Darnell Moore, civil right activist and author, was just fourteen years old when he was attacked by his neighbors on a walk home from the supermarket. Immediately after surrounding Moore, they beat him, spewed homophobic slurs, and doused him with gasoline in an unsuccessful attempt to light him on fire.
As the Black Arts Month Keynote Speaker, Moore recounted this experience in his talk on Friday, February 15, in Kemper Auditorium. His memoir, “No Ashes in the Fire: Coming of Age Black and Free in America,” describes his experience as a gay African-American man navigating modern American society.
Moore attributed the “No Ashes in the Fire” line to his traumatic encounter. He also drew inspiration from author, professor, and activist Gloria Jean Watkins, known by her pen name, bell hooks. According to Moore, the title acknowledges Americans of color who have experienced systemic oppression.
“I can’t explain what it feels like to be in a situation like that. The hurt that comes with having to ask yourself, ‘What is so different about me, about my way of being, that someone would want to try and take me out of here for it?’ So the title is a reference to that literal moment, what it meant to have survived a fire. There are no ashes because there was no body to be laid after what could have been a fire. I survived, so it’s an ode to survival,” said Moore in his talk.
Moore continued, “It’s my way of acknowledging the survival potential in black life. Black people within the context of a country whose economy was founded on chattel slavery and the displacement and murder of indigenous people here. To be alive? Given that context? It is to always be existing, thriving, surviving, and walking in a fire that is anti-black, or what bell hooks [Gloria Jean Watkins] calls racism, white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchy.”
Moore grew up in Camden, New Jersey, which he said was “named as one of the most economically devastated and most violent cities in the country” by social scientists, news media, and politicians. In spite of the surrounding negativity, Moore recalled memories of unity with his family and their willingness to give without expectation.
“Here’s a lesson I learned about radical love…regardless of what you did, who you may have disappointed, whether you went to jail, whether you cursed somebody out the day before, whether you stole grandmama’s change, they would never let their people go without. If you knocked on the door and said I need a place to stay, I need food to eat, that’s what they did,” said Moore.
LaShawn Springer, Director of the Community and Multicultural Development Office, highlighted Moore’s claim that, without concepts of radical love and active inclusion, people become increasingly polarized, divided, and violent.
“I first heard Darnell speak at a conference for educators who work in independent schools. He shared some of his story with us which to me was such a gift. He recalled feeling different from peers in his neighborhood but feeling unconditional love from his family, a radical love that allowed him to flourish despite the hate he experienced on a day to day,” wrote Springer.
Ava Stills ’19, Co-President of Af-Lat-Am, spoke to the importance of practicing radical love at Andover. She emphasized that it is the most beneficial when used without the expectation of reciprocation.
“Just small things day to day I feel like can really help, especially because Andover can get really dreary sometimes. And people can get in kind of a really negative headspace…I think being kind…just for sake of being kind [would make] this campus such a happier place,” said Stills.
Hilena Misganaw ’21, an attendee at the presentation, appreciated how Moore related each concept to his own experiences, as well as the concept of being “not just an ally, but an accomplice” to social justice movements. Misganaw said she learned the most about the mutual solidarity of different marginalized groups.
“I think he phrased everything in a way where it was easy to understand what he was trying to say and his experiences, and to learn from that. And I learned that being an ally to someone else’s cause isn’t just saying that you are, but more so taking it as your own chance: your own freedom,” said Misganaw.
In order to spite a teacher, Moore secretly applied to Friends School Mullica Hills, a private high school, where he was one of five African-American students on a campus of 250. According to Moore, his experience at the vastly white, Quaker-run private school widened his perspective and ability to understand his surroundings.
“You get access into a world, not just their world, but they got access into mine. We were coming back from a trip and [teacher Judy said], ‘Well, I’ll drive you home.’ I go ‘uh oh’ to all the students in the car, I’m just like, ‘Let me just let y’all know what y’all are about to see. The streets don’t look the same and you might want to duck when you get to some of these corners.’” Moore said, laughing at the memory.
Moore continued, “We have to be courageous enough to not situate ourselves only in environments and among people who reflect back to us what we already knew about ourselves. You learn by being put in spaces that are windows, access into other life worlds.”