Presidents can set or erode national standards. Andrew Johnson’s Reconstruction reversed freedoms for formerly enslaved people after the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Woodrow Wilson’s praise for D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” rejuvenated the Ku Klux Klan and legitimized terrorist white supremacy, Jim Crow laws, and lynching as the evil banality of systemic racism.
President Lyndon B. Johnson, on the other hand, refuted his southern cronies, signed two landmark civil rights bills and announced “We Shall Overcome” to a shocked Congress.
Today, there could not be a more profound moral and policy distinction between Donald Trump’s callous and cruel promotion of white supremacy and the fake machismo it inspires, and the smart, heartfelt vulnerabilities evinced by Barack Obama, who lifts up caring and empathy as character strengths to be shared communally.
Obama also thinks that inculcated toxic masculinity can be deadly in depriving Black men and boys of their human right to feel.
Eliciting Obama’s vulnerability during a virtual town hall was queer activist and intellect Darnell Moore, author of “No Ashes in the Fire: Coming of Age Black & Free in America,” a 2018 New York Times Notable Book. Acclaimed trans writer Janet Mock has said of him: “Darnell Moore is one of the most influential black writers and thinkers of our time.”
Moore, a writer-in-residence at the Center on African American Religion, Sexual Politics and Social Justice at Columbia University, facilitated the June 5 intergenerational conversation sponsored by the Obama Foundation’s My Brother’s Keeper Alliance.
He urged the panel on “Mental Health and Wellness in a Racism Pandemic” — which also included civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis, Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, Leon Ford, writer and survivor of police brutality Jr., and youth leader LeQuan Muhammad — to open up about the anguish of systemic racism felt by Black men and boys, especially in light of the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and “the loss of far too many Black lives to list.”
“This conversation is meant to be intimate, communal and also a space for Black men, men of color to experience and model vulnerability,” Moore said. This moment is an “unprecedented time” of global pandemic and racial violence. “We are in what might be best described as a ‘storm within a storm.’ So many of us are not OK.”
Obama shared how he was bereft of words in 2015 after a white supremacist killed nine churchgoers during Bible study at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. He felt his words after other mass shootings, including Sandy Hook, had not made an impact. But when the churchgoers forgave “this misguided hateful young man,” Obama focused on their grace.
“It was their strength, not my strength that I was relying on. It was their grace that bathed me in grace,” Obama said.
“Usually, when I’m overwhelmed, discouraged angry, depressed, what has lifted me up is when I don’t feel alone and I can connect what is going on with me to what is going on with us,” he continued. “It is a profound thing when you are able to recognize that whatever is happening to you, whatever you’re going through, it’s not just about you. And you’re not the only one going through it and that usually ends up being a source of power and sometimes you can turn pain into joy as a consequence.”
Moore noted that “community healing requires community. Community requires all of us,” adding that “our idea of community has to be so wide, so expansive.” And that means that “all Black lives matter, whether those Black folks show up as straight or LGBT.”
Lewis, who has been battling Stage 4 pancreatic cancer, said he’s been incredibly inspired by the young marchers.
Lewis was 25 on March 7, 1965, when he helped lead a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama to commemorate Jimmie Lee Jackson, fatally shot 17 days earlier by a white state trooper as Jackson protected his mother during a civil rights protest.
On what became known as “Bloody Sunday,” white police charged the 600 demonstrators on horseback and on foot, wildly swinging their billy clubs. Police cracked Lewis’ skull during his beating, captured by TV news cameras.
“It’s all going to work out. But we must help it work out. We must continue to be bold, brave, courageous, push and pull, ’til we redeem the soul of America and move closer to a community at peace with itself,” Lewis, a longtime LGBTQ ally, told Moore and the panelists. “But no one, no one, will be left out or left behind because of race or color or nationality.”
Moore agrees. “I’m energized by the groundswell of people who are responding in this moment,” Moore told the Los Angeles Blade by phone on Sunday, June 7. “I’ve been describing it as a ‘storm within a storm.’ We are at once within the context of a pandemic that has devastated, in very real ways, people’s lives the way that we are typically a community.
