Damon Young is a Black Pittsburgh writer who has gotten national attention thanks in part to a blog he co-writes called Very Smart Brothas (now part of The Root). I started following it on social media a few years ago and have found it to be funny, entertaining, informative and a source of sharp social criticism. The local story that really put Damon Young and VSB on my radar had to do with a local white female newscaster who stepped in it with some horribly tone deaf commentary about a violent crime that had occurred in the city. I happen to live in the greater Pittsburgh area, so this story was big here and generated a lot of commentary in local media. Since then I’ve been following the blog pretty regularly, and when Young’s debut book came out a couple of years ago, I looked forward to getting a copy for myself. What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker was a finalist for the NAACP Image Award and the Huston/Wright Legacy Award, was an NPR Best Book of the Year, and has been similarly recognized by several other sources. The essays within it are personal and often very funny but they are also an honest and critical look at the ways white power structures and white supremacy have had an impact on Young, his family, and the larger community. It’s an excellent collection and I highly recommend it.
The essays more or less follow Young’s life from his childhood in Pittsburgh to his current life there with his wife and little girl. Each essay, though, is a stand-alone in its own right and flows seamlessly between Young’s past and present. The introduction compares extreme sports, whose danger attracts white people almost exclusively, to “living while black,” which is both dangerous and involuntary. Young wonders if the inherent danger in being black in white America is at the root of his anxieties and neuroses surrounding issues such as school, gayness, driving, being black enough, fights, and more.
Reviewing an essay collection such as this is challenging because it’s not possible to discuss each essay as it deserves. They are all excellently written and worthy of their own separate discussions. I don’t think it’s possible for me to provide an overall generalized assessment without sounding vapid. What I will do instead is focus on a few of the essays that made an impression on me and stayed with me long after putting the book down. The essay called “Street Cred” deals with Young’s high school years, when he and his parents had moved from the city of Pittsburgh to a suburb with a large but not majority Black student body. Young was not only a good student but also a star basketball player. Yet despite these advantages, he still struggled with insecurity and self-esteem issues which came to a head after a game one night. Young was known to have grown up in the city, to have seen some things, and to have “street cred.” His Black teammate James was a less skilled player and had grown up in the suburbs but was very popular and enjoyed ripping on Young. To this day, Young can’t stand the thought of James and lists a litany of hilarious, petty problems he wishes upon this high school nemesis. But the bottom line was that Young was trying to escape the stereotype of growing up in the city while James was trying to cultivate it.
I just wanted my life to be ‘normal.’ And he just wanted to be ‘black.’
“Thursday-Night Hoops” takes us to 2016 and the election of Trump. Young participates in a Thursday evening basketball league that is made up of mostly white men. They play at a local Catholic boys’ high school, and for Young it’s a place to relax and play a game that he is good at and that brings him joy. The problem is that one of his teammates, a middle aged lawyer, is also a Trump supporter. Now, politics is not something that comes up at these weekly games all that much, but I think we all know that it was (and remains) always sort of there through comments people make offhandedly, bumper stickers, etc. What I found interesting about this particular essay is Young’s struggle with how to deal with this situation. On one hand, he feels like he is supposed to speak up, like he has a responsibility to represent what is right to these men he has gotten to know through basketball, and his hesitation to do so causes him anxiety and some angst. On the other hand, Thursday night basketball is his one respite in a world full of anxieties induced by racism. Does he really want to mess with that?
It’s just too fucking much to always have to be angry and alert.
Young also devotes a few essays to matters related to women, particularly the women in his life. “Living While Black Killed My Mom” deals with his mother’s protracted sickness, pain and death from lung cancer diagnosed too late. Young believes that if his mother had been white, her pain would have been taken more seriously, addressed immediately, and she would be alive today. I think he is right.
…America is a serial killer of black women.
Young’s love and respect for his parents and for women (his wife, his female friends and colleagues, his daughter) is evident throughout the essays and is beautiful to read. Young is a man who is able to look at himself both critically and with humor, and then try to make changes where he needs to. The final essay, devoted to his young daughter, is a testament to hope but a sobering reminder that the hopes and possibilities for Black people in America still hit the brick wall of racism, and that you can’t always predict the when/where/how that’s going to happen. How could a person not experience anxiety, anger and neurosis in these conditions?
What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker is an excellent collection of essays and worth picking up. This would be a great choice for a book group.