“Black men loving Black men is a revolutionary act.”
Before I read those profound words written by Darnell Moore in an op-ed last year, I didn’t know he was quoting another Black gay writer named Joseph Beam. I knew that Moore had grabbed my attention, however, so I had no choice but to listen.
I aspire to achieve this affirmative love with another Black man that Darnell calls revolutionary. Like Darnell, I came to realize in my adult years that my “queerness” was my magic. But, at times, that magic became dim and was in need of a little spark.
Coming to terms with your identity is a right of passage in the gay community. To go through this process unscathed is a luxury that I would dare say most Black gay men don’t have. We’re forced to navigate through a society that continually categorizes us as other while celebrating a toxic masculinity that some struggle to emulate. It’s the same toxic masculinity that haunted Darnell throughout his childhood in Camden, New Jersey and would even go as far as threatening his teenage life.
When the internet and my immediate social circles began buzzing about No Ashes in the Fire, I wondered if, within its pages, I would find self-help guidance for the modern-day Black American gay man. That’s not entirely what I found. Instead, what I read was a beautifully written narrative, depicting a painfully beautiful journey of self discovery that somewhat recalled my own.
To go through this process unscathed is a luxury that I would dare say most Black gay men don’t have.
Darnell is a man who proclaims to love other Black men on purpose because Black men like his father and his first boyfriend loved him from a haze of lovelessness. His turning point came in his late twenties. And while this stage of life is challenging for many, for him, they were characterized by periods of self-hatred. It wasn’t until after moving in with his boyfriend at the time that he was able to really look in the mirror and begin to love himself fully. He would eventually reveal to his mother that they weren’t just roommates. Darnell had fallen in love, and his mother’s acceptance of him in that moment was a blessing.
I was much younger when I navigated my first love with another man. At 15 in Louisville, Kentucky, I had to figure out how I would explain to my friends, my grandmother—who was raising me at the time—and my mother how I had become such close friends with someone seven years older than I was. How did we meet? What school did he go to? Was he even in school? Exactly how old is he? I had the answers to those questions, but I didn’t have the bravery to answer them. So I didn’t.
We hid our love in public food courts, a friend’s college dorm, movie theaters, and the occasional hotel room. My weekend visits to my mother’s house were weekends spent with my love elsewhere, but my grandmother never knew. And while my older sisters didn’t exactly know who he was, they knew me. So they would cover. Those were the lengths I was willing to take to be seen and to be loved.
My oldest sister would pick me up from my mother’s house and drop me off wherever I needed to be to see him. I was the golden child—smart, well-spoken, with solid grades—so my secret wasn’t hard to hide. But one day my mother grabbed me on my way out and looked me in my eyes.
“I want to meet him,” she said. And in that moment, I couldn’t hide anymore. Like Darnell, I had come face-to-face with myself and with my mother’s acceptance—and a few ground rules. I began the difficult journey to self-love.
The presence of strong women was a constant in Darnell Moore’s memoir. In fact, his mother is the center of every story he recalls. I often wonder what my story would be without the strong women in my life. There was my grandmother, who raised me, and my mother, who supported and loved me unconditionally. I was surrounded by teenage aunts and older sisters who always had me in tow and introduced me to the culture. Darnell explained how grateful he was to have grown up with a family that supported him, and all I could do was nod in agreement. Not everyone who goes through the things he went through and makes it out alive.
I deserved the same love that Darnell called ‘revolutionary,’ and I committed myself to finding it.
There are moments in life that a spark a fire; they invoke a drive where you become determined to excel. For Darnell, that moment happened around age 14, when neighborhood bullies attempted to set him on fire. For me, it was a toxic love. I had fallen victim to giving myself away; loving my partners more than I loved myself. I always remained focused on my goals—going to college, getting great internships, and moving to New York City—but the absence of a father and the mistakes of a naive, misguided mother left me to be raised by my grandmother while fighting the demons of an abandoned child who coped by excelling in school. I was tired of being a fraternity brother’s secret or a married man’s escape. I deserved the same love that Darnell called “revolutionary,” and I committed myself to finding it.
I finished reading Darnell’s book with not only a greater appreciation of him, but an appreciation of the hardships I had made it through to become the young man I am now. There’s a silent strength that comes in owning who you are as a Black gay man. The way I walk into my barbershop in Harlem is the same way I walk into a gay bar in Brooklyn, or anywhere for that matter. I don’t project a rigid masculinity, but an air of acceptance—an acceptance of myself and everyone around me because I know what it means to be “other.”
Darnell expressed a similar sentiment upon the completion of his memoir. For him, writing No Ashes in the Fire was part of a healing transformation.
Reading it was confirmation of mine.