When Darnell L. Moore was thirteen years old and living in Camden, New Jersey, he had no idea that his sexuality might be visible to other people. He dressed impeccably then, as he does today, and a group of teenagers doused him with gasoline. During the attack, he watched as his own neighbor tried and failed to light a match, unable to appreciate in the moment that this was an attempt at murder.
In retelling the story to his friend on NPR’s StoryCorps, he puzzles not over the violence so much as the lost opportunity for love. He had always wanted to be friends with this neighbor: “I wish I could have asked, ‘Why would you want to light me on fire?’” The bareness of that line resonates much like the famous Neruda poem that refuses to resort to metaphor: “the blood of children ran through the streets / without fuss, like children’s blood.” Both men seem to want us to remain for a beat longer than we want to in the how. How have we lost one another?
The question of love echoes throughout much of Moore’s writing and career, which has taken him to a UN Commission on the Status of Women, to Ferguson with Black Lives Matter, and to Palestine, as part of a delegation of LGBTQ leaders. His most recent project is hosting a web series for Mic News called
Kai M. Green is a postdoctoral fellow and visiting assistant professor at Northwestern University. He is also a writer, scholar, and filmmaker whose films explore, among other things, the bathroom experiences of transgender men and masculine-identified women of color. His writing delineates the experience of moving through the world with visible and invisible identities: “I am a black trans man. I am a black feminist and my center is just as feminine as it is black.” Both men have come forward as openly queer leaders in an emphatically intersectional civil rights movement.
Some readers may have encountered both Kai M. Green and Darnell L. Moore in Kiese Laymon’s essay collection,
When I solicited an essay from Moore after seeing him speak at the Black Life Matters Conference, he sent me this lyrical collaboration instead, a testament to the power of shared stories.
–Aisha Sabatini Sloan for Guernica Daily
Kai M. Green: Can you tell me how it is that you came to know yourself as Black? Feminist? Black Feminist?
Darnell L. Moore: I won a citywide poetry contest when I was in the eighth grade at Morgan Village Middle School in Camden, New Jersey. It was 1990. Carole Anne-Marie Gist was the first African-American woman to win the Miss USA title that year. She visited Morgan Village after she was crowned. Students awaited her arrival with great pride. Our teachers asked us to form two parallel lines at the front of the school. The girls donned red dresses and the boys wore blue suits. A cheap but fanciful-looking white wicker chair was placed on the lawn. Ms. Gist was to sit there after processing through our welcome line. Her white stretch limo arrived and my face lit up. I was less fascinated with her and the dazzling crown she wore. I was giddy because of the limo and the pomp. We were sharply dressed black kids welcoming the first black Miss USA to our mostly black school in Camden. Our school was draped in red, white, and blue as a symbol of its American pride. And, yet, our local newspapers narrated an otherwise spectacular moment of black communal gathering as a ghetto spectacle.
They talked about us as if we were an American disgrace. They focused on the deplorable physical conditions of our school—the background setting and not the youthful beauty of the black students central to the story. I read the newspaper with embarrassment. I was convinced white people and the government looked down upon us, hated us. The newspapers seemed to tell me as much.
Well, the poem I wrote that same year was a rage-filled rhyme. I don’t remember the title but it was a riff on blackness. And I won. Sonia Sanchez was the celebrity guest reader at the awards ceremony. She too read black words written on white paper—black words flourishing in a suffocating expanse of whiteness. I was black.
Ms. Harrison, my sixth grade teacher, told me so two years before. She told me the school district cared more about test scores than it cared about me. She taught us black history during our math and science blocks. And when state-testing time came she walked us through every question. Actually, she gave us the answers as we filled our boxes on the Scantron sheet. Folk might call this cheating. She would probably argue that hers was an act of reparation in response to the shitty conditions and lack of resources in our school. But I didn’t realize, or wake up to, my blackness until the moment I allowed my rage and love to bleed into poetry on that page. I won. My ode to blackness won. I was proud. And white supremacy and Ms. Harrison had something to with that.
Around the same time, I began to question masculinities and manhoods. I didn’t use language like that when I was a teen, but I was forced into a stark awareness of the brutalizing essence of some masculine performances. My dad beat my mom. A lot. And everyone knew.
I once ran to my aunt’s house, which was about five minutes running distance from mine, with nothing but an undershirt, jeans, and shoes on. Another family member called us for assistance. It was winter. When I arrived out of breath, I looked down on the snow-lined ground and followed the traces of blood from the sidewalk, up the stairs of the indoor porch, up the stairs of the house, and discovered my aunt kneeling over her bathtub with blood spilling from her head. Her boyfriend beat and hit her in her head with an object. There were no trigger warnings provided when I was a kid.
