Damon Young Tells His Story in “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker”


Author of What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker Damon Young. Photo by Sarah Huny Young

I think that we should all know by now that trying to do or alter our behavior in a way to appease Whites is useless.


Damon Young’s is the voice many Black people probably hear in their heads. The one that finds humor in the most-distressing situations. The one that has the perfect, witty clapback to some ridiculous statement. And the one that is thoughtful to the point of overthinking.

I think this because every time I read one of his posts on Very Smart Brothas—a blog he cofounded about relationships, pop culture, and race—I excitedly exclaim, “Oh my God, I was thinking the exact same thing!” And based on the plethora of comments at the end of each blog post, I know I’m not the only one.

Reading his recently published memoir, What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker, however, was a different experience. Although I found familiarity in the stories he told as a Gen X Black person raised in a two-parent household in a blue-collar urban town (he in Pittsburgh, and I in Detroit), this book is uniquely Young, his voice, his story.

The book is hilarious and unapologetically Black. He tells stories about his parents and parenting, his relationships and friendships, his high school and college days, writing, basketball, haircuts, bacon …

“I wrote a book I wanted to read,” he says.

We recently spoke about the book—and other things.

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Zenobia Jeffries Warfield: How did you land on the title?

Damon Young: The original title of the book was Nigga Neurosis, which I talk about in the book. It’s this term to encapsulate the state of being where you’re wondering if a thing happened to you—good or bad—because you’re Black. Like how your race affects how you’re perceived, how a situation occurred, and that perpetual wondering, I decided to call “nigga neurosis.”

And that was the title of the book proposal we sold to Harper Collins. An editor there loved it, and everyone was down. Then my editor spoke to her people at Barnes and Noble and her people at Amazon, and [they were like], “We love Damon, and we can’t wait for his book, and we can carry a book with the word nigga in the title, but I don’t know if we can promote it and have banner ads with 72-point font with nigga blasted across it.”

So we had to think of a different title.

On [a] plane to Essence Fest in New Orleans last year “what doesn’t kill you makes you Blacker” just came to me. So as soon as I got off the plane, I immediately Googled it to make sure it didn’t exist—like someone’s Twitter handle or a play that never [made it]—and I saw that it was available. So I took it.

“Trying to do or alter our behavior in a way to appease Whites and prove our citizenship is useless, it’s a fallacy.”

It’s an obvious play on [the saying] “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

The title just means that I think that we should all know by now that respectability is a fucking fraud. That assimilation—that trying to do or alter our behavior in a way to appease Whites and prove our citizenship—is useless, it’s a fallacy.

With that being true, I believe that our salvation and our beauty and our humanity is found by embracing Blackness. By succumbing to it. By allowing ourselves to marinate in it and luxuriate in it. And so, “what doesn’t kill you makes you Blacker” is just an encapsulation of that mindset.

Jeffries Warfield: Regarding performing Blackness, and privilege, also discussed in the book, I find myself struggling with this. And what Black is perceived as versus my own experiences. For example, in social justice circles, it seems to me that people—White and Black—expect all Black folks to be or to appear struggling, any semblance of education or financial well-being is smirked upon. Do you have any thoughts about that?

Young: So much of the discourse about race, about racism, about Blackness in this country exists at these opposite ends of the spectrum where you have this hyperfocus on trauma that becomes almost voyeuristic.

The focus on the trauma matters, because the trauma exists. And that needs to be discussed, deconstructed—articulated even—for people to be able to acknowledge it and to deal with it. So you have that. Then you have the Black excellence—the people who summered and the Obamas and whoever else, and I exist in the middle of that somewhere, as most of us do.

And so, I just wanted to tell my story, and my story is a story of a kid from Pittsburgh with a working-class background who had parents who were broke and poor at some point who’d been evicted. But it’s not a story about trauma. It’s a story about just life—one Black life in a predominately White city.

And so, I do recognize there are people, particularly White people, and even some White-facing Black people, who have investment in that pathology and pathologizing Blackness. And any discussion about us has to be about us in this deep pain and adversity. And though those things exist, that’s not my entire experience. That’s a part of it, but there’s also all of this joy and laughter and humor and life and mirth.

And then the things like the anxiety and insecurity and all this stuff that springs from that, and then there’s me reckoning with being a man, a Black man, what that means. And how I interact with women. How I’m going to raise my children. What type of father I am, what type of son I am. I mean there’s so much about my life, about our lives, and just to focus on the things that White people maybe want to see would be so fucking boring.

Jeffries Warfield: Conversations about divides—racial, political, class, gender—are becoming more dominant in mainstream discourse. Some folks are saying we all need to come together to beat Trump. I’m curious to know your thoughts about that—what some refer to as building bridges.

Young: Build them with who?

I think that the compulsion to create a bridge depends on why a bridge needs to be built. I’m not interested in building bridges with anyone who doubts my humanity, or anyone who doubts the humanity of women or members of the LGBTQ community, or anyone who performs violence toward me or anyone who looks like me or toward women.

That sort of bridge-building isn’t something I’m interested in. If they want to connect, if they want to have some sort of community, then they need to come where I am. There’s no meeting them halfway.