“But also,” he continues, “I think it’s important to think about the ways the pandemic, particularly within the context of the US, revealed what had already been — and that is structural inequities like anti-Black racism, the class division, and also the impact of economic disparity on women of color and girls of color and trans folks.”
All the old structural inequities have been exacerbated.
“Even in a pandemic, we had Black and LatinX and Native American folk who were disproportionately testing positive and also dying,” he says. “And in the midst of all of that, we have continued forms of racial violence — both at the hands of law enforcement and at the hand of white vigilantes — that ended in the deaths of Black people, like Ahmaud Aubrey, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor,” (for whom they held a moment of silence on what would have been her 27th birthday).
Moore also feels the pressure of being LGBTQ.
“For me, to be Black and queer within the context of this moment is to really always be sort of out of breath,” Moore says. “To see people in this way, take to the streets, to speak back the power, to express themselves, to organize, both on the ground and virtually, to contend with all of the things that are not right, the racism that we breathe like air within the concept of the country, the white supremacist ideology. And not ideologies. But also laws and regulations and policies, and the way that we have resourced government instrumentalities, like law enforcement, in ways that have done harm to Black communities.
“So, in some ways, I have been overwhelmed —overwhelmed by the incessant deaths that we are confronted with, murders and killings. Overwhelmed by having to watch videos of folk being killed by law enforcement or chased down by white vigilantes. Tired and exhausted, emotionally and psychically exhausted of having to see that. And also exhausted because it often takes videos, evidence for many folks who are not directly impacted — in this case, for a lot of white folks — to even see this as a reality that they should also be linking themselves to, fighting on behalf of.”
Darnell Moore (Photo by Paul Stewart Jr.
But, Moore says, “empathy has its limits. We should never have to list a litany of black deaths in order for people to feel.”
Moore feels energized but “I’m also feeling the complicated feelings of what it means to be in a moment that feels like a time loop. These iterations are part of a long struggle for black freedom that didn’t just start today. It didn’t start at Black Lives Matter, with the movement for Black lives of 2014. It didn’t start with Trayvon [Martin].
“It started the moment Black people were brought here as enslaved people — and that fight has been perpetual,” Moore says. “We shouldn’t have to fight so damn hard for a freedom that this country says it puts its belief in.”
Moore says he’s energized by people speaking up.
“And I’m energized by the folk who are committing to a process of self-reckoning — a practice of self-reflective analysis that is not only around analyzing all of the systems that we need to contend with, but folk who are saying, ‘Actually, let me take this mirror and turn it on itself as a white person. Let me examine the extent that I have put my face in whiteness. Let me think about the ways that I have —as non-queer people, right? — let me think about the ways that I have breathed this air of queer and homo antagonism and trans antagonism so cavalierly,’” he says.
“What I love to see is when people get galvanized and pulled into movements like this and are able to assess themselves and do the work on self as a part of also transforming our world,” says Moore.
“There’s a way, that in this country, to seem progressive, one of the formulas for that is to always be able to name whose feet are on our neck, right? We are good at naming the ways that we might be experiencing harm or impacted by oppression,” he continues.
“But the work in this moment is about naming the necks that our feet are on. And after having done that work, taking your feet off. That to me is what equity looks like,” says Moore.
Moore is now interested “in folk talking less, not pandering to the moment, not doing public relations stuff by putting up a Black Lives Matter tag or a black box in a Instagram post, or even naming it,” he says.
“We’ve got to go beyond the words. We need action. And that action is about changing systems — but it’s also changing a self. And when I can begin to see that, that’s when I think I can be a bit more hopeful.”
How would you see that manifested?
“I think there are a lot of ways that that can be manifested, right?
I would love to see white folk in conversation with other white folk. By the way, this happened. There are white folk who are anti-racist, who literally are in the work of undoing racism. And part of that work looked like not really putting the onus, putting the burden on the impacted person. That is, in this case, we’re talking about the matter of black lives.
Black folk shouldn’t have to do the work of educating white masses out of their racism, right? It means in the same way that it is not the work of queer and trans and nonbinary folk, LGBTQI folk, to do the work for straight folk. It is not our job to teach straight folk how not to be homophobic, right?
