Edit ModuleEdit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Writer Damon Young on "What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker"

The co-founder of Very Smart Brothas chats about his new memoir — and the state of Pittsburgh.




photos by laura petrilla
 

“I’ll explain everything that happened,” says Damon Young.

We’re sitting at the bar in the lobby of the Ace Hotel in East Liberty. The writer is talking about his old neighborhood and how much the area has changed. Young grew up just a few blocks from here, on Mellon Street; our conversation has ambled around to whether he plans on showing his children any of the sites of his own childhood.

“It’ll be like ancient history by that point,” he says between sips of cranberry juice. “It’s completely different now. There’s these really nice town houses. There’s a stark change from how it was 25 years ago.” In his new memoir, Young caustically refers to this new version of East Liberty as “Portlandia but with Pierogies”.

Young’s star is on the rise. He is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Very Smart Brothas (VSB), a website with an irreverent focus on race, politics and pop culture (now published as part of The Root). He’s also a columnist for GQ. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, Salon, Essence and Pittsburgh Magazine. This month, his memoir, “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker,” will be published by Ecco.

“I have to credit my agent, Tanya McKinnon, for convincing me to write a memoir,” Young says. He first envisioned the book as a series of humorous essays on particular topics.

“Like, this is the ‘White Supremacy’ chapter, this is the ‘Barbershop’ chapter, this is the ‘Dos and Don’ts of Playing Spades’ chapter.” But McKinnon believed he had “something a little deeper” in him — something that would allow readers a different view of Young than his VSB writings.

Young took her advice and challenged himself to write a book that is as funny as the work he is best known for, but also emotionally raw, self-critical and incredibly revealing. “I admit [things in the book] that I haven’t told anyone,” he says. “It still scares me.

“There’s obviously a lot about race,” he continues, “but there’s a lot about fear. And overcoming it, not overcoming it. How it dictates actions and activity. I hope people are able to relate to those parts.”

Only three days prior to our conversation, Young’s wife gave birth to their second child. Having children, my own wife attests, is the ultimate act of optimism in humanity and our shared future. As a new father myself, I can’t help but ask if Young is optimistic.

“Well, it depends,” he says, laughing. “I’m optimistic about the things I can see. That’s my family, that’s my work, my friends. I’m not as optimistic about the world in general, the country in general. I’m optimistic about my neighborhood,” the Mexican War Streets, “but maybe not about my city.

“The more you extrapolate, the more my optimism wanes.”

This brings us back to where we started, talking about how Pittsburgh has and hasn’t changed over the years. Young recently wrote an essay on the city in the pages of this magazine: “Pittsburgh knows that associating itself with certain buzzwords like diversity and inclusion makes it sound attractive, but it’s more concerned with the performance of those words than an embrace of them. Blacks leave and other minority populations don’t even bother coming because the city isn’t welcoming.”

“I think Pittsburgh has to decide what it truly wants to be. In order to do that, it has to reconcile and reckon with what it actually is,” he says. “The thing I’m saying about Pittsburgh could be said about America in general.”

Young compares it to an oddly proportioned mirror he discovered near the shower in a new home. “The first few times I showered there, it was jarring seeing myself — because I was used to seeing myself in the other mirror, which was more flattering. Seeing myself in the new mirror, I didn’t want to believe that’s what I look like. But this is the mirror, this is how you look. It can be scary looking in the mirror and seeing all your flaws, all of your warts; seeing all the things that make you human instead of seeing the things you want to see.

“What would it take for us collectively to look in that mirror? I don’t know.”

Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module

Edit Module Edit ModuleShow TagsEdit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module Edit ModuleShow Tags

The Latest

How to Celebrate the Moon Landing Anniversary in Pittsburgh

To celebrate Apollo 11’s golden anniversary, several local events are set to take place, from film screenings to new exhibits and more.

5 Pittsburgh Vintage Homes Stores You'll Want to Explore

PM Editoral Intern Ellie Pesetsky shares some of her favorite up-cycled furniture and home decor stores in and around Pittsburgh.

Eleven Couples to be Married after Love at First Bite

Wedding bells will be chiming for multiple couples this weekend … and it’s taking place at Primanti Bros. in the Strip District.

Pop Culture Pop Up Bars Are Here to Stay

Nintendo-themed Level Up is in Market Square for another week, but if you miss it, you can catch the Pokémon-themed bar coming this fall.

How Scary is the New Steel Curtain Coaster at Kennywood?

The ride claims records for the world’s tallest looping coaster and tallest inversion; it also has more inversions than any coaster in North America. We rode it this morning. Here's what we have to say.

The 400-Word Review: Point Blank

Netflix's action thriller is forgettable, but serves well as a quick throwback.

Pittsburgh Marks the First Stop of the New Whiskey Rebellion Trail

Think the story of American whiskey begins in Kentucky? Think again.

Pirates’ Possibilities Include Contention in Surprising Season’s Second Half

It hasn’t gone according to the original script, but the Pirates have found a way to stay relevant — and may yet be capable of finishing what they started.

