Unfiltered: This author uses humor, honesty to talk about race in the US

Why We Wrote This

Straightforward discussions about race are not always comfortable for Americans. How might cultural critic Damon Young’s memoir, ‘What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker,’ change that? We sought him out to ask. 

Sarah Huny Young
Writer Damon Young is co-founder of Very Smart Brothas, now part of The Root website. In his recently published memoir, ‘What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker,’ he uses personal stories to address institutional racism.

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The very self-aware Damon Young knows his name is not as common as Michelle Obama’s, but the cultural critic says that should not keep people from his new memoir. “What people care about are the connective things that we all share: the angst, the anxieties, the neuroses, the vulnerabilities,” he says in an interview.

“What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker” chronicles not only Mr. Young’s life but how outside – and institutional – forces affect it. Diving into the encounters, moments, and relationships that have shaped him, he says the narrative surrounding black people is two-dimensional and typically oscillates between trauma and excellence. He is working to change that.

“When America focuses on us, they tend to focus on the two extreme ends of the spectrum, but we have all of this abundance within us, all of this beauty. We talk about love; we talk about pain; we talk about chicken wings and have arguments about which ones are better, flats or drums.” Mr. Young coyly adds, “The answer is flats, by the way. Ultimately, I wanted to create a thing that was authentic and was as true to my experience as it could possibly be.”

Cultural critic Damon Young is known for using his platform to demonstrate and explain the intricacies of blackness. His blog, Very Smart Brothas, was acquired by The Root (an online magazine centering on issues that affect the black community) in 2017 and is a brave exploration of how race, pop culture, and politics all intersect. 

Mr. Young is also a columnist at GQ.com, and his work has been featured in publications like Ebony, The Washington Post, and The New York Times. From the effects of white supremacy to the complexities of colorism, Mr. Young’s voice, observers say, is a critical one when it comes to amplifying the unique and difficult nature of the black male experience. Humor is often his vehicle of choice. 

“[L]iving while black has provided me with enough thrills to make Wes Craven scream,” he writes in the introduction to “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker,” his memoir in essays, released earlier this spring. “Whenever I am followed by a police officer while driving, for instance, the theme song from “Mission: Impossible” plays on a loop in my head, and the mental checklist I run through reminds me of [action hero] Ethan Hunt attempting to defuse a nuclear warhead.

‘OK, people. Relax. Stay calm, and do exactly what I tell you. Make a sharp right at this light to see if he’s following us or just happens to be behind us.’”  

“What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker” chronicles not only Mr. Young’s life but how outside – and institutional – forces affect it. With startling self-awareness, he dives deep into the encounters, moments, and relationships that have shaped him.

“Each chapter in the book, even though it delves into very specific parts of my life, injects larger things into it. There are critiques of masculinity, critiques of patriarchy, critiques of race and racism, critiques of myself,” Mr. Young explains in a phone interview.

The book examines the prevalence of overlapping forms of discrimination, classism, and otherness in the era of Trump and the microaggressions that black people routinely deal with but which fail to make their way into larger conversations. Mr. Young says that the narrative surrounding black folk is two-dimensional and typically oscillates between trauma and excellence. He is working to change that.

“When America focuses on us, they tend to focus on the two extreme ends of the spectrum, but we have all of this abundance within us, all of this beauty. We talk about love; we talk about pain; we talk about chicken wings and have arguments about which ones are better, flats or drums.” Mr. Young coyly adds, “The answer is flats, by the way. Ultimately, I wanted to create a thing that was authentic and was as true to my experience as it could possibly be. That’s what I hope I’ve done.”

From racist epithets being hurled at his family that resulted in a volatile confrontation when he was just 6 years old to disclosing his fears when it comes to raising his daughter, Mr. Young knows that it’s the broader themes that will captivate audiences. 

“I’m not Michelle Obama. ... I’m not Black Panther. No one really cares that much about my biography or where I went to school or how I met my wife,” he says with a slight chuckle. “What people care about are the connective things that we all share: the angst, the anxieties, the neuroses, the vulnerabilities.” 

Mr. Young has been writing professionally for more than a decade, and identity has saturated a significant amount of his work. He says that it is integral in his memoir and only strengthened its message. “I didn’t set out to write a black book. I set out to write a book about me. But blackness is a central part of me. Anything I do or create is black by virtue of me doing it.” 

He expounds on that in an essay about his daughter. “Blackness forces you to love harder,” he writes. “It forces you to entertain the concept of forgiveness and choose whether it’s a thing you’re interested in possessing. It forces your hugs and your kisses and your daps to be tighter and longer, like a book you read ever so slowly because you’re not quite ready for it to end. It forces improvisation to be an immutable function of life.”

Elsewhere he takes on white privilege and how it is perpetuated by the feelings and opinions of white people counting more than the feelings and opinions of those who are not white. “It’s not so much that blacks are thought to be subhuman, although that belief festers too. It’s that the humanity of whites is the only humanity that matters. Their humanity is the standard all other humanities are judged by.”

National Book Award-winning author Ibram Kendi, offering praise ahead of the memoir’s release, called it “unobstructed and unsanitized” and applauded Mr. Young for being brave enough to write it. Still, Mr. Young’s unfiltered, sometimes R-rated, approach is perhaps not for everyone, and even he is anxious and “terrified” at times about the process and how people will react to his work. 

“I write a lot about anxiety and self-consciousness, but I’m a bit more confident than I give myself credit for. I put very personal things into these essays, and it’s been very cathartic and therapeutic.” He adds, “I didn’t think I had it in me to write something so vulnerable.”

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