NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Sunday, July 1st, 2018

Book Review: No Ashes in the Fire by Darnell L. Moore burns bright and goes out too soon

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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