Damon Young on wooing with Wu-Tang, teaching Whiteness 101 and how survival "makes you blacker"

Salon talks to acclaimed writer Damon Young about his new book, "What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker"

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published March 28, 2019 3:00PM (EDT)

 (Salon Talks)
(Salon Talks)

Back when I was kid in the '90s, I learned a lot from television. “A Different World” was my entrance into college, “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” showed me that black people could live in mansions and "The Cosby Show" taught me about traditional family structure. But movies — especially the ones we'd watch over and over on VHS — also had a tremendous cultural impact. And the movies that reflected my reality — like "New Jack City" and "Menace II Society" —  rather than the insides of private schools, helped me to feel comfortable in the streets and even honored to sell drugs, which I viewed as normal.

The falsehoods often portrayed in media about the streets and black people in general led me to writing, and I’m thankful that I lived long enough to share my experiences and to be able to compare them with those of writers like Damon Young, who were raised with different circumstances.

Young, the acclaimed writer and co-founder/editor in chief of Very Smart Brothas, also explores the personal impact of pop culture in his new memoir in essays, “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker.” For Young, it was all about Darius Lovehall, Larenz Tate’s character in the 1997 Theodore Witcher film “Love Jones.”

Lovehall — a horrible poet by modern literary standards, but iconic to youth in the late ‘90s — put the necessary words together to sweep Nia Long, every hood kid’s crush, off of her feet in a way that none of us could truly imagine. The way Long fell for Tate’s subpar stanzas — a cinematic miracle — gave Young the courage to try his own hand at poetry, in hopes that he could bag a Nia too. When it came to poetry, Young fell flat on his face, he admitted to me this week on “Salon Talks,” but his attempts sparked a fresh interest in writing.

In a tiny row house about a six-hour drive away from Young's home, my older brother, his friends, and I watched Tate over and over in another movie, “Menace II Society,” the 1993 Hughes Brothers film portraying gritty street life in Los Angeles. Tate played a notorious drug-dealing teenager named O-Dog, the kind of guy who'd blow your head off in broad daylight and then finish his joke. O-Dog moved like most of the people in that room with me watching did. They saw themselves in O-Dog, and that made our crazy reality a little more normal.

And I watched because they watched. But my favorite movie was the 1991 Mario Van Peebles flick “New Jack City,” about Nino Brown, a brutal Harlem drug kingpin played by the excellent Wesley Snipes. I was too young to fully understand the film when it first came out in theaters, but it made its way into my daily rotation after I found a bootleg copy on VHS. I hated Brown — he was cut-throat and a snitch, which is a deadly combination. My hero was Gee Money, played by Allen Payne. Gee Money was flashy, ran the streets, and loved to talk hoops and play basketball, just like me.

On the court I would emulate the scene where Gee Money sinks a long jumper for a pile of cash, leaving my arm extended as the ball flies through the rim. Like me, he was fun, lighthearted, curious and the explorer of the crew. And those same attributes that made him lovable and drove him to seek other opportunities outside of his crew also led to Nino putting a bullet in his head. I still hate Nino Brown. He didn’t have to kill Gee Money. They really could’ve hugged it out.

Young, who grew up in Pittsburgh, also came from a rough neighborhood. He used "Love Jones" as a way to escape his reality and discover new possibilities for his future, while my brother and his friends used “Menace II Society” to justify their own situation in the moment.

Together, our stories can push the influence conversation forward. How did Young and I both start off with similar paths, have similar influences, then go in two completely different directions, and yet still both end up as writers? What could we be doing to help young people from our respective cities fall in love with writing? I don’t have all of the answers, but our writing and the “Salon Talks” moments we shared are a great start.

Watch my "Salon Talks" conversation with Damon Young here, or read the Q&A below.

Your book is hilarious. I would actually like to see some of your chapters played out on TV, but I'm sure you've got all that stuff in the works. Let’s start with the title, “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker," where does it come from?

The original title was "Nig in the Roses," which exists in the book and it just talks about that perpetual state of being where you're wondering if something happened to you because you're black and never being sure. So that term, I was going to make it the title. My editor loved it and my agent, but then they went out talked to people at Barnes and Noble and at Amazon and were like…

Oh my God, no.

Yeah, like, we love Damon, we love that title, but I don't know if we could promote it. I don't know if we could put banner ads up on the site with that word on it. So, I had to think of a new title. That came to me when I was actually on the plane to Essence Fest and doing some work on some of the dialogue for the book and that came [to me].

As soon as I got off the plane I Googled it, just to make sure it didn't exist already because it felt like something that somebody would have used for something else. I was like, holy s**t, it's there.

It's like somebody's Uncle Cleveland or something said it.

Yeah, somebody said it in some barbershop somewhere, but they didn't put it on a thing.

It's dope and a lot of truth. What does it mean to you?

Well you know the phrase what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. That basically says that all the experiences, everything that tries to kill you, tries to nick you, tries to harm you, if it doesn't it just makes you a stronger and better person. I think that same thing applies to blackness where just existing in America, dealing with white supremacy, dealing with all the f**k s**t that we have to deal with on a day-to-day basis, if it doesn't kill you, if you don't succumb to it, then you just get blacker and blacker and blacker. Almost like some video game character that's just getting more and more energy.

