We talked with Matthew R. Kay, author of Not Light, But Fire: How to Lead Meaningful Race Conversations in the Classroom about the meaning behind the title of his book. Here’s what he had to say.
I like to think that it means we should avoid showy conversations, and meaningless conversations, and we should try to push towards having conversations that are significant and meaningful.
In 1852, Frederick Douglas was invited to speak at a convention celebrating the Fourth of July. After spending the first half of the speech thanking the people who invited him and giving the history of America, he made a rapid turn and said, I don't know why anyone invited me here. It seems like it was all for show. Like you have a pet slave who has escaped and is here to tell their hero story and make everyone feel good. But there are actual things that need to change, and we need to do something about all the injustice that's out there. We're wasting our time with these shows and these showy conversations.
One of the lines from his speech was, “It’s not light that is needed, but fire.” We don't need any more shows. We know we don't need any more things that are just done for status. We need conversations that are actually going to lead to some sort of action.
I encountered that speech in college, in a Frederick Douglas course, and I fell in love with it. It's been in the back of my mind for years and years. When I had the opportunity to write the book, it really drove me, and so I decided to let that really ride throughout the book. But what I really love about it is that it’s not just a title—in every piece of the book I want teachers to be thinking, "Is this a fire conversation? Can I be pushing towards something more meaningful?” And so I tried to do that.
Not Light, But Fire is available now on Stenhouse.com