The women in my family—black, young, under-resourced—were hit by the fists of men and the state. I vowed to be different without realizing I would have to fight my way out of the same carceral apparatuses that imprisoned my dad, my aunt’s boyfriend, and so many other black men in my family: rigid masculinities and heteropatriarchy. I had no fancy, multi-syllable words at my disposal. Feminism and black feminism were not in my toolkit—at least, I thought. My learning happened by osmosis: black feminist love was in the air because my mom and her sisters breathed it.
Much before my politics and life had been reshaped by Cheryl Clarke (who I worked alongside in Newark and at Rutgers); M. Jacqui Alexander (whose book
Blackness is the capacity for radical and often criminal, improvisation.
Darnell L. Moore: Kai, I am curious. For you, blackness is…(complete the sentence).
Kai M. Green: Blackness is the capacity for radical and often criminal, improvisation. Blackness is resilient, it survives and has survived crossings—tumultuous waters—you are not human, cramped, packed, on top of one another, so close, so close, that you really shouldn’t be able to breathe with all that was carried, not just bodies, but the bodies’ secretions: sweat dripping, piss, ass, gas, hot breath, screaming, blood, crying, so so close.You really shouldn’t be able to laugh, but I imagine they did. You really shouldn’t be able to make a sound, but they did, so so close in the hold of the ship. You really shouldn’t be able to dream, but they did. Dreams of breathing sweet air and we still must keep dreaming, because the air in 2015 is still heavy, still stank, polluted by machines and capitalisms’ investments always reminding us, I must love myself.
Blackness is embodied. Black people bear the trace of resiliency and love in spite of… I remember the first time a white boy called me out of my name, “shit colored,” that’s what he thought of me. In art class, I was drawing abstract shapes using all kinds of colors becoming all kinds of things, but he needed to remind me that my blackness was to him, shit. I hated that his punishment was that he had to call me and apologize. I had to listen and hold his supposed remorse. I didn’t want to talk, but I had to forgive and accept his ignorance was not his fault.
I remember that same year the teacher lining up the students in 8th grade lightest to darkest. There were only two black kids in the class. They stood next to each other knowing their position, light skin and then dark, while everyone moved around trying to figure out what slight difference they could see. Only the black kids knew where to place themselves on the line, on the darkest end. Embodying black means knowing your place in other peoples’ imaginations. Knowing that it is not just white people that will pick you last, but other black folk and people of color because we have all been taught we are somehow broken—as if we just ain’t right. Instead of accepting that, and loving and cherishing that our bodies positioned in the anti-black imaginaries are critiques to western civilization. The way we do things (we do things all kinds of ways, too) to challenge “the way things are supposed to be done.” We are punished for that. CeCe McDonald, Sakia Gunn, Monica Jones—the living surrounding the dead so close and intimate is black life and death…
Blackness is a place. The place you don’t want to go alone. It is the hood. It is where crackheads walk, pimps hustle, and people work at night. It is where kids play and make basketball hoops out of recycling bins placed on the back of yo mama’s car trunk. It is the ability to use the street cleaning sign as a hoop too, when you need to dunk. It is taking the bricks that you find on the side of the house and a piece of wood and making a ramp to jump. It is innovation. It is turning the garbage can over just after the garbage has been collected and making a drum out of. It is cartwheels, pop locking and beatboxing—making rhymes. It is signing. It is kids singing and kissing, and playing tag, and catch, and laughing and asking for just ten more minutes even though the street lights already came on.