The 400-Word Review: Stuber

There are laughs in the new buddy comedy, but they're dragged down by bad decisions.

Cornbread, A New Soul Food Restaurant, Opens in an Unexpected Location

Adenah Bayoh and Elzadie “Zadie” Smith bring their fast-casual concept to the West Mifflin Walmart.

The Park After Dark

Kennywood’s “Night Rider” tickets may be the best bet for many visitors.

The Best Tips for Finding a Wedding Photographer

There’s no need to stress about finding the best photographer thanks to these helpful tips from local professionals.

Pittsburgh Bartenders Bring the Garden to the Glass

Bartenders are using centrifugal force, tinctures and more to amplify and preserve the season's harvest.

Oakmont Glassware Company Looking to Join the Big Time

Amanda Lee began painting glasses in her basement to help pay for her college education. Today, she ships her products across the globe from a new, shabby-chic warehouse and gift shop.

Watch: New, Washington County-Shot Comedy Series Hicksters

The series, created by and starring Pittsburgh native and "Man of Steel" actress Christina Wren, premiered in June at the TCL Chinese Theater in Los Angeles.
Edit Module
Edit ModuleShow Tags


How to Celebrate the Moon Landing Anniversary in Pittsburgh

How to Celebrate the Moon Landing Anniversary in Pittsburgh

To celebrate Apollo 11’s golden anniversary, several local events are set to take place, from film screenings to new exhibits and more.

Comments

Pop Culture Pop Up Bars Are Here to Stay

Pop Culture Pop Up Bars Are Here to Stay

Nintendo-themed Level Up is in Market Square for another week, but if you miss it, you can catch the Pokémon-themed bar coming this fall.

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
Cornbread, A New Soul Food Restaurant, Opens in an Unexpected Location

Cornbread, A New Soul Food Restaurant, Opens in an Unexpected Location

Adenah Bayoh and Elzadie “Zadie” Smith bring their fast-casual concept to the West Mifflin Walmart.

Comments

Pittsburgh Bartenders Bring the Garden to the Glass

Pittsburgh Bartenders Bring the Garden to the Glass

Bartenders are using centrifugal force, tinctures and more to amplify and preserve the season's harvest.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
5 Best Spots to Hang Out with Your Dog

5 Best Spots to Hang Out with Your Dog

For those who can’t stand the idea of leaving their dogs home alone on a beautiful day, these dog-friendly stores, restaurants and bars in the Pittsburgh area welcome humans and canines alike.

Comments

5 Races You (Yes, You) Can Run This Year

5 Races You (Yes, You) Can Run This Year

Even novice runners can work their way up to these fun and (mildly) challenging races.

Comments


The Park After Dark

The Park After Dark

Kennywood’s “Night Rider” tickets may be the best bet for many visitors.

Comments

Five Essential July Events in Pittsburgh

Five Essential July Events in Pittsburgh

Aquatic attackers, alcohol-fueled actors and other July happenings.

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
Pirates’ Possibilities Include Contention in Surprising Season’s Second Half

Pirates’ Possibilities Include Contention in Surprising Season’s Second Half

It hasn’t gone according to the original script, but the Pirates have found a way to stay relevant — and may yet be capable of finishing what they started.

Comments

Pens’ Conundrum: The Coach and the Culture

Pens’ Conundrum: The Coach and the Culture

Try as he might, General Manager Jim Rutherford has so far been unable to change the makeup of his team as intended. It may, thus, ultimately fall on head coach Mike Sullivan to adjust the attitudes of players with a recent track record of resisting change for the greater good.

Comments


The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
The 400-Word Review: Point Blank

The 400-Word Review: Point Blank

Netflix's action thriller is forgettable, but serves well as a quick throwback.

Comments

The 400-Word Review: Stuber

The 400-Word Review: Stuber

There are laughs in the new buddy comedy, but they're dragged down by bad decisions.

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
Eleven Couples to be Married after Love at First Bite

Eleven Couples to be Married after Love at First Bite

Wedding bells will be chiming for multiple couples this weekend … and it’s taking place at Primanti Bros. in the Strip District.

Comments

The Best Tips for Finding a Wedding Photographer

The Best Tips for Finding a Wedding Photographer

There’s no need to stress about finding the best photographer thanks to these helpful tips from local professionals.

Comments


Weekly inspiration for your home from the editors of Pittsburgh Magazine
5 Pittsburgh Vintage Homes Stores You'll Want to Explore

5 Pittsburgh Vintage Homes Stores You'll Want to Explore

PM Editoral Intern Ellie Pesetsky shares some of her favorite up-cycled furniture and home decor stores in and around Pittsburgh.

Comments

Oakmont Glassware Company Looking to Join the Big Time

Oakmont Glassware Company Looking to Join the Big Time

Amanda Lee began painting glasses in her basement to help pay for her college education. Today, she ships her products across the globe from a new, shabby-chic warehouse and gift shop.

Comments