They’re the ones who need to be building. I’m not putting in any type of labor; I’m not buying any cement. I’m not doing any of that. If [someone has] those sorts of beliefs, and you want to form community with me, then you need to do the work, not me.

And I understand there are people who feel differently, but those people are not me.

Jeffries Warfield: Finally, in the book you write about the backlash from one of your Very Smart Brothas stories around #MeToo. Can you talk about what that process was like for you, and why such a reckoning is important for men, including the Joe Bidens of the world?

Young: The piece that you’re referencing is just a very terrible awful and violent piece that was victim-blaming women who had been sexually harassed or sexually assaulted. And it was just poorly constructed, poorly, the tone was. Everything about it was just terrible.

And I got an immediate response to that. Immediate pushback. Immediate criticism. And not just anger, but hurt. Where people were disappointed. People were triggered. It was awful. My initial response to the response was incredulousness, where I just believed that maybe I didn’t articulate it right or maybe people are being too sensitive. And then after a day or two, that incredulousness shifted to this defense, where I’m thinking maybe I fucked up but you should give me the benefit of the doubt. I’m a “good guy”; haven’t I done enough? Shouldn’t my goodness outweigh this terrible thing that I did?

If they want to connect, if they want to have some sort of community, then they need to come where I am. 

After reading the responses, and after talking to people and after just sitting with it, all of those feelings turned into a shame, and a deep embarrassment even, where I just did not want to be a person who did things like that, who created work like that. What I had to do, and what I’m continuing to do today, is just interrogate what it was about me, what it is inside of me that compelled me to write that.

And through those interrogations I just realize I don’t want to be a person who causes harm. And not only do I not want to be a person who causes harm, but I want to be a person who creates work that actively stamps it out, that actively helps, that actively amplifies. And isn’t just an ally, because I feel like that term is overused, but someone who is actually vital.

Through that I realized that being good wasn’t enough. Being good was inert; being good—at least how I defined it—meant that I didn’t do anything. It just meant that I hadn’t been arrested yet. It meant that I hadn’t been accused of sexual assault, or I’m chivalrous.

So it was based off of this base criteria, and this extremely low bar. And I wanted to be worthy. Worthy of love, worthy of friendship, worthy of the support of the women in my life. And in order to do that, then that’s the thing that you have to work at.

So when I see a person like Joe Biden and his lack of reckoning with how his behavior has made people feel, and how the things he’s done in the past—legislative things—have caused literal harm, have destroyed communities, have destroyed people, I don’t see a man who is sorry, who is deeply sincerely sorry for that. I see a man who realizes that some sort of performative penance is necessary in order to stay in a race. But I don’t see a person who believes he’s done anything wrong.

And that’s the rub: You have to first acknowledge that you did something wrong, because if you don’t then your apology is going to sound like [you don’t think you did anything wrong]. You know he’ll have some of the right words—“I apologize if I hurt this person”—it’s going to sound insincere because it’s not sincere.

Jeffries Warfield: What’s next for you and Very Smart Brothas?

Young: I have a two-book deal. When everything starts settling down, I will start working on that. I’m just continuing to tell the truth in whichever medium I can. That’s my goal. I’m fortunate enough, privileged enough to have several platforms and have all this space where people are allowing me to do and say what I want. And so I realize that is precious, and I want to take advantage of that without taking it for granted.


What ‘Abolish the Police’ Could Mean for Street Safety

Source: Flickr/Creative Commons
Source: Flickr/Creative Commons

The Vision Zero Network — perhaps the single most influential street safety advocacy group — has pledged to no longer recommend police enforcement as strategy to make streets safer. But many street safety advocates are still reckoning with what that might mean — especially if they’ve never been challenged to question white supremacist structures before.

The statement came in direct response to the Black Lives Matter movement and our national conversation about police violence against black people, particularly when that violence acts as a barrier to the free use of public space.  But the statement did not provide a comprehensive framework for street safety advocates to imagine what a safe street might look like without cops.

Of course, visionary Black activists like Mariame Kaba and Angela Davis have been working tirelessly to imagine just alternatives to our heavily policed society for decades — but those voices haven’t always reached the ears of the powerful, much less been implemented at any large scale in our cities. And if we continue to fail to actively listen to Black, indigenous, and other people of color who have been having this conversation for years, they never will.

Here are just four of the best examples of how the #DefundThePolice and #AbolishThePolice movements could make streets safer and make traffic enforcement better.

Enforcement without a gun
“Defund the Police” doesn’t necessarily mean ending law enforcement in all forms. (Though some think it should! More on that later.) And when it comes to traffic safety, perhaps the most obvious alternative to the traffic cop has a model in many of our cities already: the humble parking attendant.

“Enforcement doesn’t have to include the police — or even, specifically, the branch of the police with a badge and a gun,”  said Warren Logan, policy director of Mobility and Interagency Relations for the City of Oakland. “In our city, for instance, we rely on parking enforcement officers that don’t have weapons, because they don’t need weapons. We did that deliberately, because we asked ourselves: how many interactions do people of color really need to have with armed police?”

