Darnell Moore grew up in Camden, New Jersey, a place where neighbours often felt like family. There were cheerleading squads, sports teams and regular dance parties at his grandparents’ house.
“I smiled a lot because of the people I grew up with,” the 42-year-old said.
However the area also had an undercurrent of violence in the 1980s, fuelled by poverty, political corruption and the crack epidemic that ravaged cities across the US. When he was 14, walking home from school, a group of boys tried to set him on fire. They thought he was gay.
“I have dated men and women, and I am attracted to a range of different people,” said Mr Moore, who identifies as queer. “I was always aware of my affections. I was attuned to who I was. They followed me home and poured gasoline over me.”
Fortunately for him, an adult came along as the boys stood there, struggling to light a match. Understandably, the attack made the teenager too “terrified to walk through the neighbourhood alone”.
“I was also embarrassed because some of my peers turned the incident into a joke.”
With hindsight however, he’s “glad” that his attackers weren’t punished.
“They were kids who deserved a chance to reflect on their wrongs, atone and grow so as not to do it again,” Mr Moore said. “Punishment does not equal transformation, especially in criminal justice systems in the context of the United States that disproportionately targets and disenfranchises black people.”
He doesn’t know much about the boys who attacked him, but believes we are all shaped, in some fashion, to harm.
“As an adult I’ve searched for the name of the person who tried to light the match,” he said. “I wanted to know if he was alive. I never found him. Some of us act on the urges we’ve been socialised to respond to — from racism to our disdain of LGBTQ people. What’s required then are avenues through which we might learn anew and act accordingly.”
Mr Moore’s memoir, No Ashes in the Fire, will be released on May 29. People in Bermuda will get a sneak peek on Wednesday, when he gives a reading at the Bermuda National Library.
His hope is that it leads to more discourse on identity, race, sexuality and community.
“I wanted to look at what it means to grow up and understand one’s self as a black man,” he said. “As a black queer man, black person from urban space, as a person without economic wealth ... I wanted to look at what it means to grow up on the underside of the HIV epic, and a product of the hip-hop generation.
“I wanted to look at what it means is to grow into a person who begins to love their community enough that they challenge themselves to do better for their communities.”
Although No Ashes in the Fire is his first book, he is a frequent contributor to publications such as Ebony magazine and Huffington Post. “I am excited for people to read it and for the conversation around it to start,” he said. “I am, naturally, nervous because it is something I gave life to and quite personal.”
Mr Moore is the co-founder of You Belong, a group focused on the development of diversity initiatives and in 2012 received a Humanitarian Award from the American Conference on Diversity for his advocacy in Newark.
His many hats include his role as writer-in-residence at the Centre on African-American Religion, Sexual Politics and Social Justice at Columbia University.
However he’s most proud that he inspired his mother.
“My mother had me at 16 and stopped going to school when I was born,” he said. “She got her high school diploma at age 50. She said to me, ‘I watched you as an example, and it gave me the courage to go back to school and finish’.”
“Darnell is a black male writing about his experiences growing up — pursuing an education, being raised by a single mother — who happens also to write about what it was like exploring his sexuality,” said Zaikya Johnson Lord of OutBermuda. “He also speaks and presents around the world talking about issues related to race, pop culture and gender equity.
“The chance to have him on our shores, the week before his book comes out, is indeed an honour that OutBermuda is pleased to bring to the community.” He was well received on his previous trip, she added. “OutBermuda promotes and supports the wellbeing of members of the LGBTQ community and one way is through building community; bringing people together and helping to diversify and broaden the narrative of what it means to identify as LGBTQ and also, what that can look and sound like.”
He hopes the world will one day bridge the division over race, gender and sexuality. “I live in the US which is understood by so many to be a place very much grounded in principles of liberty and justice, but we know very well that liberties and freedoms are often short-sighted within some communities, particularly queer and trans and communities of colour, and the economically disenfranchised,” he said.
As such, his thoughts immediately went to the people impacted, when he heard gay marriage had been overturned here.
“I always imagine what the consequences are of such an action,” he said. “Whose freedom to express their sense of self will be impacted? Whose everyday life will be impacted by a law like that? My heart is with the LGBTQ folks and their allies.”
He feels fortunate that his family has always embraced his identity.
“There is this idea that black people, especially black folk who are churched, or from places like the Southern states, tend to show up as less progressive,” he said. “My family was like, ‘Oh my gosh we love you’. Of course, that is not true for everyone.
“I don’t know if I am necessarily lucky. I am who I am because my family shaped me to be that way. I count it as a blessing that I have them and that I was born into a family that has arms wide open.”
Darnell Moore will read at the National Library on Queen Street, starting at 5.30pm. Watch him speak at TEDx at www.royalgazette.com