Longtime readers of the site, VerySmartBrothas (VSB) may feel they know Damon Young and his funny and inventive takes. Unafraid to play with form and format, he often uses humor (sometimes as a light, sometimes as a cudgel) when dealing with difficult subject matter. With his first book, What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker: A Memoir in Essays (Harper Collins, 2019) Young goes even deeper. It is about being black in America, about being black in Pittsburgh and about being Young.
He is bold and frank about his stumbles, his humanity and his growth. It is still as funny as we’ve come to expect, but also less punchy, less voicy.
“This is much more personal, much more transparent and vulnerable,” Young said when we sat down at City of Asylum on North Avenue, a couple of blocks from his home in the Mexican War Streets.
Young writes with love, yearning and tenderness about his parents, Vivienne and Wilbur. They are woven through all the essays, present even when the book is not about them. In the chapters specifically devoted to his parents, he writes about their economic struggles, as well as his own impatience with them when he was a young adult. He also writes of their faith and perseverance. He admitted those were hard to write, but well worth it.
He writes, “I want people to know them. Because to know them — even just the sliver of them that I was able to capture here — is to know how blackness doesn’t just find space but conjures beauty in a country specifically constructed to crush them. And to know them is to know that they knew what was happening, and what would happen, but didn’t allow that premonition to prevent them from fighting it, and also clawing and etching out a capacity to love.”
Like his parents, Pittsburgh is an important character in the book. Young’s Pittsburgh is specific and, like all good art, the universality is found in the specificity. He writes about East Liberty as a case study of how blackness can be swept away under the wheels of breakneck gentrification. He writes and thinks about being black in Pittsburgh — how hard it is to preserve and honor black spaces.
“To be black in Pittsburgh is to be intentional about your blackness,” Young said. “If you’re not intentional, if you’re not protective of it, if you’re not safeguarding, it could just dissipate. If you’re not black in Pittsburgh, you’re thriving. In comparison to other cities, Pittsburgh is lagging behind when it comes to everything — education, health care, life expectancy, income, wealth — all these measures. Whatever the national disparities are [between black and white], here they are greater. I’ve joked before that Pittsburgh is Wakanda for white people.”
Though the book is a chronological memoir, it is structured in essay form, which allows him to move about in each space. He is able to bring to the table all the tools he honed while creating and writing for VSB, which he and Panama Jackson started in 2008. He showcases his absolute mastery of pop culture, deploying the absolute dead-on reference at just the right moment. From Axe Body Spray to Wu-Tang Clan, from “The Wire” to “Candyman,” from Allen Iverson to Love Jones, he lands each like Simone Biles at the Olympics.
But if blogs and instant media are hot takes, this is his slow take. The writing is trenchant and unadorned in the best possible way. In the essay, ‘Your Turn,’ he begins, “I forget sometimes that my parents and I were homeless for three months in 2001,” an audacious lead sentence that stops the reader dead in her tracks.
Sometimes the stories that are most personal, like ‘Living While Black Killed My Mom,’ place Young’s work as some of the most important current work on race, as he cuts into how the medical complaints of black women are brushed aside more easily or taken less seriously than their white or male counterparts. It is moving and profound.
This is a book for anybody who enjoys reading memoir and sharp essays. It is a book for everybody in Pittsburgh. But most importantly, Young says, it is a book for black people. “I wrote the book I always wanted to read. I also wrote the book that I needed to write.”