“Living while black is an extreme sport.”
That’s the title of the introductory essay of Damon Young’s new book, What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker. Young is the co-founder of the website Very Smart Brothas and writes about race and culture. His new collection of essays explore what it means to black and a man in America.
Young joins Morning Shift to discuss the writing process of his new memoir.
What kind of headspace were you in when you wrote this book?
Damon Young: I just wanted to write something that was authentically me. And for a book to be authentically me, it had to be funny and also cringeworthy and also very vulnerable and transparent, and inject it with passages and even chapters that would make people think, ‘I can’t believe you’re admitting this on paper. I can’t believe you’re saying this.’
On the intersection of blackness and masculinity
Jenn White: There was this interesting dynamic about defining blackness in proximity to the hood … and that helped shape how you thought about it. Break that down for us a little bit.
Young: The chapter you’re referencing, “Street Cred,” deals with my experience growing up in a hood but then going to a suburban high school and encountering kids who pretended like they were from the hood at this suburban high school. And that chapter and many of the chapters in the book just really dive into the concept of performance and how essential performance is to masculinity … because you believe that’s what’s expected of you. You believe that performance is safer than the reality.
White: Explain that.
Young: The reality is that we all have self-consciousness, we all have anxieties, we all have angsts. We all have things that we do that we believe that we’ve experienced that are deeply unflattering, and that’s where our humanity is. But it can be safer to perform, to pretend like those things just aren’t just a part of you, aren’t a part of your experience, and to create this entire facade … and if you don’t have any of those things, and most of us don’t, there still is a pressure, a compulsion to pretend like you do.
And I included this stuff in the book and tell some of these stories about myself just to expose the fallacy of that performance. And hopefully, people who read this, particularly young people who read this, get to a place where they recognize, ‘I don’t have to do that. I can just be myself.’
On the challenge of deciding how much truth to tell
Young: That was one of the most challenging things about the book, and it’ still challenging because it’s one thing to write and decide what’s in the book and decide who you’re going to write about and what stories you’re going to tell. But now people are reading it? It’s out there. People are talking about it on radio shows. People are having book clubs about this stuff. Things are referenced in nationally published reviews. And that is still pretty surreal.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity by Stephanie Kim. Click the “play” button to hear the entire conversation.
GUEST: Damon Young, author and co-founder of the website Very Smart Brothas
LEARN MORE: Damon Young on the ‘Absurdity’ of Being Black (New York Times 3/25/19)