaving isn’t easy, and sometimes what we can or have to do is start a literal fire to make things change. The wealth of factors around abuse for any community are enough of a hurdle, and for Black folx fighting abuse may mean coming into contact with a violent police system, so solutions are not so easy and are often hard fought and hard won.

But, until we reach a world where abuse no longer exists and people are no longer harmed, we should find what we can do to support people experiencing abuse in our lives. Things that do NOT involve just telling them to leave or, worse yet, that there’s something they’re doing to deserve the abuse (no one, truly, ever deserves abuse).

Things like what the creators of The Fire Within offer at the end of the comic. From Shawn himself:

The Fire Within is told from Andre’s perspective because there are children and youth in our world who are exposed to acts of domestic violence daily. These acts can leave a child or youth mentally, socially, and emotionally damaged. According to an article on, an estimated 3.3 to 10 million American children witness domestic violence in their home, and the effects of it can be devastating. If you need help, there are resources available to you on the following page. Just know that you are not alone. -Shawn

Those resources?

Battered Women’s Justice Project

Child Welfare League of America

Futures Without Violence

INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence

National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence

National Coalition Against Domestic Violence

National Domestic Violence Hotline

Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network

If you are being abused or harmed in your relationships or family life, I hope you can find a safe way out. I hope you can be and remain or even become intact if you need to. I hope you can find community, find help, and find resources to safely leave, to develop a plan, and to live a life no longer marred by harm from others. You deserve at least that much, to be loved and cared for. And I wish this more than anything for my skinfolk and kinfolk, because racism is a helluva thing, and your abusers shouldn’t be adding to the stress, let alone hiding behind it.

For what it’s worth, you aren’t alone, and my fondest wish is that you are able to find and thrive in community that loves you without an ounce of harm.

Take Care.


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