It is the kitchen full with the scent of hair, burnin’. The cold of the floor against my thigh. The piece of thigh that falls off the pillow as I sit between my mother’s legs. Electric burner glowing orange, hot comb catching and holding heat. Blackness is mother parting each section, slowly moving comb from root to edges. It is magic. It is straight now, but in about three hours I will sweat all that out. Blackness is supple for shapeshifting. Blackness is a way of seeing, knowing, smelling, moving—the thing that makes us difficult to understand is that there are so many types of blacknesses. I remember when I learned my particular kind, what we’d come to know and call ourselves in college, “plain blacks.” Plain blacks who, when asked, “Where are you from?”, claim local cities in the US like Oakland, or Detroit, or Brooklyn. Those of us who when pressed for more, “No but where are your people from?” and respond Texas, Mississippi, New Orleans, somewhere in the South, and when pressed more, realize that there is no record beyond that. But we keep it moving. Blackness is the greatest experimental poem. Blackness could be just about anything if…
My world is Black. My world is also very gay. When I moved into my building in LA, right across the street from Johnny’s Pastrami, a 24-hour pastrami stand, I was worried. I thought it might be too rowdy and too many cops (I was half right). I moved into my building, all black and a few brown folk. I lived there alone in a studio; all of the units were studios. I looked in my neighbor’s place and noticed that they, too, had a studio. In it lived a newborn, a toddler, and two parents. This is South LA. And while my downstairs neighbor was likely a drug-dealer, and the manager’s “girl” drank a lot and sometimes yelled, there were moments when she smiled, danced–moments when the babies seemed to relax and when the manager was not shaking his head and giving that “just trying to make it” nod. There was joy there, too. There was joy for me the week I moved in and I met two neighbors, two other black men, who were also gay. In my head I thought, “Why am I surprised?” In my heart, I knew why. I too had internalized Black. A Black building meant straight, meant homophobic, meant all of these things, even though that was not my experience.
I recall the two black queer kids waiting at the bus stop. A young boy, stands, early teens, dyed blonde hair, tight ripped jeans, and a pink shirt hugging his slender light brown body. And his best friend, she is short and dark brown, tight jeans, ripped as well, pierced eyebrow and just above the lip a stud sparkles. They wait at the bus stop on Crenshaw and Slauson, laughing, dancing, talking loud–I am afraid. I am afraid that he is too out and that she will not be able to protect him and they will not be able to protect each other. I see what they carry in their bond, and I roll my window down in response to their waves. They ask me for a ride and I oblige because I know I am not dangerous and because I know I will not hurt them, but I do not know about the car behind me. We ride and they ask me if they can play their music because I’m old school.
Blackness is all this and more.
I was taught to trust the voice of white folk and of dead folk, but to subjugate my own. There was no place for an “I” in my writings despite the fact I would soon come to see the world through my subject position.
Kai M. Green: Speaking of blackness, and its utility, what is the role of the black writer today? Is this different than any other day?
Darnell L. Moore: Reading this question took me back to Amiri Baraka’s living room in the southward of Newark, NJ. I interviewed him and black lesbian poet/scholar/activist Cheryl Clarke there in 2010. We talked poetry, politics, and Newark. During our conversation I asked him, “What is the role of the poet in Newark?” He responded, “Well, you know, it’s always the same role. You just have to say… tell the truth—you know, as Dubois and Keats said it, ‘A poet only has two things they have to relate to, truth and beauty.’ So, if you can handle that: truth in a society made of lies, beauty in a society that praises ugliness, then that’s the gig. It’s hard on you because you must understand the resistance to that.” And because Baraka, like Clarke, has a way of saying what so many of us feel—more beautifully and affecting than I can—I’ll begin my response with his words.
Poets, like all writers, must tell the truth. And if I am to be truthful, I am still uncomfortable speaking from the position of a “writer.” Can you believe that?
Part of my unease comes from me feeling as if I somehow arrived to the writerly world through the backdoor. I felt like a fake ass bohemian every time I would answer another’s question about my work by responding “I am a writer.” I was taught that one is somehow professionalized by obtaining an MFA or PhD, literary awards, payment for one’s words, or public recognition. I lacked all of those things when I started scribbling words that only really made sense to me.
It was during my time at Morgan Village Middle School where I was told by my Language Arts teacher, “you can’t write!” She was white. She said that aloud, in a room full of black students. Shit, I believed her for so long and the two years I spent in a private high school did not build my confidence. I went on to undergrad, a graduate counseling program, and seminary thinking I was a failed writer. And if my graded papers were any indication, I was. In fact, college taught me to hate writing and to suffocate my voice. I was taught to trust the voice of white folk and of dead folk, but to subjugate my own. There was no place for an “I” in my writings despite the fact I would soon come to see the world through my subject position.
One must be bold enough to name oneself a writer, then. One must tell the truth. One must maroon, even—break away, break convention, break laws that inhibit creative potential. One must, as Edwidge Danticat invites, “create dangerously.” One must find the courage to fuck with time or to not give a fuck about time in our writings: to travel back; to leap forward; to sleep in the present; to contravene normative time; to contravene the normative; to dream futures as a way of contravening the present. Black folk like Toni Cade Bambara, Octavia Butler, Kiese Laymon, John Murillo, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Mecca Jamilah Sullivan and you come to mind. Black writers are our sages and dreamers, witches and medicine doctors, preachers and wise counsel. And the day is different, but the times are not. We have to be diviners to exorcise the demons that would otherwise snuff out our words and our voice.
