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.”