In today’s post, Senior Editor J.T. Roane interviews Darnell L. Moore about his book No Ashes in the Fire: Coming of Age Black and Free in America, recently available in paperback. Moore is the head of Strategy and Programs at Breakthrough US. He is also a columnist at LogoTV.com and NewNowNext.com, and a former editor at large at CASSIUS and senior editor at Mic, where he hosted their widely viewed digital series The Movement. His writings have been published in Ebony, Advocate, Vice, Guardian and MSNBC. Moore is a writer-in-residence at the Center of African American Religion, Sexual Politics, and Social Justice at Columbia University, has taught at NYU, Rutgers, Fordham, and Vassar, and was trained at Princeton Theological Seminary. In 2016, he was named one of The Root 100, and in 2015 he was named one of Ebony magazine’s Power 100 and Planned Parenthood’s 99 Dream Keepers. He divides his time between Brooklyn and Atlanta. Follow him on Twitter @Moore_Darnell.
J.T. Roane: Similar to the vital and energetic production of the late-1960s and 1970s, our current age—the age of the Movement for Black Lives and other galvanizing social movements—has generated a number of memoirs and other writings taking up elements of autobiography. Where do you see your work within this wider tradition and what are your hopes for its contributions to Black Letters?
Darnell Moore: Memoirs, and other forms of life writing, are part of a genre that Black writers have used to push up against illegibility throughout the course of US history. To narrate Black life, in all of its complex varieties, is to engage in a critical, creative, and political project of re-imagining. Black writers write to remove the curtains that cloak the windows one might peer through to look into our worlds—our interior lives—so as to divert attention away from whiteness, which is always centered, like an altar, in the public imagination and literature in the Americas. I view my book as part of that tradition—the work of reimagining Black life without apology, without a nod to the white gaze, without an appeal to empty empathy from a public that is often called upon to feel what it refuses to acknowledge as material and felt in the first place. I wrote my memoir as a meditation on the costly love I maintain for the working poor Black folks in Camden, NJ who raised me. I wrote my memoir for Black queer, trans and gender nonconforming young people whose lives and experiences and magic and analyses are often lost. And, to be sure, we have suffered the tragic loss of so many Black queer, trans and gender nonconforming people in our communities. Writing a life into being, within a text, counteracts loss. Loss like that which is represented by a canon of queer literature that has become something of a vault ensconced in whiteness where Black stories are not contained and, if they are, buried. Loss, like that which is missing within a canon of African American literature, is often imagined as less expansive, and only animating the experiences of cisgender heterosexual Black people. So I wrote my book because writers like Joseph Beam and Essex Hemphill and Audre Lorde and June Jordan and Other Countries and Colin Robinson and so many other Black writers who have directly influenced my work, gave me permission to do so, to assert that we too are here and were there.
Roane: In addition to the autobiographical elements, you also develop Camden, New Jersey as a primary subject of the book. You show so elegantly and painfully the ways you were shaped by its post-industrial disintegration but also its resilience. Could you tell us more about your evolving relationship with place as detailed in the work?
Moore: I have not always loved or professed love for Camden. It was hard to love a city I was socialized to hate. I felt ashamed and rarely took pride in naming Camden as home during my younger years because journalists, politicians, teachers, white folks who used to live there, and some Black folks who moved out, and onward, talked so negatively about the place where I played, was schooled, attended church, ran the streets, suffered violence, enacted violence, fell in love, suffered a broken heart, made a home with my big family, experienced lack, experienced excess, grappled with my sexual desires, toyed with gender, came to love Blackness, lived. But I am precisely who I am because of Camden and its people. I went so long without having a full awareness of Camden’s history. I walked streets full of ghosts and forgotten histories, full of people with memories, who, had I communed with them, would have shaped my perception about a city known to many as a violent and devastated hood, the foil to Walt Whitman’s “Invincible City.” I had not read any books over the course of my life that centered Camden, so writing my memoir, with the help of historian Howard Gillette’s groundbreaking book Camden After the Fall, was my way of paying the love for Camden forward. I love my home. My family is still there. And so is my heart.
Roane: Fire is a primary metaphor for the violence that was an essential element in your becoming. Fire forges as it destroys and erases. How does the metaphor of fire work in your book and how does it resonate with other figurations of fire in Black religious and political traditions?
Moore: Fire is a motif that figures in various Black religious traditions especially the African American Christian religious tradition in which I was nurtured. I write about fire as a literal element. I was nearly set on fire by several neighborhood boys who used to pick on me because they assumed I was gay. So many of us are taught to kill what we cannot control. So the title is a reference to what it means to have survived what could have been a tragic death. There were no ashes to be collected from the sidewalk that day because I survived what could have been a literal fire.
But it is also a reference to surviving and living through the fire that is anti-Black racism in the US. I hadn’t thought about the biblical connections until I was engaged in a public conversation with Rev. Kevin Taylor, pastor of Unity Fellowship Church Newark. But the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, three Hebrew men, figures in chapter 3 of the book of Daniel, is quite resonant. In the story, it is said that King Nebuchadnezzar throws the three characters into a fiery furnace because they refused to bow to his image, that of a false god. After being placed in the fire, they end up moving about in the furnace unscathed and when the King stares into the furnace he sees the three men and a fourth figure, presumed to be “like a son of God” present with them. The story is meant to depict an omnipresent God who is with the criminalized and the tortured in their moment of trouble. They did no wrong; they merely refused to bow to an idol—in the same way Black people have refused to bow to whiteness—but were nearly executed anyway. God saves them. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are figures representing Black people who (sometimes) survive the fire that is anti-Black racism, because of the righteous protection of Spirit (when Spirit is not invoked as a tool of white supremacist capitalist cis hetero patriarchy), of ancestors, who err on the side of justice. We survive (sometimes) because of the power that arises from collective Black love. That is what I attempted to convey in my book.
Roane: You identify the misogyny and homophobia animating intra-Black communal violence as a compounding force punctuating your experiences coming of age in post-industrial Camden in the 1980s and 1990s. What do you hope for your story to convey to young Black queer and trans folks coming of age in our own reactionary moment of vitriol and violence?
Moore: In short, I want them to know that they don’t have to turn on the self, to kill the self, to avoid their reflections, to believe the lies they have been told, just to appease the discomfort of the people who put their faith in rigid gender constructions and dehumanizing ideas about sexuality and gender expression, all of which are cages. I want them to know that freedom is theirs and a free world is ours to collectively imagine and build together.