“That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”
Traditionally, these words encourage us to move on from tough situations and cut our losses. Writer Damon Young, however, has taken this saying and created the meaning of his own — meaning which manifests itself in his new memoir, “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker.”
On March 27, Young spoke with a standing-room-only crowd at D.C.’s Politics and Prose at The Wharf about the book, which details his experiences as a black man in today’s America. The discussion revolved around everything from white supremacy to financial instability and respectability politics.
This is Young’s debut as a published author, but his voice is well established in the blogging community. He is the editor-in-chief of VerySmartBrothas, an award-winning blog about pop culture, race and relationships, as well as a columnist for GQ.com. Fellow VSB writer Panama Jackson moderated the event and began with praise for his close friend.
“He’s somebody I’ve known for 15 years at this point, but it’s amazing how much I learned about him from this book,” Jackson said. “There are so many facts that I’m reading, and I’m like – why didn’t I know this? You were at my wedding!”
Young described the inspiration behind the book’s title, explaining that it was actually different during his first draft stages.
“It was ‘N—- Neurosis’- and that’s a term that just encapsulates the state of being where you’re questioning everything. Did I get a scholarship because I’m black? Did I not get it because I’m black? Did I get picked for basketball because I’m black?”
Young explained that outlets like Barnes and Noble were concerned about having a controversial word on the book’s cover, so instead, he chose the current title.
“I think that in order to survive or thrive as a black person in America, you have to embrace your best and black self. We’ve dealt with racism, we’ve dealt with hate, we’ve dealt with violence, but I think that embracing blackness means you embrace love….you at least consider the possibility of forgiveness. You don’t have to possess it, but consider it because it stretches your humanity in a way that those who benefit from oppression aren’t able to”.
As Jackson steered the conversation to chapters about Young’s financial struggles, he noted that it was in these chapters that he learned the most. Young believed that it resonated so much because it’s the truth for many black Americans.
“It’s real. It’s a part of my experience and many of our experiences, where even if we have any sort of success or status, we’re half a degree of separation from it being snatched away.”
He spoke about his car being repossessed and having to borrow money from friends. Even though he’s much better off now, he emphasized that those experiences are the ones that have defined him.
“I don’t want that to leave me because I can’t get comfortable and then have a wake-up call.”
Throughout the evening, Young’s signature sense of humor allowed him to bring levity to otherwise serious topics. There were times, though, when the audience’s laughs were replaced with tears- particularly when Young was asked about the influence of his mother, who passed away six years ago after being diagnosed with lung cancer. As he explained the book’s tribute, “for the bookend Vivienne’s,” he became emotional.
“Well, you know my mom’s name is Vivienne. So the book started with my mom, and my daughter’s middle name is Vivienne, and so the book is for the “bookend Vivienne’s…”
After an emotional pause during which the audience remained understandably silent, Young continued. “…who never got a chance to meet. So hopefully they kind of meet in a way- in the book.”
He went on to discuss the circumstances of his mother’s death, which he believes to be part of the bigger picture surrounding the mishandling of black women’s health complaints. In doing so, he referenced Serena Williams, whose birth complications almost cost her her life.
“The doctors in the maternity ward didn’t take her seriously. And this is Serena Williams, who has all the money, all the status, she knows her body, her body is an economy, and she wasn’t believed. So if that’s the case for her, what about my mom? What about my wife? What about my daughter? I’m 99.9% sure that my mom’s race impacted how she was treated. Can I say without a shadow of a doubt? No. And that’s where the neurosis exists.”
Countless testimony and statistics support Young’s suspicions: a 2016 study from the University of Virginia shows a proven racial bias in the assessment and treatment of black patients’ medical complaints when compared to their white counterparts.
When the floor opened for a Q and A session, audience member Michelle Jones broached the topic of the ‘N’ word, which features prominently in this book and Young’s work.
“I’m from another generation. I hear some folks say we can use it as a term of endearment, but I love my folk, and I would never call my brother here that,”, she said, motioning to a gentleman seated beside her. “Would your mom and grandmother feel comfortable with having that word being used so loosely by your generation?”
Young explained that his relationship with the word is different from someone who grew up in a time where that word represented nothing but venom. He also made it clear that he couldn’t speak for his generation, only himself.
“I definitely respect people’s feelings about that word. For me, it means nothing but love. When I think about that word, I think about hanging out in New Castle Hills where my dad’s from — and hanging out with my uncles, my cousins. And that word was just a word that implied a sense of connectivity and community. “
Jones later expressed gratitude for Young sharing his experiences.
“I already know that what doesn’t kill me makes me blacker- but I want to hear it from a male perspective. So I look forward to reading the book.”
Young ended the evening on a strong note, highlighting the importance of staying true to yourself in the creative process.
“There’s this concept of the white gaze and how you subvert it and how you just want to not be cognizant of it; not to write to white people, think about white people, or center white people when you’re creating. And that’s an aspiration. It should be the aspiration for us. I believe I did that in this book.”
He believes that the conversation has only just begun.
“This isn’t the culmination. It’s a culmination. Because our story ain’t done.”