"I want to continue to do, as Audre Lorde would say, 'My work.' "
darnell l. moore
darnell l. moore
Darnell L. Moore is sharing his American Story with the world.
A leading voice on issues involving race, sexual and gender identity, feminism, activism and anti-colonial thought, Moore is a writer and the Editor-at-Large at CASSIUS. He released his first book, a memoir titled, No Ashes in the Fire: Coming of Age Black and Free in America in May 2018. We were thrilled to catch up with him to discuss his deeply personal and courageous new offering, one that has already received praise from writer and activist Janet Mock, author Kiese Laymon, and philosopher and public intellectual Dr. Cornel West.
"I imagine a world where we can be who we are without being policed or killed because of our unique expressions of personhood."
The theme for this issue of Auburn Avenue is “The American Story AD 2018.” The title of your new book is No Ashes in the Fire: Coming of Age Black and Free in America. How did you decide on that title?
I meditated on, and prayed about, the title. It references a moment from childhood when a group of neighborhood boys attempted to set me on fire. It was a windy day, which is why the matches didn’t light. The title is a nod to what it meant to survive the fire that could have been—a fire that could have ended my life. It is also a metaphor signifying the many ways black people in the United States have had to face the fires others have set to consume us. Some of us have made it out of alive. Some have not.
When thinking about the abstract notion that is “freedom,” what has it meant for you to be “free” in America?
We typically think about freedom as a philosophical idea, a poetic concept that is applied to Black people by way of the law (laws which have also been the source of unfreedom). But to me, being free means possessing the ability to live as a self-determined person free of binds whether they be prejudices, lack of wealth and outright forms of disenfranchisement. Freedom is not only the ability to live in a world unencumbered—outside of the cages of a prison system, the gaze of racist criminal justice and law enforcement systems, anti-blackness and antagonism because of sexual or gender differences—it is also to be ideologically and existentially free in spirit and mind too. I imagine a world where we can be who we are without being policed or killed because of our unique expressions of personhood.
Some of the reviews of No Ashes in the Fire describe the heroism and bravery in your life’s story. The unfortunate reality is that there are so many others whose stories have gone untold and unheard. How often do you think about the stories of others?
All of the time. One of the things I tried to do in the book was to move the narrative away from that of an ‘Exceptional Nigga’ who made it out of the hood. The way I tried to do that, which is different from most memoir forms, was to move between personal narrative and social and cultural analysis that point to broader issues. The focus on social histories was an attempt to move away from the ‘I’ or ‘me’ to broader structural impediments that impact others. I think about Black queer and trans people who were killed and named some of them, like Sakia Gunn who was a teenage girl who identified as a lesbian. The fire of misogynistic and homophobic violence took her from this world. I think about the folks that grew up on the same streets I did, people I love and people I didn’t know, whose lives were snatched too soon by slow and fast deaths.
Talk about the actual writing process for the new book. When did you start writing it? Was there a lot of stopping and starting or was the process pretty continuous?
It’s been about four years in the making. I had different ideas about what the book would be. I didn’t want to write a memoir at first. But I realized the importance of personal narrative as a way to help others think about larger structural issues. It took a full year of writing; 40% of that year I wrote full time. I took time off from work. Even when I was writing full-time, sometimes I would have to put the writing down for a week or so to take a break from the process, especially when reliving some of the more emotional moments.
Speaking of which, how did you work through the tough times and relive some of the painful memories to write the book? Were they cathartic?
It wasn’t easy. It was hard at times, the writing required visitation, a return to past events. I had to dig deep and face what I might have otherwise denied. We usually communicate emotions with our bodies. If you’re upset, you frown; if you’re forlorn, you might isolate yourself or go to sleep. When I was writing, I slept a lot. I am grateful for the community of care who supported me. When I was finished, I felt free spiritually and emotionally.
You father was born on the same day as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In the book you compare them. Can you talk a little more about that comparison and how it framed your idea of black manhood in America?
When that week in January would come along, I’d be confounded. I’d celebrate King and do all the King-themed programs in school. I revered a man that I did not know. I imagined King as something of a holy person—a God-fearing brother in a suit fighting for justice, straight, married with kids, beloved. King was represented as an emblem of a myopic image of Black manhood, one that we were then told to look up to, emulate, and/or judge each other according to. I would think about my father and wonder, “He’s nothing like that.” But they were more similar than they were not. They were black men conditioned under ideas of what black manhood is supposed to be in an anti-black world. Both of them were human and complex. One of the things I thought about when I was writing the book was the type of black men that white America chooses to love or hate and how we’re taught to follow that formula. That was an important moment for me.
In the book you say, “Like my father, and so many other black men, some of us don't really ask for what we want because to ask for love is to ask for what has been denied us so long.” Can you expound on this quote?
I’ve been thinking a lot about black men, however they’re defined—cis, trans, queer, straight...it doesn’t matter. I often think about intimacy and the condition of lovelessness in this country. How do we learn to love when we’ve been shaped to think that love is to be withheld from us or is something to withhold from others? How does one ask for the thing that they never knew they could ask for? I was particularly thinking about that, with regard to how Black men share or deny intimacy.
It seems like we’re now in a time when conversations about racial identity, gender identity, and sexual identity are becoming more frequent in public spaces. What is your take on this? How can we improve and advance these conversations?
You know how people use the term, “Coming out?” I often employ, “Inviting in.” It’s an act of hospitality to invite people into the most intimate space of one’s life. I often say, you’re not going to let someone in your house—in this case a metaphor for “in your life,”—if you don't feel safe. Laverne Cox says, “We shouldn’t necessarily seek safe spaces, we should seek spaces where we can take risks and still come out safe.” Conversations have to be grounded in the sense that we are committed to loving one another as black people, which means having a commitment to accept one another and not dispose of one another. We should be able to dissent and/or offer different ways of understanding the world in ways that don’t cause violence to each other. But the time is up for debating about whether queerness or trans experiences are morally right or sinful. We have to move past that.
What motivates you to keep going?
I love life. My first source of inspiration is my family. They taught me everything about love, community, survival, and freedom. When I think about them, they’re my source of strength and joy. If I had no markers of success that people could point to, my family would still love me. My community and friends keep me going. I wake up and pretty much ask the universe, “What would you have me do today?” I don't see life as a road to acquisition or success, because it’s an opportunity to add value, love, and purpose to the lives of those around me. I just want to do whatever little part I can.
How would you hope to see your story unfold in the coming years?
Hopefully I’m alive and healthy enough to still move through the world. I want to be grounded and stay true to whatever I feel I am being asked to do. By that, I mean the work toward transformation of community, world, and self. I don’t want to get caught up in the illusion of success. I don't want to be a brand, which is easy to become under neoliberal conditions that promote market-based thinking as if it is spiritually fulfilling. I want to build family and community. I want to share love and intimacy. I want to continue to do, as Audre Lorde would say, “My work.”
"I often think about intimacy and the condition of lovelessness in this country. How do we learn to love when we’ve been shaped to think that love is to be withheld from us or is something to withhold from others? How does one ask for the thing that they never knew they could ask for?"