It’s not the job of women, whether they’re cisgender or transgender woman, to teach men how not to do the things to them that harm them. It is not the job of those groups, of those people, who are the directly impacted, who are impacted by structural and material inequity, right, and ideological biases and everything else, to do the work of teaching the other.
So that work, to me, looks like those who sit closest to the axis of power, to power, to begin to confront themselves and each other, to do that work.
And that, to me, it gets to this point — there’s work to happen at multiple levels. Yes, we need policy change. Absolutely, policy change, we need changes in law, we need changes in practices.
The movement for black lives has a call to confront police as part of its larger framework of abolitionism. I’m thinking about a scholar, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, who defined abolition as not just a removal of the bad things, structures, institutions, practices, instrumentalities, that don’t work. It’s not just about removing those things, it’s about imagining what needs to go in its place. Now, imagine if we took that framework and applied that to our ways of thinking, our ways of being in the world. Let’s apply to abolition that sort of framework to white supremacy.
It means that you absolutely have to work on systems of inequity, but it also means you’ve got to work on abolishing those thoughts, working on deconstructing those ideas that we hold on to, working on analyzing and thinking about how we, ourselves, might also be complicit in some of these various things that are harmful and impactful to the other.
I guess, a perfect way to give an example of that is: I am a black queer man. I am cisgender. Yet I name myself a pro feminist. I am in community and solidarity with feminists, with women, with girls, with nonbinary folk, with femmes. I’m in solidarity. It is my job to do the work of unlearning all that I have been taught to believe about maleness and masculinity and all of its feign and superiority.
I had to, every day, unlearn a lie that had been taught to me about who I am as a man, a cisgender man, in a world. That is my work. That type of work is mine. I have to do that on me. And I don’t have to rely on you, on a woman, to do that for me.
It’s the same work that white people can do with regard to white racial supremacy.
I think it’s just as important as structural change. People are the ones who create policies, right? We are the ones that are creating law, we are the ones creating communal practices. And, if we’re going to create a better world, a more liberatory world, it requires that the person who’s doing that creating free themselves first, free their minds and their spirits first, so that they can then go out there and do the work, the structural work in a world…
Solidarities are critical. We live in a world where part of my own growth was, because I was in community with black lesbian feminists, like Cheryl Clark, as one example, poet and activist and scholar, who through our friendship, I learned so much about not only her lived experience as a black woman, who is also a lesbian, who came up in a very hyper-patriarchal type of movement. But in that, I was also learning about myself.
So the thing is, we can be in community with folk who are “other” without putting the responsibility on them to teach us, partly because look, I read books. Let’s start there, right?…
The second book that I’m working on is tentatively titled, “Unbecoming: Visions Beyond the Limits of Manhood.”…I think the way that you get free is unbecoming, unlearning.
It isn’t that I need to become a better man, right, I need to actually fail at, give the middle finger to, not acquiesce to, all of the things that society has told me that I need to be in order to be seen and understood as a man.
For me, it’s not even me becoming a better man, what would it mean for me to become a better human person?… Humanity has been a category that has been denied to black people within the concepts of the US. This is a country, within a very short history, that has literally documented that black folk were three-fifths of a human person, that they were property. So it makes sense that folks would want to hold on tightly to the category of manhood.
But if we took these categories away, what does it mean to be a person who is living justly and just community with people, a person who is open to equity and making sure that equitable practices are part of our everyday life? Those are questions that any of us can ask. And it doesn’t require someone who is impacted by the thing that we might be complicit in to teach them about that.
I remember going to a protest when I was living in New York City. And it was a protest in response to, I don’t know, there’ve been so many black local men killed at the hands of police. I can’t even remember the particular protest I was going to…. I’m on the A train and I’m walking by people going to this protest to say ‘Black Lives Matter’ and I remember having this moment where I’m thinking, ‘How radical is it that I’m walking to a protest to proclaim Black Lives Matter, to lift my fist up — and I haven’t stopped to speak, to look into the eye, to offer a gesture of love and care, to any of the people that I came upon before I got to the protest?’
And for me, that illuminates the disconnect between what we understand to be performative radical action and the everyday ways of life. It is not just enough for me to be out there with my fist up if I have not put into practice love, right, like community?
