Darnell Moore tries to shy away from the activist label as much as possible, but his actions speaks for themselves. Throughout his life —as a student, teacher and author— Moore has focused on giving a voice to the most marginalized communities using his literature and involvement to ensure that members of the black LGBTQ community are heard and represented. More than that, that every member of the community —no matter from where or how old— has access to the literature, art and supportive groups that reflect who they are. Now, in the middle of his book tour, Darnell sits down with us to discuss his new book, No Ashes in the Fire: Coming of Age Black and Free in America, his overlapping roles as a community leader and writer, and role that literature has in the changing of hearts and minds across the country.
BFM: As you know there are many ways of being an activist and the role that one can take on. How would you describe being an activist and your own role in activism?
DM: I think that there is no singular way that one can define the role of an activist or what activism is. All I’ve ever really endeavored to do is to use whatever skills and tools and access points I’ve had for the cause of justice within local communities. That work shaped the regional and national work and sometimes international human rights work I’ve been part of. Activism, in this moment, can be very limited in terms of how we understand it. It’s not a way to brand oneself or characterized by singular actions. It’s a steady commitment to a cause, to transformative justice. I think that it’s important to acknowledge that there are many outlets for activism and many ways to define it.
BFM: Did you start out teaching or did the writing and teaching come about in the same light?
DM: It kind of came about together. I’ve been writing all my life, but hadn’t necessarily named myself a writer until recently. For me, writing is just another tool useful for communal education or ideological transformation. The first the piece of writing I was publicly acknowledged for was a poem I wrote as part of a citywide poetry contest in Camden, NJ. I wrote about black lives and blackness, and I always say that I don’t know where those words came from but I was a very conscious and aware young person. That poem was a tool of activism and of transforming justice, change making. It was my way of giving voice. So it’s been a very fluid process that wasn’t really marked by a clear demarcation. Writing is one of the talents that make me feel alive. I just needed to accept that fact.
BFM: What advice would you give people who are wanting to educate themselves on a community they’re not part of?
DM: So much of my own political awakening has been through reading other folks’ works. Black feminist literature was instrumental in my own development as a younger person who has come into an awareness about the various structures, like patriarchy, that operate in my world. Literature can absolutely be a route through which we are changed. Books changed me. All of those things are tools. Art and popular culture are. I mean you know Donald Glover’s “This Is America” was a tool that some saw as beneficial and some saw it as not. Media can be a tool. And what we’re reading and who we decide not to read… all of those are access points to come into a fuller sense of the world.
BFM: Can you tell me what motivated you to write your book, No Ashes in the Fire: Coming of Age Black and Free in America?
DM: I really wanted to write a book that captures the lives experiences and world of blacks and browns LGBTQIA , gender nonconforming youth and trans youth who grew up in space like Camden, New Jersey. They are often left out of narratives of LGBTQIA progress which has mostly been dominated by, or overly determined by, the experiences of white LGBTQIA folk, or it’s been adult centered, and very much centered on spaces like New York and San Francisco. Part of what I wanted to do was to write a book that captured the world of those who exist outside of that narrative. I was writing to them. I was writing for us. That essentially was the rationale for writing it.
Literature can absolutely be a route through which we are changed.
BFM: When you were growing up, as a person of color and a gay man, was there much for you to look into or look up to, as far as media or book or any kind of literature or films maybe?
DM: There’s always been literature by and about black LGBT people. The extent to which that literature was made available to me during my K-12 schooling is another story so, I didn’t have access to the books that represented any semblance of my life. That was a problem with public educational institutions in the United States, not just in 80s and 90s, but still to this day. If there was a limitation it had everything to do with the choices made by educational institutions, media and even maybe cultural critics and those who are within that sort of industry that set the course for whoses book are celebrated. That had everything to do with my limited access to the books that I needed. I didn’t really get access to them until I went searching for them for myself and that, I’m imagining, is a problem that still persists today.
BFM: What were some of the biggest challenges of growing up a gay black male?
DM: Part of what is important to understand is Kimberly Crenshaw’s notion of intersectionality which, was really a frame that she conceptualized to think about the multiple forces through which black women and girls have to maneuver through. Simultaneity of oppression as a way to get at the fact that black folk who might also be women and girls, trans identified, gender nonconforming, etc. are not only going to be impacted by anti-black racism, but might also be impacted by sexism, misogyny and other sort of facets of patriarchy. Might also be impacted by homo antagonism and trans antagonism. Might also be impacted by economic disenfranchisement or all that comes along with being a person who may have moved to the country from somewhere else and so much else. The difference is that you’re maneuvering through the world, and living, and thriving, and providing, and reinventing yourself or coming into ones self despite the multiple arrows that are aimed at you. I would say, though, that I am who I am because of the fact that I am a black, queer identified man. The lens through which I see the world has everything to do with it, so rather than focus on that as a deficit, I focus on it as an asset. That queerness is magic and black queerness is magic and it has everything to do with who I am in the world: the work that I do, how I move in the world, the way that I love, and much else.
BFM: When I was reading about No Ashes and Fire I was looking at an interview you did about it and you said that you were shaped by your trauma. What advice can you give other people who are faced with trauma in redirecting that to mold a more informed, inviting, positive future for their communities?
DM: Let me be clear that in my life I’ve been shaped by trauma, but I’ve also been shaped by the love of the Black people in my life. The book’s title No Ashes and Fire speaks to the reality that so many of us live within these sort of metaphorical fires. We exist in a country really that has always been on fire, with regards its treatments of Indigenous people, of Black and Latinx people. The fires are present. We know them and we can name them. There’s a long history of colonization and of racial antagonism and violence, not just in the forms which we come to know but also through laws, through actions that have been sanctioned by the state and so much else. And yet we live and persist and build families and make love and create in the midst of those fires too. What I wanted to get across in the book is that despite the fires that are often set ablaze in our lives, some of us will survive and we need to tend to the power that is within our collective grasp to live within that, but also to be honest and not lie about the fact that some of us don’t survive. What we need to do then is to be more wary and vigilant about naming the forces that are setting the fires and stopping them so that Black people and others who exist on the edge of the margins can live more joyful lives.
Find out where you can meet Darnell Moore on his book tour at www.darnelllmoore.com.