'What Doesn't Kill You' Navigates The Challenges Of Existing While Black | WYPR

'What Doesn't Kill You' Navigates The Challenges Of Existing While Black

Mar 23, 2019
Originally published on March 23, 2019 3:20 pm

Editior's note: This story contains a racial epithet.

Damon Young says he's spent much of his life waiting to be called by a name we won't repeat, even though it appears in his new memoir — What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker — a lot. His essays are pointed, ruminative, often barbed and funny reflections on how the fact of his skin color has posed particular lifelong challenges, questions, and anxieties.

"My parents have this story about the time where they basically got into a race riot at this neighborhood deli in Pittsburgh, because the white boy behind the cash register called my mom and my grandmother niggers," he recalls. "Deli meats were thrown all over the place, windows were broken, olives were scattered, it was a mess. And so, this happened when I was maybe six or seven years old, and so my parents would tell this story at gatherings and at parties, and I wanted a story like that for myself, about a time where I was racially intimidated or that word was used against me, and I was able to defend myself ... and the book deals with similar sorts of anxieties and similar sorts of absurdities that just spring from this entire 'existing while black' experience."


Interview Highlights

On his love for his father

He's not just my dad, he's one of my best friends. He taught me to write — I remember when I was like in seventh or eighth grade, I would have these take-home essays I'd have to write for class, and he'd help me with them. I'd get A's — well, he would get A's, because he would basically write them, like, I wasn't getting the A's. He was getting the A's. And he would teach me these words like "behoove" and "cognizance," and these words that I would try to, in sixth or seventh grade, try to incorporate at recess, with minimal success. And so my dad has been this constant positive force throughout my life, and he still is.

On whether racism contributed to his mother's death

She had been a smoker for 30 years, and people know that if you smoke for that length of time, there's a higher likelihood that you will develop certain diseases. But I just think about, what about the environmental and structural and atmospheric forces that may have compelled her to smoke for that long? I think about the years before her cancer was diagnosed, when she would complain about back pain and stomach aches and headaches, and was going to the doctor's, and sometimes they'd give her Advil or tell her to get more exercise. It makes me wonder, you know, would they have taken her pain more seriously if she wasn't a black woman? And I am 95% certain that her race impacted her health, and also impacted how she was treated — but I'm not 100%, because you can't be. And that gap between the strong likelihood and the certainty, that gap is what drives people crazy sometimes.

On basketball — and his conservative point guard

I played in high school, went to college on a basketball scholarship, and I still try to play as much as I can now. When I do find a good pickup game, you stick with that, and so there's one that I'm a part of, and the majority of the guys who come to this game, who frequent this game, are white, including one guy who is probably my favorite guy to play with. He's this great passer, great teammate — I also knew that he was not just a conservative but a pretty dogmatic Trump supporter. And so the week of the election, this game still went on. And usually for me, basketball is my, that's my release, that's my self-care, that's my catharsis. That's where I go and play and sweat and, you know, just go through this whole process of just feeling better. And so there's a chapter in the book that talks about just, I guess, the absurdity of attending that game that week, where it exists as a stress reliever, but then you're going there and playing with a guy who I know has contributed to the stress in an indirect way — and also the navigating and the negotiating that is almost mandatory if you're a black person in America.

On a chapter about holding his daughter

The whole chapter, at least the first part of the chapter is just ... me navigating how to give her all the good parts of me, while kind of hiding all the bad parts, and hoping that the bad parts die with me. Wanting her to be discerning, but not so discerning and so thoughtful that she gives herself acid reflux, like I have. And then also recognizing that yes, she is black, but she is a black girl, which means she'll also have to contend with sexism on top of the racism, and that makes things even more difficult. You know, I think it ends on a hopeful note, because I look at her and I see my mom, I see my dad, I see myself, I see my wife, and it ends on the hope that yeah, maybe she will take the things that I believe are the good things from me, and the things that I believe are the good things from my wife, and the things that I believe are the good things from my parents, and be able to put those things together and succeed — whatever success looks like for her.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Damon Young says he spent much of his life waiting to be called by a name I won't call anyone and won't repeat here, even though it appears in his new book a lot. His essays are pointed, ruminative and often barbed and funny recollections on how the fact of the color of his skin has posed particular lifelong challenges, questions and anxieties. "What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker" is his memoir in essays. And Damon Young, who is co-founder of and editor-in-chief of Very Smart Brothas, a columnist for GQ and senior editor at The Root, joins us from the studios of WESA in Pittsburgh. Thanks so much for being with us.

DAMON YOUNG: Hey. Thanks for having me.