So, what did that look like? It looks like yesterday, my neighbor who came by, who is white, from Israel. Sat out on my porch and we talked for three hours. It looks like his wife saying, ‘How are y’all doing?’ Recognizing that it’s a lot going… I was also really, really hyped because they were like, ‘I love what’s happening. Burn it down.’ But that idea of them not waiting for us, my partner and I, my black partner — they came to us and asked how we’re doing, instigated a conversation that wasn’t centering themselves, but really was seeking to understand.
Let’s just speak. If you’re white and we’re protesting in this moment, I love that. But if your friendship circle is still homogenous with people that look just like you, if you’re at workplaces and you’re sitting down at lunch or Zooms or whatever, and you look at the grid and see that they’re all white faces there — if we are not responding to those types of everyday mundane, common ways of being, then the protests fall short.
It becomes something other than radical. It becomes performative because you have to embody the practice every single day. Every single day. It looks like me getting on the call with coworkers, like last week in the middle of all of the energy and the emotions that were present, and coworkers saying, ‘Hey, before we go forward, do you have the capacity to do this meeting right now? We can cancel if you need to.’
When I meant leaning into our humanity, that’s what that looks like. Yeah, the grand gestures are fine, your Black Lives Matter poster, fine. All of this stuff is totally fine. We’re having this conversation in the middle of Pride month. And I said to some folks, when the AME shooting, Dylan Roof, murdered those nine parishioners and stuff, in South Carolina, I remember it was really hard for me to do any Pride-related activities.
Well, let’s be clear: if I’m going to say LGBT, but often as the case, it’s really a lot of men, gay men and mainstream organizations, gay white men, there was a silence present within the Pride, pride.com space.
And I feel the same way now where it’s like, even as a black, queer person, I am always black and queer always, at once. And we lift up the Pride flag of radicalism. One, a pride that comes off the heels of radical movement. But lift that up without attending to the reality that some among the LGBTQI are also black, then we do ourselves a disservice. So even in a moment like this, for Pride, I’m like Pride?
This is an opportunity for queer and trans and LGBTQI folk to be in solidarity, to decentral whiteness within the Pride movement and say, ‘We understand the radical roots of LGBTQI movement, right? We’re going to use this as an opportunity to flip things on its head and tend to the folk who need their voices elevated in this moment.
I mean, there are everyday ways of being, that each of us, as individuals, can engage with one another as neighbors. And by neighbors, I don’t just mean the people that you live next door to, right, but as human persons. And then there are also ways that we can do this structurally within our movement spaces that challenge us to make sure that we are always leaning into empathy, not the type of empathy that comes and goes after the next news cycle, but the type of empathy that says, ‘We see you, we care, and we’re going to show up for the folks that are being directly impacted by structural violence in this moment.’
The reason why we’re even able to be in the streets right now and to call for a type of justice, however people imagine that to be, in response to George Floyd, there was video evidence, right? It’s possible — and we know this is true — that because of the lack of video evidence, people have been murdered. And in the case of the law enforcement, law enforcement has gotten off with impunity. So, video evidence is important.
And also, because of that, I think it’s important for the purposes of correcting, or at least responding to, historical amnesia within the concept of the US where we like to not be honest about the violence of racism that has impacted black people, indigenous people, in this country and many others.
Those archival…it’s our private pain, really, are so critically important. But the rub and I think it’s important to name it is the fact that we have to have this archive in the first place for folks to understand or to believe is itself part of the problem.
The archive is not necessarily the problem. It’s the fact that you need it. It’s the fact that we had to literally show George Floyd’s last breath on video, and possibly over and over again, because somebody might be looking in to figure out, ‘Well, did he do something wrong here?’
We saw Emmett Till’s photo, and we know that that photo did not stop folks from buying into white supremacy. We saw, ‘I can’t breath’ happen with Eric Garner. And still, with that archive, we have people going out there saying, ‘Well, what did he do to deserve that?’
So the archive is important and that evidence is important. And it’s also important to remind folk that the fact that we’ve got to give you this over and over and over again, that’s the problem.
And the refusal to believe when it’s right in front of our face.
Top Darnell Moore photo by Paul Stewart
Here’s Moore moderating the Obama Foundation panel, followed by a video of Moore discussing this theory of abolition.