Damon Young's Memoir Tackles ‘Living While Black’ In Pittsburgh

Mar 26, 2019

Damon Young has a new tattoo.

In what’s got to be a relatively rare move for an author, the Pittsburgh-based blogger had the title of his new memoir, “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker,” inked on his right bicep in inch-high letters, and then multiple times in smaller text running shoulder to elbow. 

It’s a visible show of faith in both his book and its themes, which confront with empathy, outrage and laugh-out-loud humor the struggle of being black in America in general, and Pittsburgh in particular. And it’s a faith that seems likely to be rewarded in terms of raising the profile of a man who’s already arguably Pittsburgh’s most widely-read writer.

“He is one of the greatest writers in the world – essayists, for sure,” says Kiese Laymon, the University of Mississippi professor who’s himself an acclaimed memoirist. “I think people who love Damon are going to fall doubly in love with Damon after [this] book.”

The memoir was published this week by HarperCollins.

Young, 40, is married, with two young children, and lives on the North Side. He didn’t start out to be a writer. As recounted in “What Doesn’t Kill You,” he grew up working-class in East Liberty and Penn Hills, and was a high school basketball star good enough to earn a scholarship to NCAA Division I school Canisius College. But hoops didn’t pan out for him, and after graduation he returned to Pittsburgh, where he worked jobs including English teacher at Wilkinsburg High School and running a literacy program for African-American youths at Duquesne University.

In 2008, he and his friend Panama Jackson, who’s based in Washington, D.C., launched a blog called VerySmartBrothas, or VSB. It quickly gained a national audience with its bitingly funny commentary on everything from dating and popular culture to race and national politics. Young says he got serious about VSB only after he was laid off from Duquesne during the 2009 recession.

“I made the decision,” he says with a self-deprecating laugh, “to write full time, and put a lot of energy and focus into building VSB, which I was able to do because I was unemployed.”

Young had the title of his memoir tattooed on his right arm.
Credit Photo by Bill O'Driscoll / 90.5 WESA

Young’s work earned him writing gigs with Ebony and GQ magazines – and, in 2016, the deal for the book that would become “What Doesn’t Kill You.” In 2017, VSB was acquired by news and commentary website The Root. Editor-in-chief Danielle Belton says VSB generates up to 3 million visitors a month – perhaps a quarter of the site’s total traffic.

“Damon has been just an incredibly influential writer,” says Belton. “He’s influenced us and how we approach stories at The Root, with a very smart, intelligent, and sensitive style. He’s very funny. He has a unique way of taking apart an issue, and really getting at the essence of what you’re really thinking and feeling about it, which I think I really admirable.”

She recalls his controversial 2017 post titled “Straight Black Men are the White People of Black People.”

“We got a huge response from people who were just reacting to the title,” Belton says. “But if people actually sat and read the content it was actually quite nuanced, dealing with themes of race and sexism that exist within African-American culture. And I think he’s one of our foremost critics on issues like that.”

Young often writes about national issues. In the days after the 2016 presidential election, he wrote an essay about white privilege for GQ titled “I’m Tired of Good White People.” But Young’s frequent takes on Pittsburgh politics, media and culture have special resonance here.

“Damon is important to Pittsburgh because he holds a mirror up to Pittsburgh,” says Deesha Philyaw, a Pittsburgh-based writer. “And Pittsburgh doesn’t always like that.”

“Damon has been one of the voices that’s been telling the world that Pittsburgh isn’t the most livable city, or posing the question, most livable for whom?”

Philyaw recalls a recent VSB post in which Young, as part of a series in which Root writers tout their towns as “the blackest city in America,” nominated Pittsburgh for that honor in a tongue-in-cheek way. Young claim Pittsburgh as the blackest because, as he says, “if you’re black here you have to be intentional about it, in a way you don’t have to be if you live in D.C., if you live in Harlem, if you live in Atlanta, where there’s a more robust black community.”

