Finding Black Boy Joy In A World That Doesn’t Want You To
Darnell Moore’s memoir “No Ashes in the Fire” thinks deeply about trauma and healing
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
Ifirst read Darnell Moore’s work in Kiese Laymon’s essay collection, How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, as part of a letter exchange. I was surprised by the tenderness of the conversation between Laymon, Moore, Mychal Denzel Smith, Kai Green, and Marlon Peterson, which ranged over difficult topics like misogyny and homophobia. In taking on the power structures that often serve to divide Black cis and trans men from each other and the rest of the Black community, this was the kind of Black men’s writing that I, as a queer Black femme, wanted to be reading. So I was excited when I found out that Moore was publishing his own memoir, No Ashes in the Fire: Coming of Age Black and Free in America.
I talked to Moore a month before the release of his powerful text, which digs into growing up poor, Black, and queer in the shadow of domestic violence. What does freedom look like in these circumstances? Darnell may not have all the answers, but with his memoir, he opens up a conversation about the idea that we should look for freedom in the midst of structural forces that regularly remind us Black lives are not supposed to matter. After reading the book, I was especially curious about the role that memoir writing plays in getting free. I began by asking about the process of crafting the memoir, and what he wanted Black people — especially Black men — to learn from it.
Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: You write that you were hesitant about memoir at the beginning. Are your views about that still shifting? Should everyone write a memoir?
Darnell Moore: Memoir is a genre that is an accessible one that all of us can grab hold of. When the book is able to get readers to think differently about things, or to see semblances of themselves, or to have new understandings, that can contribute to the way that they move in the world. This book was really difficult to write, because I went in knowing that I wanted to write a book that combined personal narrative with social and cultural history. And I wanted to do it beautifully, but I also wanted the book to take the shape of something different than I’ve read before.
I often feel like so many people feel pressured to write quickly in response to events or news breaks. I used to do that. I’d write a Facebook post or take to Twitter. And now I’ve been so much more silent because when these things are happening, I’m asking myself, “Okay, let’s think about this.” And this is what this writing process has allowed. So in some ways I feel I’m missing time or I’m missing things, and in another way I feel so free, and so much more prepared, I think, to think critically about things that require or demand of us to be patient. And by patient, I mean to offer ourselves the type of grace, time, and critical distance necessary to have something to say that is grounded, in a type of nuanced way that it requires.
CPW: In No Ashes you describe the enormous pressures that come with being poor and queer, and how you struggled with depression and the idea of suicide. At one point you say, “Writing about it now feels too theoretical, too poetic, but self-distraction is material, overwhelmingly felt and embodied.” Did you worry about the book being read as what is sometimes called “poverty pornography”?
DM: I remember saying, “I need to say this here.” Because it was at the point of the book where I was talking about suicidal ideation — and attempts. And when I was reading it back I said, “This can mistakenly be read as some poetic ass writing about someone on the brink of a life.” It can almost read so theoretical or almost poetic that it lacks the emotional current that was present during that time, during that experience. And I didn’t want to have the reader believe that even now, given that time has passed, that it’s somehow bereft of the emotional tremors I had experienced in real time. That even in that moment, it was a sort of visitation of the emotional weight that those memories carry.
I really did fear that the book could be, if I wasn’t careful enough, read and interpreted as exploitative. Another story of Black trauma and the eventual overcoming. Or at least, even this sort of nihilistic struggle that also lacked joy, and that lacked love, and that lacked community. All of those things had to be interpreted as appearing together.
Part of what I wanted to do in a book, too, was to have folks have emotional connections and experiences, so I was trying to write in such a way that folks can not only understand but feel the struggle. What does it mean to have a mom who was practically a single mother, even though my father was around, who was working at a minimum wage job and doing everything she could? Using all of her money to make sure that we are okay, that we could have a Christmas that looks something like what you might see on TV. That is the sort of every day type of mundane shit that so many single women, single moms, who are also economically disenfranchised, undergo, that goes missing when all we wanna do is concentrate on their ability to be “strong” women. That work is not without struggle, and it is not without pain.
CPW: How did you learn to kind of thrive despite the racism and homophobia you faced, and what advice do you have for barrier breakers coming behind you?
DM: Part of what I tried to also illuminate in the book is the value of community, and what I call radical love. It was the presence of caring people and also self-realization. A big part of the book is about the struggle of this young boy, of myself, trying to know who the fuck I was in the world. Trying to love the parts of me, all of me really, the world had taught me to despise. My Blackness, the color of my skin, my lips, my queerness, the sort of quirkiness that I presented with, and my gender expression.
It wasn’t until much later, and part of that self-realization came through my mother being a mirror for me. To be able to mirror that affirmation was pivotal in my being alive. That moment when she sat in my office and said, “I love you. I see you.” I would not be here if it wasn’t for the people in my life, which is why my story is so much about others’ ability to be present, in helping me to be.