Your question really is asking us to consider the role of the black writer who must translate unconstrained fury and uninhibited hope into words for an audience even while she moves and lives and survives and thrives through her own rage and faith as she does so. To be a black writer is to be a writer who is Black. Blackness modifies and transfigures the writer into a conduit of political art-marking, of magic and world remaking. And while all art is political, not all art is liberatory for those of us who continue to live through a post-modern anti-black world even while we imagine a new decolonized and black loving world. But how might we go about that? What is our work?
We must move from being shapeshifting individuals to being shapeshifting communities. We must continually focus on our self-transformations, but it cannot end there—we must also move collectively to change the structures and conditions from which we arise.
Kai M. Green: All we have is our bodies. All we own is ourselves and we continue to fight for that. Sometimes it is difficult to value one’s life when you realize how devalued of a commodity you really are. And other times it feels powerful to know that no matter how devalued your Black, trans, female, male, queer, body is, you own it and you can and will do with it as you please depending on resources—how much money you have and can pay to alter yourself? And of course you mustn’t be under the control of the state as ward or prisoner. So how much am I worth? How do I find value in myself? Is it all about self-investments? That makes me feel like a real capitalist and I am no capitalist.
Shapeshifting is a powerful thing. Shapeshifting is the ability to change oneself. I want to have self-determination economically, politically and socially, which for me includes gender self-determination.
I think about maroon societies and the Africans who jumped ship before ever reaching their slave status as a state of permanence and I wonder if I would have taken that leap. I wonder if jumping was the only option for true freedom. I wonder and sometimes wish that they all would/could have jumped ship. But I digress.
So while I think it’s powerful that I can determine my gender and change my name, and with the right amount of debt I can even change my body, none of these things actually change the conditions under which I/we have been produced, Black, woman, man, trans, gay, lesbian, queer and so on. I call myself a shapeshifter, not because I’m trans and live in a state of gender ambiguity (this is where I live though it might not be how the world sees me). I am a shapeshifter because I have entered and learned how to penetrate some of the most exclusive white spaces and I haven’t been thrown out yet, instead I have been embraced. Perhaps they (school administrators, teachers, school psychologist) believed I’d be an ambassador for how good the white world and people could be if we just gave them the chance to save us. But for all that I have been given, I have also had to pay some heavy cost.
A consciousness that has been more than doubled can sometimes cause mental breakdowns. Sometimes changing oneself is only good for oneself, and while I believe that self-worth, confidence, and self-love is essential to a good life, I don’t think it can end there. We must move from being shapeshifting individuals to being shapeshifting communities. We must continually focus on our self-transformations, but it cannot end there—we must also move collectively to change the structures and conditions from which we arise. This is not to say that shapeshifting is not a beautiful and magical blessing, but it is to say that if all we do is change our minds and our bodies, then our world, our laws, our countries, our state, our police, our prisons, our presidents, our politics will be neglected as something untouchable, unmovable. We cannot accept that!
So I was asked to write about my journey to manhood and this was my conclusion:
My journey to manhood, much like my journey through womanhood, begins and ends with failure. I believe what Simone de Beauvoir has said, “One is not born a woman, but becomes one” and I think this is also true for men. I believe we have to create new pathways towards becoming men and women, but what is more important than that is the work of becoming more fully human which requires acknowledging the humanity of others. I believe the gender binary keeps us from liberation—so engrained in our bodies, minds, our public space is the delineation between men and women.
Darnell L. Moore: Well, gender conformity is a prison, indeed. True abolition then requires we also abolish gender, but I am not sure we are ready to give up that which we have invested so much in. Our investment has a steep cost, however.
Kai M. Green: And usually manhood comes at the cost of some woman’s body, some woman’s silence, but it does not have to be this way. We need to create new people. We must become new people and create new systems that work for us. I’m tired of trying to make my Black Transboi-body fit into a box (there is no box, only punishment for not fitting)—let’s instead change the space around us, so that it can hold us, wholly.
I close with a quote from black feminist, Toni Cade Bambara:
Perhaps we need to let go of all notions of manhood and femininity and concentrate on Blackhood. We have much alas to work against. The job of purging is staggering. It perhaps takes less heart to pick up the gun than to face the task of creating a new identity, a self, perhaps an androgynous self, via commitment to the struggle.