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Proponents of police disarmament argue that by giving badges and police salaries to social workers, mental health counselors, addiction specialists, and other unarmed, specially trained professionals, departments can serve the public in a way that prevents crime in the first place. And doing so could also cut down police funding; bloated weapons budgets are a major reason why police budgets gobble up such a high percentage of city revenues in many communities.

Enforcement without a gun or a badge

Disarming and demilitarizing police forces in the traffic control realm could be a good first step that’s consistent with the goals of the #DefundThePolice movement. But many activists argue we must go even further — and remove the entire institution of the police from traffic control altogether.

“Even if we trim the budget … we’re still invested in policing as an action, institution and method of meeting need and reducing conflict,” Andrea Ritchie, author of “Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color,” said in a recent interview.

That’s why many #DefundThePolice advocates argue that we must reduce the number of police officers in our cities, period — and shift the resources we previously spent on those officers to the non-police-affiliated members of our government who are better equipped to meet the real needs of Black communities.

In the traffic safety realm, that could mean, for instance, replacing even unarmed cops with non-police mental health responders to respond to pedestrians in crisis. Or sending a city-employed mechanic to help you fix a brake light on your car when it burns out, rather than writing you a ticket for failing to do it yourself.

Source: Luna Syenite via Kottke.
Source: Luna Syenite via Kottke.

Further many advocates say it’s not just a matter of getting the cops out of street enforcement — because taking administrative tasks traditionally relegated to police and shifting them to  departments of transportation can go a long way, too.

“Right now, I’m supervising a program for outdoor dining program in response to COVID-19,” said Logan. “Normally, [when a restaurant owner wants to put a table in a parking spot or on a sidewalk], they have to file for an encroachment permit, and they have to engage with police to get that. But we realized the other day that if we let restaurant owners do that through an obstruction permit, we can give them the tools they need through our own office. It’s about asking: why is it that we cause people to have to engage with the police for this stuff? We don’t have to pass you along to the police. So let’s not do it.”

Enforcement without an officer at all

Traffic cameras are another way to enforce traffic laws without putting an armed officer into a community — but they’re the subject of hot debate.

On the one hand, speed cameras have drawn criticism in cities like Washington, D.C, PhiladelphiaFerguson, and other communities across America when local governments disproportionately deployed them in Black and other non-white neighborhoods, in a move that activists decried as an effort to pad city revenues at the expense of minority community wealth. Moreover, a 2018 MIT study showed that facial recognition systems like the kind found in speed cameras mis-identified darker-skinned women 34 percent of the time — a stunning margin of error that could lead to Black women being penalized for moving violations that they didn’t actually commit, simply because another person was driving her car.

On the other hand, speed cameras have, historically, been even more unpopular among police unions, which argue that traditional traffic stops performed by armed officers are necessary combat drug and gun crimes — a policy that, when paired with racial profiling, has lead to mass incarceration and extrajudicial police killings, disproportionately of Black men, women and gender nonconforming people.

Still, many advocates stress that all traffic safety tools have the potential to be used in service of white supremacy or Black liberation, depending on how they’re used — and we must stay vigilant of racist applications of speed cameras.

“Once someone is in police systems, they’re a suspect for life, leaving them open to further persecution at the hands of the law – even if the only reason they’re thanks to police error,” said journalist Moya Lothian McClean in a recent article. “This is how criminalization of black and brown people works, and the rollout of flawed facial recognition tech is only going to speed up the process.”

Cutting an ‘E’ from Vision Zero

The Vision Zero Network’s statement didn’t go so far as to totally divest police enforcement from the “Five E’s” framework that guides the program — so far, they’re only committing to exploring “alternative” enforcement measures, as well as stressing engineering, education, evaluation and encouragement strategies that could prevent traffic violence in the first place.

Still, it’s a step in the right direction. And most important, it follows the lead of Black planners and engineers across the nation who have been saying for years that enforcement should be a tool of last resort — if it’s a tool at all.

“One of the things that I think about as a transportation planner is, what are the designs which are self-enforcing?” said Logan. “Let’s not create a space that requires police engagement to reflect the type of behavior and interaction you’re looking for. Do you have to engage the police with this to get it done? Can we just get that out of design?” (In New York City, the group Transportation Alternatives has been focusing on this topic, too.)

Under an enforcement-free paradigm, a city might still have speed cameras in areas where drivers go too fast. But they would never be used to issue citations to pad a city budget without really deterring speeders, as some cities do; they would be used to give engineers the data they need to redesign dangerous intersections to actually slow drivers down.

Even drunk driving, activists argue, simply isn’t curbed by the threat of police enforcement — so much so that one city in Canada is considering decriminalizing it altogether. A different, criminalization-free model might involve taking traffic stops out of the hands of cops, and putting them in the hands of addiction specialists who are trained in deescalation strategies and equipped with the tools to get problem drinkers meaningful help and a safe ride home. And the data on drunk driving stops, especially if many drivers are caught drunk behind the wheel in a single corridor, might prompt the city to invest in affordable housing near restaurant districts — so it’d at least be feasible to walk home from the bar.

“The solution to drunk driving is not policing. It’s transit,” said Logan. “It’s walkability. It’s giving people other options besides driving to get home.”