No Ashes in the Fire by Darnell L Moore (Hardcover, Nation Books, 234 pages)

It’s a rare thing for a book to con­clude and the read­er’s biggest com­plaint be that there quite was­n’t enough of it. Yet, that’s what Dar­nell L. Moore accom­plished with his mem­oir No Ash­es in the Fire. It’s an impres­sive work of intro­spec­tion, fam­i­ly her­itage, and the inter­sec­tion­al­i­ty of race, sex­u­al­i­ty, gen­der, and even faith, all the more so because it’s done in beau­ti­ful prose.

Many peo­ple come to under­stand that they resem­ble their par­ents despite their inten­tions. This is how Moore describes grow­ing into an adult who con­sid­ered his abu­sive father as normal.

I had­n’t yet real­ized I was his son, his like­ness, an ellip­sis extend­ing his pres­ence in the world.

Moore grew up in Cam­den, New Jer­sey, a city that became large­ly black and Lati­no then had its minor­i­ty neigh­bor­hoods pun­ished for that fact with the area’s trash incin­er­a­tor and city’s waste man­age­ment facil­i­ties, along with the accom­pa­ny­ing smell.

No Ash­es in the Fire by Dar­nell L Moore (Hard­cov­er, Nation Books, 234 pages)

They were pun­ished with red­lined homes priced at a pre­mi­um for new black and brown res­i­dents mov­ing in then deval­ued to steal wealth from their descen­dants, both in terms of their inher­i­tance los­ing val­ue and in school-fund­ing based on prop­er­ty values.

They were pun­ished with law enforce­ment more inter­est­ed in main­tain­ing an unequal social order than keep­ing any peace.

The author traces the effect of these sorts of things on his fam­i­ly his­to­ry and own life, first research­ing how his ances­tors moved from Vir­ginia to set­tle in New Jer­sey and how their lives shaped his own.

This would have been a worth­while com­plete sto­ry in itself.

For most peo­ple, their great-grand­fa­ther dying in 1917 with pneu­mo­nia and influen­za on the death cer­tifi­cate would be pret­ty straight­for­ward, part of the glob­al pan­dem­ic that killed mil­lions of oth­er adults the same way.

But sto­ries passed down in Moore’s fam­i­ly involve the jus­ti­fied para­noia that he was killed at work in a min­ing acci­dent, some­thing cov­ered up with a con­ve­nient excuse— because who would care how a black man died except his family?

Who would lis­ten to them if they did?

Moore also speaks lucid­ly about his sex­u­al­i­ty, and the main thread of the mem­oir is how his love for oth­er boys led to the sort of dis­crim­i­na­tion and abuse that is not inter­gen­er­a­tional but applied fresh to each per­son, but how this inter­acts with sys­tems of oppres­sion like racism and misogyny.

For exam­ple, despite his own intel­lect, Moore’s ini­tial poor edu­ca­tion in pub­lic school result­ed from the racial dis­crim­i­na­tion passed through gen­er­a­tions; so was his fam­i­ly’s dif­fi­cul­ties afford­ing a bet­ter pri­vate school.

But being doused in gaso­line — a still-breeze from immo­la­tion via lit match—that was the cru­el­ty of one group of neigh­bor­hood boys, only.

“Inter­sec­tion­al­i­ty” is a term peo­ple on the left, at least, have come to bet­ter under­stand and apply crit­i­cal­ly in recent years, no longer restrict­ed fem­i­nism and race but more gen­er­al­ly. Moore’s mem­oir is keen­ly influ­enced by this, as well, and he demon­strates it through­out his rec­ol­lec­tions of his life.

One thing a suc­cess­ful mem­oir must have, and so many lack com­plete­ly, is self-aware­ness. Moore keeps in the fore­front not just those aspects of his iden­ti­ty and sit­u­a­tions that have made his life hard­er but eas­i­er as well. He’s aware of the added lay­ers of dis­crim­i­na­tion women of col­or, espe­cial­ly trans women, face that is still preva­lent with­in com­mu­ni­ties, black, reli­gious, and so on. And he’s skilled enough to make these points organ­i­cal­ly more often than didactically.

The biggest issue is that the book con­cludes effec­tive­ly demon­strat­ing how Moore was shaped to be the per­son that he is but with­out a great idea of why that was impor­tant or the ways he’d tak­en those lessons into the world around him.

Every­thing seems to build toward Moore com­ing out to his moth­er, her already know­ing he loved oth­er men but wait­ing for him to tell her so, then the relief that being his com­plete self around every­one in his life brought to him.

This must be a mis­in­ter­pre­ta­tion on my part because there’s few­er than twen­ty-five pages that fol­low Moore doing this, and he sketch­es out very lit­tle of what it meant to rec­on­cile his own iden­ti­ty, queer, black, and Christian.

He men­tions orga­niz­ing a free­dom ride to Fer­gu­son, Mo., after the extra­ju­di­cial exe­cu­tion of Mike Brown by offi­cer Dar­ren Wil­son in 2014. He men­tions his work in 2010 police killing of DeFar­ra Gay­mon. Func­tion­al­ly, the book ends up stop­ping with Moore’s life at his com­ing out in 2004 at age twenty-eight.

It’s pos­si­ble Moore assumes read­ers to already be famil­iar enough with his life to fill that in for them­selves, but it is not actu­al­ly demon­strat­ed in the book. It cer­tain­ly would not have been bur­den­some to have anoth­er fifty or even a hun­dred pages func­tion­ing essen­tial­ly as pay­off for what came before.

The sub­ti­tle is “Com­ing of Age Black and Free in Amer­i­ca”, and if this one falls short, it’s in how it fails to com­plete the com­ing-of-age sto­ry show­ing suf­fi­cient con­trast to what came before the jour­ney’s end.

Mem­oirs are not biogra­phies, but many a biog­ra­phy will tele­scope the first decades of a per­son­’s life down to a few dozen pages before fol­low­ing in more detail once they get out into the world and start doing the work of their life.

This, unfor­tu­nate­ly, is just the opposite.

The oth­er notice­able issue is where faith fac­tors in to Moore’s life.

This, again, may be a fault of my expectations.

Moore describes a near-death expe­ri­ence in col­lege due to a con­gen­i­tal heart prob­lem exac­er­bat­ed by drug use that led to him going back to church and devot­ing him­self to his Chris­t­ian faith, even while con­tin­u­ing to have rela­tion­ships with men in secret and to feel guilty about it.

Even­tu­al­ly, he real­izes he does­n’t need to live in secret or hide who he loves.

But the entire time he’s describ­ing his faith, Moore does­n’t real­ly seem to talk much about God or Jesus or have a world­view of a lit­er­al super­nat­ur­al deity that acts upon the world, even of an afterlife.

That’s not to assume that every­one’s under­stand­ing of reli­gion is the same, but I kept expect­ing an out­right rejec­tion or rede­f­i­n­i­tion of his beliefs that nev­er came. Ulti­mate­ly, con­sid­er­ing he earned a Mas­ters in The­o­log­i­cal Stud­ies from Prince­ton, Moore comes across as reli­gious, but not spiritual.

No Ash­es in the Fire has the sort of voice that we need more of, and we need to do a bet­ter job ampli­fy­ing them when they do appear. On top of that, it’s con­sis­tent­ly beau­ti­ful­ly writ­ten. Def­i­nite­ly add it to your read­ing list.

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