CPW: Thinking of yourself as an editor and a literary leader, and someone who’s about to be on the road for several months having conversations about toxic masculinity, and how men of color interact with non-binary, genderqueer, and cis women of color. What are our responsibilities to the people we’ve previously harmed?
DM: Writing about the harm one has brought in other people’s lives requires some thought about ethics. I’m clear about the particular ways that women, cis-gender, and transgender experience misogyny and trans-misogyny at the hands of men. I’m also clear about the ways that queer men, trans men can also reproduce those actions. I don’t want to remove us from these conversations.
I think within literature, it’s important to not see literature, or the canvas of the page, as an opportunity to work out our complicated natures, and the harms we’ve done only — without taking into account the way that writing can also re-inscribe, and harm in additional type of ways. That means that there has to be some deep thought around, “Why are you writing what you’re writing and to what extent?” Kiese Laymon has talked about this quite a bit. If the extent of the writing is such that one needs to air these things out on paper, so as to prevent the possible onslaught of accusations, then that’s the wrong reason to write.
If the intent is to name what the harm is after being in conversation with the person whom you harmed, gaining their consent and ensuring they’re okay, making sure they are okay with you sharing the story or not, that’s the ethical mandate that I think is essential, right? So I shared my writing with most of the folk included in the book. A big part of it was sharing with them, and giving them the option to consent to their stories being shared or opting out altogether. For example, I talk about a moment in the book where I was arguing with a former partner and I swung at him. I gave him the option to read and to let me know if this was okay to share.
CPW: What do we do with that energy, without getting into a politics of disposability?
DM: I’m still thinking through this. I’m glad you use the word disposability, because that is what I am trying to unpack in the book, about a commitment to not disposing of Black people. In a world that is hell-bent on disposing of us before we are even here, right? Because of the way I’m read as a certain type of man, even as a certain type of queer man, that for those who exist closest to the edges of the margins the stakes are much higher, I want to be clear that talking about disposability becomes a complicated conversation. So I want to be clear that I am not insinuating we ought not be held accountable when we commit wrongs or that we’re all at the place where we have to be committed to this politics of non-disposability. When, in fact, it is because of structural conditions, that there are some of us who show up in the world by virtue of the way we express ourselves via our gender presentations, by virtue of womanhood, and our trans-ness, or what have you, for whom opting out of that process is not an option.
And, yet, I am still thinking through what communal healing might look like — one that centers those who have been harmed and seeks to aid the wrongdoer in their quest for atonement and transformation — that does not begin and end with punishment or incarceration. For someone like my mom, I thank goodness there was some intervention. I hate that we had to call the cops to get my dad out the house when he tried to kill her. But I am also imagining a world where we can think about a different response, without the police. In the absence of the alternative, we had to do what we had to do.
CPW: I think my single favorite line in the book was, “My failure to be the man I assumed others wanted me to become loomed, but some shit we fail at should be counted as a win.” I really love that because I actually think that women need to hear that right now, from cis men. How do we talk about misogyny without centering the men engaging in it, and at the same time recognizing that they are whole human beings that do need to be centered in some kind of dialogue?
DM: I should give credit right away to Jack Halberstam’s book, Queer Art of Failure, which years ago had been critical to my understanding of notions of failure as it relates to what it means to deaden the sort of dreams or norms that are provided to us via white supremacist capitalist hetero patriarchy, right? And Jack’s work is the sort of theoretical foundation that helps me to think through what it means to fail at the things that we are told make us good men, or good White people, via majoritarian group norms. What might it mean to upset those things? But you know, I try not to let myself off the hook in the book either. I’ve received the critique you offered in terms of how I might have been better able to think about how patriarchy put my mom in the position to have to do some of the things she did, not necessarily because she wanted to.
And that’s real. I think if my mom had a choice, and that she could speak on her own terms, some of the decisions she made, she probably didn’t wanna have to make, right? But this is what patriarchy and its consequences put her in position to do. So, the way that I dealt with that was to really try my best to do the work of self-reflective analysis, if that makes sense. And I tried to think about how the very forces that I name as problematic and violent, whether they be patriarchy or homo-antagonism, anti-blackness. I found myself struggling through, impacted by, shaped by. My behaviors, my expressions, and the ways in which I have been guilty of perpetuating those things.
When it comes to cis men, I don’t expect cis or trans women to teach me how not to do the shit that brings them harm. That’s not their job. It is ours, right? And the first work I think, then, is analyzing to what extent we are all, the extent to which I am, implicated in these processes. And by we, I mean the folk who exist on the side of power, and who utilize that power to do harm and or gain access.