Much of “What Doesn’t Kill You” concerns how marginalized African Americans feel in Pittsburgh, a city that is, demographically and culturally, very white indeed. As he puts it in the book: “Pittsburgh itself is so segregated that any place within a ten-mile radius of the city with more than seven black people there at one time feels like the Essence Festival.”

Young writes about his parents, smart and sensitive people who struggled financially throughout his childhood. One key story is about what he calls the “race riot” his parents were involved in when he was 6 years old, when a store clerk in Squirrel Hill hurled a racial epithet at his mother and grandmother. “There was a fight, there was broken glass, there were machetes, maybe, possibly,” he says.

Young stands along Penn Avenue in East Liberty -- former site of outdoor basketball courts he played on, now home to pricey apartment complexes.
Credit Photo by Bill O'Driscoll / 90.5 WESA

One chapter, titled “Living While Black Killed My Mom,” ponders whether his late mother’s lung cancer was diagnosed and treated less aggressively because of racism. “What Doesn’t Kill You” also tackles Young’ complicated feelings about gentrification: East Liberty, the neighborhood where he largely grew up, is ground-zero for Pittsburgh’s gentrification, but while it’s brought nice stuff to a formerly neglected part of town, Young feels he no longer belongs there.

“What Doesn’t Kill You” is also a full-throated celebration of African-American culture, from Kool-Aid connoisseurship to barbershop culture, and from Young's collegiate attempts at poetry to his celebration of Barack Obama’s election as president in 2008. “For the first time ever,” he writes, “I felt the wave of unbridled privilege and f*cklessness and dominion that compels and encouraged Connor Kegstand and Dustin Dudebro to be the way they are.”

Young offers a too-rare depiction of the social lives of Pittsburgh’s young black middle class, hanging at Savoy and navigating the dating scene. In another chapter, Young parses the word “n***a” and explains both its complex significance for black people and why whites can’t use it. (Basically, because black people alone have earned the right, through hard experience.) And Young writes about basketball, from memories of his days as a high school star to the pickup games he still plays in despite iffy knees.

Perhaps most movingly, he explores his hopes and fears for his daughter, newly born into a loving family and a racist culture: “Blackness forces you to love harder. It forces you to entertain the concept of forgiveness and choose whether or not it’s a thing you’re interested in possessing. It forces your hugs and your kisses and your daps to be tighter and longer, like a book you read ever so slowly because you’re just not quite ready yet for it to end.”

Kiese Laymon, the Mississippi-based professor and author of the memoir “Heavy,” is a longtime VerySmartBrothas fan who’s impressed by Young’s growth as a writer, and his ability to combine the comic and the tragic.

“He’s … doing things you just never expected him to do: sustaining scenes, creating scenes, secondary characters, moving in and out of stories very well,” says Laymon. “Just amazing amounts of control, but it still feels like soulful, it’s great work.”

Laymon singles out Young’s writing about basketball for special praise.

“The basketball writing in there, bruh, is just, it’s just beyond gorgeous,” says Laymon. “And I really don’t think we’ve ever read anything like it.”

Young still writes about Pittsburgh issues. Last week, after a jury exonerated the policeman who killed black teenager Antwon Rose, Young posted a list titled “Things Michael Rosfeld Can Do Today In Pittsburgh, America's Most Livable City, Because He's Free (And Antwon Rose Can't Because Michael Rosfeld Killed Him).” It consisted of such tourism-bureau-approved touchstones as riding the Duquesne Incline and “sampl[ing] a selection from a craft brewery in Lawrenceville.”

Young’s profile keeps rising. His recent essay in Time magazine about being a black man becoming a father was retweeted by the likes of famed filmmaker Ava DuVernay. Young acknowledges that after years of scraping by, it’s “somewhat surreal” to be not only financially secure, but also to be a sought-after pundit on national news programs.

While many of the experiences Young writes about are universal, he sees his main audience as black folks – and his motives as mostly personal.

“I don’t feel like I’m writing for white people because I know I’m not,” he says. “And if white people end up reading, which they do, and which they will, and I hope that they buy – that you all buy this book, white people out there reading, out there listening – but this isn’t for them, it’s for me.”