Darnell L. Moore’s ”No Ashes in the Fire: Coming of Age Black & Free in America” is a rare debut. The activist and journalist grew up Black, poor and gay in Camden, New Jersey, in the age of AIDS, but this is not a rote narration of the racism, poverty and homophobia. Instead we meet a skinny, complex boy who begins his life in a loving three-bedroom home of 11. He becomes the first in his family to graduate college but along the way he struggles with his faith, a heart attack at 19, depression and violence. This is a holistic story, one that is as intersectional as real life. Read the following excerpts then buy ”No Ashes in the Fire” on Amazon, or better yet at a Black or independent bookseller.
On his late dad’s violence and tenderness:
There were many nights I tried to skip bath time during my childhood. Even if my seven-year-old body smelled like “outside,” as my mom would say, I would leap into my bed, without worry, smelling like a mix of grass, hot air, sweat, grime, and good times. […]
One evening after dinner, my father called me into the bathroom. As I walked closer, I could hear the water hitting the bathtub floor with force. The door was slightly ajar as he stood in the tub lathering a washcloth with Ivory soap.
“Open the door. What you standing there for?” he asked.
I walked into the bathroom with as much annoyance as I did whenever I needed to wash.
“I’m ’bout to teach you how to wash yourself properly. You can’t be walking around here stinking. You getting older, and your body is changing,” he said, and he prepared the washrag and soap as if we were about to begin a legitimate class on proper cleanliness.
I stepped cautiously into the steamy bathwater. It was the first time I stood in the presence of my father when he was naked, which actually made me forget about how much I hated washing. It was mystifying, to stand in the bathtub bare before the man who often veiled his deepest emotions and used the force of his physical power to dominate the spaces he moved through. I stared at him as he stood uncovered, more vulnerable and more self-possessed than I had ever seen him. He was twenty-three years old at the time, younger than I am now. But he was a father who was raising children. […]
When we sat down, he moved his hand over mine. Together we grabbed the soapy washrag and moved it across my neck, behind my ears, along my arms, and across my chest. My father gently washed my back as he instructed me on how best to clean the parts that smell the worst when boys play outside all day.
My fear of the bath dissipated more and more after each repetition of calm instruction offered amid safety in the presence of my father, who in other instances used the same hands to do damage. There was a lesson to be learned in the water. Bathing correctly was one lesson, but I also learned how tenderness and violence, care and harm, are ”strange bedfellows. They can coexist in our complex webs of human connection, the bad always canceling out the good, until the good that we are able to express smudges away the traces of evil even the best of us are prone to mete out. Looking back, I no longer see a young black father who was the totality of recklessness and lovelessness. I see a human being, a young black man, struggling to transform what he otherwise used as weapons into instruments of care. His hands, his strong and soft hands, were the source of contradiction in my youthful mind. His hands, his human and fragile hands, used gently and violently, now symbolize the complexity I too carry within and negotiate as an adult. In the water, we received instruction.
On being queer and sexist
The queer magic I possessed, which I assumed distinguished me from straight black boys, didn’t prevent me from relying on the bad powers of male dominance. School locker rooms, barbershop conversations, some of the ’90s hip-hop songs I loved, and church sermons were just some of the sources that informed my thinking about manhood. I learned to accept the women- and femme-despising ideas perpetuated by so many people and institutions around me because they proved to benefit me even as patriarchy violently impacted the lives of the women in my life I loved, like my mother. In many ways, I was no different than the black men I hated for hating me. We were of the same tribe and mind.
Black girls are expected to mother black boys who are and aren’t their sons, and black boys, queer or straight, often demand our mothers, sisters, friends, and partners meet and even exceed that expectation. All boys are taught that the world is theirs. But black boys learn early on that the world they are required to rule is the home—the place often sustained by the visible and invisible labor of black women and girls we share homes and relationships with. The home is likened to a kingdom black boys are expected to provide for, fight to protect, and lord over. Outside the home, the streets black boys navigate are controlled by the state and the wealthy, and black boys’ freedoms are restricted and policed.
On coming out to his mom:
My assistant phoned my office and let me know my mom was in the waiting area. I took a deep breath, stood up from my desk, walked out to greet her, and invited her into my office. I thought I was going to collapse. My thoughts were scattered as I tried to flesh out what I would say. We sat down across from one another. I panicked.
“Thanks for coming,” I muttered with my head slightly lowered so that my mom couldn’t look me directly in my eyes while I talked.
“Of course. What’s wrong? Why did you want me to come up here?” She asked the question as if she already knew what I was about to say, almost like an invitation.
“Well, I… I… I don’t know how to say it.” I had practiced the script several times on the long ride to work, but the words were chained to my throat.
“What is it? Are you sick?”
“Okay. Do you have cancer?” Her question was a legitimate concern. We had lost my grandfather to cancer three years before. But that wasn’t the secret I needed to share.
“No,” I responded.
“What is it? Do you have AIDS?”
“Nah. I have a boyfriend.”
The words flew out of my mouth too fast to catch them. And there was no turning back. She would either accept me, or I would go off to build my life, and family, without her.
“That’s it? I knew that,” she said with a half-laugh.
“Darnell, I am your mom. You are my son. And I love you regardless. I’ve always known. I know that’s why you stay away as much as you can.”
Every word to follow was like a sledgehammer breaking down the thick walls of shame entrapping me. Her acceptance was more healing than any prayer, more uplifting than any group counseling session, more powerful than any force of hate I internalized.
“I’m so sorry for lying to you, mom.”
“You didn’t lie. You did what you needed to do to protect yourself. I wanted to talk to you, but I didn’t know how you would respond. I didn’t want to offend you, but I knew. And I waited.”
I felt as if I had received my freedom papers—as if I had been imprisoned in a suffocating cell for 28 years, or 10,220 days, and my mother had come along with the keys to unlock the cage. I realized, however, I had been holding the keys all along. I merely shared them with my mother. She was there, sitting opposite me, loving me, because I invited her in. She accepted the invitation. And we both were changed as a result. My insides were touched by a love so intensely powerful my body and spirit were literally reconfigured. I sat up straight. I lifted my head from its lowered position. I opened my mouth and smiled. My stomach filled with butterflies. My heart danced. I wanted to leap and run and scream at the top of my lungs, “I am gay as hell. And I don’t give a fuck who’s mad about it because my mommy loves me!”
All of my life I was taught to believe that single black mothers who have kids young, like my mama, were the cause of the problems in black families and the reason black boys like me made poor choices. We have been taught to believe black people, especially the economically strapped or urban or churched or southern, are backward and less progressive on issues of sexuality. I believed the lies for a good part of my life. But the day my mom, who had birthed me in a black city when she was a black girl, affirmed the full expression of my humanity was the day I decided to always put my faith in black people, even if my faith would be tested over and over again.