Home Invites Members Groups Events Careers Videos News Photos Blogs Polls Singles Forums Chat
Home > News > Post Content

Damon Young of Very Smart Brothas worries about everything. A lot. (467 hits)

His new book, ĎWhat Doesnít Kill You Makes You Blacker,í takes you into the brain of the most anxious black man in Pittsburgh



Damon Young is a Very Smart Brotha who is riddled with neuroses. And now, everyone who buys a copy of his first solo book will know all about them.

In What Doesnít Kill You Makes You Blacker, Young offers, among other things, an accounting of the ways he has bumbled through life narrowly avoiding death by embarrassment. At a recent event in New York, Young found himself mortified anew when journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones asked him to read aloud the most cringe-inducing part of the whole book. Itís a paragraph in which Young shares the details of a hapless s*xual encounter he describes as ďan hour of attempting to re-enact the saddest Penthouse letter ever.Ē

Besides being the author of the new memoir and essay collection, Young is the co-founder of the popular site Very Smart Brothas. Heís one of the internetís funniest social critics, offering opinions on everything from when black people are allowed to be ashy in public (during a polar vortex) to the correlation between being a black Republican and possessing a jacked-up hairline.

What Doesnít Kill You tells the story of Youngís life in Pittsburgh as a kid who always felt slightly out of place. He grew up in the íhood until his parents could afford to move to a quieter neighborhood in a better school district. He won a basketball scholarship to Canisius College in Buffalo, New York. He became a teacher and eventually a writer. But no matter where he went, Young insisted on overthinking everything and generally being as awkward as possible. His book tells us how he got through it, got married and started accepting the things that once made him insecure about himself, his masculinity and his blackness.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

When the word ďneuroticĒ comes up, a deep-voiced former college basketball player isnít the first image that comes to mind. Did you ever take antianxiety meds as a kid?

My antianxiety medication is Jack Danielís Tennessee Honey and maybe The Godfather and maybe an hour or two of basketball. So I guess I self-medicate in a way. You think of neuroses in culture and you think of someone like David Sedaris or Woody Allen or even [Jerry] Seinfeld. Itís a white person that youíre thinking about. White, middle- to upper-middle-class sort of person. Very often a man. And basically the sort of person who can afford to be anxious, who can afford to have neuroses because they donít necessarily have these deep traumas happening in their lives. They have space to overthink, and they create work in that space. People almost expect that of them. Itís a part of the spectrum. Everyone has this spectrum of behavior that you assign to them, and when you look at a person like Woody Allen, that fits the spectrum. If Woody Allen won the slam dunk contest in the McDonaldís All American contest, youíd be like, ĎHoly só.í That doesnít fit.

I think, with this book, people might be surprised by how deep and how vulnerable and how much I talk about that anxiety and nervousness and self-cautiousness. I come in a different package. Those neuroses are not unique to white people or upper-middle-class people. If anything, we probably deal with it on an even greater level because we have all of these major stressors from existing while black in America.

You write a lot about expectations about how you should behave and how you should treat women, like needing to distance yourself from being seen as ďsoft.Ē When did you begin to realize that there was something wrong with the narrow spectrum of feelings men and boys are allowed to express?

I canít remember a time when I didnít think about that. Itís almost like asking me, ĎWhen did you first realize you were black?í I think a lot of young kids recognize that itís bullsó, but even with that recognition, it takes a lot to go against the status quo and to subvert whatever expectations there are of you. So even while recognizing that this is performative, you still take part in it. You still have investment in it. You still want the fruits of it. You still want to be the guy that all the girls want. You still want to be the guy that all the other guys want to be.

You see these guys who are just so cool. And not just ballplayers, but Billy Dee fóing Williams and Blair Underwood and Denzel [Washington]. Denzel was cool as fó in Glory! He was the coolest slave. (Laughs.) Even when heís getting whipped, heís got that one tear!

So you have this narrative about how black boys are socialized to be violent or to look at rappers or drug dealers or anyone who has that aura of violence around that. What might be more prevalent and even more dangerous is not the violence but the cool and seeing that as the ideal. If you arenít that, or if you struggle to meet that, then somethingís wrong with you. And the thing is, we all struggle to meet that. A small percentage exists. I mean, there are Billy Dees in the world. I think the vast majority of us are either really good at performing or not as good at performing or are like, ĎFó the performance.í

Did you give yourself a hard time for not being able to live up to these arbitrary standards?

