Hailed for his snarkily entertaining blog posts on race, culture, and politics, 40 year-old Pittsburgh native Damon Young is the author of What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker: A Memoir in Essays, a moving and mercurial meditation on being black in the 21st Century, that will be published by Ecco Press in March.
Young is the co-founder of VerySmartBrothas.com, a blog focused on humor, news and culture related to the black community; he’s a senior editor at the afrocentric news and culture site TheRoot.com, and a columnist at GQ. Young’s prose runs the gamut from the racially and politically incorrect vernacular of urban America to thoughtful, literary insights into the perils of black life.
Publishers Weekly talked to Young about being a native of Pittsburgh, influences on his writing, and his nuanced response to his use of the N-word.
Publishers Weekly: How does your writing in the book differ from your writing at VSB?
Damon Young: Since the book is a memoir, the writing is a lot more personal; a lot more vulnerable. With VSB, the majority of the work I do there are quick, 500 to 700-word pieces that are punchy, snarky, very aggressive, and sometimes a little didactic. I’m responding to things that happen in culture, or something in the news, politics, or something that happened in my life. And in the book, these pieces marinate a little longer. I had to stretch and expand myself in a way that I’ve never done for VSB, and there’s a narrative thread through each of the chapters.
What is the narrative thread?
It tells the story of this Pittsburgh [black man] who is just trying to get comfortable in his own skin, trying to deal with all of these anxieties. And trying to distinguish which one of those are just unique to me; which of those go hand in hand with the Black experience, and whether are not it’s even possible to make that distinction. The book is a commentary on racism, but also masculinity, capitalism, and the relationship between parents and their sons and daughters.
Arguably the most vivid and absurd chapter you write in the book is “The Nigger Fight Story,” where you wanted a white person to call you the N-word, so you could beat them up. Why?
That chapter kicks off the book [laughs]. When I was younger, my parents got into a fight in a Pittsburgh deli, with a white kid behind the register, who called my mother and grandmother - who was also there - ‘Black nigger bitches.’ They were arrested, but a black sergeant or lieutenant let them go. I recognized that nigger is the worst word in the English language; with all of this hate and history behind it. Yet I still kind of considered it to be some sort of right-of-passage: I wanted to kick some white boy’s ass, just like my parents did, and have my own “Nigger Fight Story”!
In the book you write, “to be black in America is to exist in a ceaseless state of absurdity.” You write with a lot of absurdity, like your literary ancestor the late novelist Chester Himes (Cotton Comes To Harlem, The Quality of Hurt). Do you draw from his work?
My work draws on so many people. You can name Himes, and some contemporaries like author/comedian/blogger Samantha Irby [who runs the Bitches Gotta Eat blog] and essayist Kiese Laymon [author of Heavy: An American Memoir]. As I mentioned in the book, I was into Toni Morrison. And I was reading how she had this master-level command of the English language, and how she would break rules in her work, and she was able to do so, because she knew all the rules. I’ve always had an affinity for those literary rule breakers, who kind of subvert expectations, and have some command of the language, that when they deviate from it, it works.
The word nigga, a variation of nigger, is prominent in your writings. How do you balance the history and hate of that word with your use of it?
Well, they’re two different words: There’s nigger with a hard “r,” as Childish Gambino says, and there’s nigga. For me, the distinctions were never hard to make: Nigger is said with ill intent. But I heard my parents, uncles, cousins and guys I played basketball with say nigga with love, joy and rhythm. But not every black person believes there are distinctions between the traditional and colloquial spellings. And when I’m in the room with a black person whom I know has extremely strong feelings about that word, I won’t use it.
Speaking of rhythm, who are your musical influences?
That’s a great question [laughs]! I have to take it back to the Wu-Tang Clan, because of the vividness of their language, particularly with Ghostface, Inspectah Deck, and the GZA, and the way they describe and create these entire landscapes … I definitely draw a lot from hip-hop. I came of age in the 80s and 90s. So my references are the Wu, Nas and The Roots, and anyone again, who had a command of language, and was able to break rules because they were great.
How does your hometown influence your writing?
Pittsburgh is very segregated. And if you are a black Pittsburgher - even in an all-Black community - you’re only five minutes from a Trump rally. That experience produces a certain sense of claustrophobia that contributes to the neuroses, anxieties and angst that I write about.