Growing up in Pittsburgh, co-founder of the cultural commentary website VerySmartBrothas and the author of the memoir “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker,” Damon Young is bringing his “living while black” experiences to the Kranzberg Arts Center on Friday.
Young, 40, harbored the idea of writing a book for while. His agent suggested he take his punchy racial, cultural and political explainers and compile them in a more profound but still engaging way.
The comical and at times discouraging memoir reflects on what it was like living in a poor black neighborhood, dating while black, playing basketball with white teammates and how “living while black” killed his mother.
While his truths of painful encounters and elated moments only makes Young human, he is still unenthused with how America measures the black experience.
“But we also experience joy and humor, family and love, mirth and all of the positive and fulfilling aspects of being alive that you just don't see captured as much as the other ends of that spectrum,” Young said.
St. Louis Public Radio reporter Andrea Henderson spoke with Young about how he deals with racism, finds humor in trauma and what it means to be black in America.
Andrea Henderson: You make living the black experience fun in your memoir, but it's not always glamorous. Why do you feel your setbacks like layoffs, being broke and anxiety did not kill you but it made you blacker?
Damon Young: I believe there is the whole span of the black experience. There's so much of the content that revolves around black people and deals with us on very opposite ends of the spectrum. Where it's either this great trauma or it’s this excellence, like a black excellence. And I'm more interested in what's in between.
The book finds most of its humor, insights and content on that in-between space. And that in between space is where the neurosis exists, it’s where the anxiety exist, and it’s where you try to figure out how do to deal, thrive and survive in America. And those questions and sometimes the general sense of claustrophobia that white supremacy attempts to enact on black people, forces us to expand our humanity. And that expansion of humanity is that blackness.
Henderson: In the book’s first essay “Living While Black is an Extreme Sport,” you state, “To be black in America is to exist in a ceaseless state of absurdity.” Can you expand on that thought?
Young: I started the book out talking about the Polar Bear Plunge. For people who are not familiar with that, it’s an annual tradition on New Year’s Day where people strip naked and dive into the Monongahela River. And without knowing anything about this, I know people who are reading are picturing white people doing this. Pittsburgh in December is usually pretty cold, so people are diving naked into a slush puppy. Now, think about that and all the measures that white people sometimes have to take in order to feel more alive. All these certain waves of this artificial kamikaze. Even extreme sports like bungee jumping, alligator wrestling and whale sparring.
And then with black people, life is already thrilling enough. I get those sorts of thrills when I just walk into the store sometimes, or if I'm just driving and a cop happens to follow me. That does all of those other things that the Polar Bear Plunge, whale diving and bungee jumping does for them. Just mundane, everyday things can be almost life or death experiences and these extreme sports are absurd. It is absurd when you actually sit back and think about — walking to the store and wondering if this cashier's eyes are going to be on me. This is bad, this is racist, but this is also absurd.
Henderson: You brought an element of humor to dark realities like gun violence, drugs and racism. Was this your way of coping with traumatic events?
Young: Humor is a vital piece of resistance. If you will it the right way, you can weaponize it. You can use it as a shield. You can use it as a form of catharsis. Instead of just receiving the brunt of all of this racial animosity, antagonism and violence; humor can be a way to fight back. Humor is such a vital part of my life. If I tried to tell this story without humor in it, then the story would be incomplete.
Henderson: In the book, you throw around thoughts of "what can solve racism.” And you thought a Thursday night pick-up basketball game with black and white boys playing together might solve racism, but you quickly figured it wouldn't. Have you found a way to solve racism yet? And do you think we ever will?
Young: No. Racism has been around for hundreds of years. It’s not going to be rectified in my lifetime. It’s not probably going to be rectified in my children's lifetimes. And the best thing that we could do is, try to figure out how can we make things better for black people right now. How can we make things better for our families right now? How do we make things better for ourselves right now?
Henderson: You talk about how your mother passed due to cancer in the book. But more recently there have been reports and stories about black women not being treated the same as white women when receiving treatments by a physician or nurse. As a black man, has this changed the way you accept and conceptualize their pain?
Young: Seeing my mom die of cancer, seeing the pain and knowing that my mom was diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer a year before she died, [made me think about how] she had been complaining of headaches, back aches and stomach aches for years. She would go to the doctor, and sometimes she would be told to get more exercise, or drink less pop, or take Advil, or take less Advil. And you can’t help but wonder if my mom was a white woman, would her pain would have been taking more seriously?
Henderson: Pittsburgh holds a special place in your heart. It's your hometown, and you still reside in the city. You explain how it is slowly but surely being gentrified just like other communities of color. You can see it here in St. Louis as well. What are your thoughts on gentrification and its effect on black communities?
Young: Well, that is happening everywhere. It’s just more proof of the ubiquity of white supremacy. It's almost this sort of reverse colonization where white people came, kicked everyone out and then decided that they did not want to live in the cities anymore. So let's all move to suburbs and take our money and our resources and just bleed the city dry.
Now, once the city was bled dry and everything in the cities around the country was just dirt cheap, they said let's move back to the city, buy everything back up and kick everyone back out again. And let’s call it revitalization, improvement and enhancement. Let’s give it all these very smart and very 21st-century-sounding terms, instead of just calling it colonization again.
What’s happening in Pittsburgh, you say you see it St. Louis, it’s happening in parts of New York and D.C., it’s happening wherever there are black people, really.
Henderson: So, why should people read this book?
Young: Because it’s funny. It’s a book that deals with humanity, and these angst, and anxieties and these neuroses, and self-consciousness that we all deal with because we all have them. It's a story about how those things have impacted one black man's life and sometimes those impacts are really funny, sometimes those impacts are a little darker and a little more sober. But if you read my book, you get a greater understanding of what it's like to exist in America and exist while black in America.
You can hear more from Damon Young Friday at The Studio at Kranzberg Arts Center at 7:00 p.m.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
Andrea Henderson is part of the public-radio collaborative Sharing America, covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. This initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes reporters in Hartford, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Portland (Oregon).
Follow Andrea at @drebjournalist.