Yeah, I definitely did. I felt like I was less than. I definitely felt that my wiring was misfiring, that something was just off if I couldnít be the way I saw so many of my peers being. Ö I donít anymore. It helps that I received validation. Iíve been able to build a career off of writing and writing about these sorts of things. I have great friendships. I have this great wife and children. I think once I started writing and having space to navigate whatís happening in my head and have other people on that ride with me and who are fans on that ride with me Ö theyíre like, ĎOh, I get why he acts that way.í Thatís been extremely helpful. If I didnít have that, I donít know. My answer to your question might be different.

You wrote something on Very Smart Brothas that generated more backlash than I expected when you said straight black men are the white people of black people. What happened after you published that?

Before I even answer, I have to say, Iím not the first person to say that. A Facebook friend said that. Other people used the exact same phrasing. Many feminist scholars have Ö made that point. I donít want to take credit for being the first or the second or the third or the fourth.

The reaction was actually overwhelmingly positive. Most of the people who read that and sat with it and thought about it either agreed immediately or eventually. Itís just that the people who were offended by that were very loud. [Author] bell hooks invited me to meet with her at her institute at Berea College. We had a community talk with me, her and 30 other people in the room about intersectionality and privilege and power dynamics.

Do you think part of the reason this got so much attention is because youíre a guy?

Oh, definitely. And that actually just proves the point.

How does your thinking about gender and race influence how you raise your kids?

Iím not sure if I would have been a different parent if I had my daughter eight years ago or 10 years ago. I donít know. I have money now. That definitely helps dictate what sort of parent I am. I can afford day care and preschool and anything that she needs, within reason. Iím not going to buy her a whale, or a literal baby shark. But anything she needs, I can do that now. Ten years ago, I wouldnít have been able to do that. Five years ago, I wouldnít have been able to do that. I think having money and the flexibility that comes with it dictates decision-making more than anything else.
Thatís what I do when I play basketball. I have to be literally on the brink of death to stop and get some water.

A lot of your writing revolves around racial essentialism. Letís say your son came up to you and said, ďDad, I wanna be a professional rock climber.Ē

I would buy him some knee pads and some elbow pads. If thatís where your heart is, thatís where your heart is. I would take him to the indoor rock climbing spot. I wouldnít do it with him, but Iíd take him.

A lot of people talk about sports as a way to turn off the anxiety nozzle in their brain. Is that how basketball was for you?

Itís how basketball still is for me, where I can just lose myself in the game. Thereís a thing I realized that I do thatís unique to me. Iíve been doing this my whole life: I do not get water between games. I just play. So if Iím at the court and Iím playing pickup and thereís a break and guys get their water or their Gatorade or whatever, I stay on the court. Iím still shooting, still just focused. Iím that annoying móĖfóĖ whoís like, ĎAight, címon, letís go! Who got next?í

Do you not get cramps? Are you part camel?

Itís almost like an addiction, where youíre just doing a thing and youíre not cognizant of time or space or anything else. Youíre just really hyperfocused on this thing. Like you can be at a slot machine for four hours and not even get up to go to the bathroom. Thatís what I do when I play basketball. I have to be literally on the brink of death to stop and get some water.

Iím not part camel. Iím not a minotaur. As soon as I leave the court, I go and I drink, like, 18 Gatorades. Iíll get something to eat, and then Iíll go home and Iíll eat again. So itís obviously not healthy, me doing this, but I just need to stay on the court. Losing myself and submerging myself in that is a form of self-care.

By Soraya Nadia McDonald
@sorayamcdonald
Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She's based in Brooklyn.


https://theundefeated.com/
Posted By: Elly Moss
Wednesday, April 10th 2019 at 4:26PM
You can also click here to view all posts by this author...

Report obscenity | post comment
Share |
Please Login To Post Comments...
Email:
Password:

 
More From This Author
EARN YOUR SELF-RESPECT: You Are The Hero (David Goggins)
My Recommendation...
On The Other Side Of Suffering Is Greatness | David Goggins
EWC Athletics Edward Waters men win fifth straight GCAC track and field title
BMOA supports PUSH Excel HBCU College Tour
Home Depot Is Bringing Home Improvement To Ten HBCU Campuses
HBCU players could be selected in 2019 NFL Draft
As we celebrate Easter....
Forward This Article Entry!
News Home

(Advertise Here)
Who's Online
>> more | invite 
Latest Photos
>> more | add
Most Popular Bloggers
elly moss has logged 108764 blog subscribers!
agnes levine has logged 48359 blog subscribers!
gregory boulware, esq. has logged 18103 blog subscribers!
min sammy jackson has logged 6676 blog subscribers!
robert walker has logged 2232 blog subscribers!
>> more | add