SIMON: Why did you used to hope, even dream, that some white guy would call you by a name I can't repeat?

YOUNG: (Laughter) So this - my parents had this story about the time where they got into this - basically, got into a race riot at this neighborhood deli in Pittsburgh because a white boy behind the register called my mom and my grandmother niggers. Deli meats were thrown all over the place. Windows were broken. Olives were scattered. It was a mess. And so this happened when I was maybe 6 or 7 years old. And my parents would tell the story at gatherings, at parties, you know? And I wanted a story like that for myself about a time where I was racially intimidated or that word was used against me, and I was able to defend myself. I was basically able to prove my, quote-unquote, "blackness." And the book deals with similar sorts of anxieties and similar sorts of absurdities that just spring from this entire existing-while-black experience.

SIMON: Let me get you to talk a bit about your father. Boy, you love him.

YOUNG: Yeah. My dad - you know, he's not just my dad. He was one of my best friends. He taught me how to write. I remember when I was, like, in seventh or eighth grade, and I would have these take-home essays that'd I have to write for class. And he'd help me with them. I get A's. Well, he would get A's...

SIMON: (Laughter).

YOUNG: ...Because he would basically write them.

(LAUGHTER)

YOUNG: Like, I wasn't getting the A's. He was getting the A's. And, you know, he would teach me, like, these words, like behoove and cognizance and these words that I would try to - you know, in sixth, seventh grade, try to incorporate at recess with, like, minimal success. And so my dad has just been this constant positive force throughout my life. And he still is.

SIMON: It might be a little harder to get you to talk about your mother. You didn't love her any less. You say she just gave and gave and gave and gave and gave.

YOUNG: Yeah.

SIMON: But life took and took and took. And you wonder to this day about if the stresses of her being an African-American woman somehow led to the cancer that killed her.

YOUNG: She had been a smoker for 30 years. And people know that if you smoke for that long of a time, then there's a higher likelihood that you will develop certain diseases. But I just think about, you know, what about the environmental and structural and atmospheric forces that may have compelled her to smoke for that long? I think about the years before her cancer was diagnosed when she would complain about back pain and stomach aches and headaches and was going to the doctors. And, you know, sometimes they give her Advil or, you know, tell her to go - to get more exercise. It makes me wonder, you know, would they have taken her pains more seriously if she wasn't a black woman? And I am 95 percent certain that her race impacted her health and also impacted how she was treated. But I'm not 100 percent...

SIMON: Yeah.

YOUNG: ...Because you can't be. And that gap between the strong likelihood and the certainty - that gap is what drives people crazy sometimes.

SIMON: Let me ask you about another great love of your life in addition to your family. And that's basketball. These Thursday night games - your point guard - you like playing with him, but you're different, aren't you?

YOUNG: Yeah. I played in high school, went to college on a basketball scholarship. And I still try to play as much as I can now. When I do find a good pickup game, you stick with that. And so there's one that I'm a part of. And the majority of guys who come to this game, who frequent this game, are white, including one guy who is probably my favorite guy to play with, where he's this great passer, a great teammate. I also knew that he was not just a conservative but a pretty dogmatic Trump supporter. And so the week of the election, this game still went on.

And, usually, for me, basketball - that's my release. That's my self-care. That's my catharsis. That's where I go and play and sweat and, you know, just go through this whole process of just feeling better. And so there's a chapter in the book that talks about just - I guess, the absurdity, too, of attending that game that week where it exists as a stress reliever. But then you're going there and playing with a guy who I know has contributed to the stress in an indirect way and also just the navigating and negotiating that is almost mandatory if you're a black person in America, particularly if you're a black person who lives in a predominately white city or needs to have any sort of interaction with white people.

SIMON: The book ends with an utterly gorgeous essay you write about holding your daughter Zoe and what runs through your mind.

YOUNG: The whole chapter, or at least the first part of a chapter, which is me navigating how to give her the good parts of me while kind of hiding all the bad parts and hoping that the bad parts stop with me - wanting her to be discerning but not so discerning and not so thoughtful that she gives herself acid reflux, like I have, and then also recognizing that, you know, yes, she is black, but she is a black girl, which means she'll also have to contend with sexism on top of the racism. And that makes things even more difficult. I think it ends on a hopeful note because I look at her. And I see my mom. I see my dad. I see myself. I see my wife. And it ends on a hope that, yeah, maybe she will take the things that I believe are the good things from me and the things that I believe are the good things from my wife and the things that I believe are the good things from my parents and be able to put those together and succeed at whatever success looks like for her.

SIMON: Damon Young - his book, "What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker" - thanks so much for being with us.

YOUNG: Oh, thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.