The checklist is long.

The checklist is boundless.

They did a study on these two different neighborhoods where I live in Baltimore. The people from the black zip code were projected to die like 15 years earlier than the white zip code. I was like, damn.

It's crazy. I mean it's like that everywhere. It's like that in Pittsburgh. Whatever the national disparities are with race, with income, wealth, health, education, Pittsburgh lags behind.

You still live in Pittsburgh? Pittsburgh is a recurring character in the book

I still live in Pittsburgh, yeah. Pittsburgh is me through and through. I had to make sure that if I was gonna tell my story that I had to include Pittsburgh in it because, again, it's just been a central part of the making of the person who wrote this book.

How did Pittsburgh develop you as a storyteller?

Well it's funny, a couple of weeks ago I wrote a piece for Very Smart Brothas about how Pittsburgh is the blackest city in the country.

Fake news! I'm joking because I'm from Baltimore.

I anticipated that response. [Laughs.] This was part of a series where different writers in different cities wrote about why their city was the blackest — St. Louis, or Harlem, or Detroit or whatever.

Pittsburgh doesn't have the same sort of black population as those cities do, so I'm thinking, okay, what can my angle be? My angle was because Pittsburgh is predominately white. Also, not just white demographically, but white atmospherically, white emotionally, white spiritually. To be a black person there you had to be more intentional with your blackness.

It’s not like Harlem where you could just be at a Schomburg one day, see Cam'ron across the street the next. You know, that just doesn't exist on that same level in Pittsburgh. If you want to be unapologetically black, or whatever, you have to be intentional about it. I think that experience of living in Pittsburgh and being a black person in Pittsburgh has gave me a level of intentionality about thinking about blackness, about thinking about how that relates to the general American culture. I am an expert in white people because I've seen them, I've grown up with them, I've gone to school with them, I've lived next to them.

You can name like eight different types of mayonnaise.

I'm a white person maven. I'm an expert because I've seen it up close. Again, those insights and that experience, I guess, culminated in making me be a writer or making me the person who wrote this.

They need to create a class at Harvard on that and have you come in teach it.

I used to be a teacher and people have asked me if I want to get back in the classroom and the answers has already been no, but if it was a class on like Whiteness 101, I think I'd be down for that.

Was is difficult for you to step back and reflect on your childhood?

The stuff about childhood and the stuff that came earlier in the book, because the book is told in chronological order, somewhat chronological order. That stuff wasn't as difficult because these are things that happened, even though they might be memories that trigger certain emotions or refresh certain feelings that are uncomfortable.

I'm writing about things that happened 20, 25 years ago, so these things aren't part of my life anymore, these people aren't part of my life anymore. It's easier for me to have that sort of perspective and think of things in a different context than when I went through them.

When you write a memoir—and you've done this and I'm sure you can speak to this—when you think about older memories, it's not the memory that you remember. It's the emotion from the memory.


You're not actually thinking about the facts, you're thinking about how you felt when that happened. So having that perspective, looking back, it wasn't as difficult to conceptualize and contextualize those first initial chapters that happened in high school and college or whatever. The stuff that was more difficult was the stuff that came later because those are things that I'm still dealing with and those are people who are still in my life.

The emotional truths that connect us.


The people who have beef with the things you write about, it's always the silliest stuff. So you're thinking, I don't want to get this story wrong when this thing happened that affected this group of people, and no one says anything about that. But a dude might pop up like, "Yo, you said I had green Nikes, I had the white ones. I had the green ones but that day I had the white."

That's the s**t that doesn't matter really, but it does. I guess when you're writing a story about someone else and you're using an experience that is dear to you but involves other people, then I get why someone might want it to be completely 100 percent on if you're using them as a character in your own narrative.

They, at the very least, want you tell as complete of a truth as you possibly can. It could have been l something as minor as green Nikes instead of white Nikes. But maybe that [guy] hates green. It's like, "I would never wear green! Why would you say about that me? You must not know me! My dad used to beat me with a green switch and I never f**ked with green ever again." I guess it depends on the person.

When was that big moment for you when you realized that you weren't going to make it as basketball player? First, it's only fair if I tell you mine. One day I'm hanging out with my older brother and we go to College Park, just on like a school visit, right? We're like looking at schools and trying to see what's poppin’ and all that. We're walking across campus and we go to the court. Everybody’s like 6'5,” handles and belts going down the court, pew, pew, pew. I'm like, “Wow the team's gonna be good this year.” This dude was like, "That's not the team, it's the play squad, practice squad. That's like intramural.” I was like, “You know what, I should probably look into some different.”

Yeah, I had a similar moment when I first got to campus at Canisius. At the time, if you would have asked me what I wanted to be for a living I wouldn't have said I want to be in the NBA. I would have made up some bulls**t, said I wanted to be like a weatherman or I wanted to be in sports management. I knew that if you said you want to be in the NBA that's what people are anticipating, like a black kid from the hood or whatever, but I did. That was an actual aspiration of mine.

I get to college and there was this guy on the team, Kevin Thompson, who played the same position I did. He was bigger than me, stronger than me, his handle was better, his j was better. He was a senior. He was better looking. He was like handsome. He's the guy that was like barely an all-league type of dude. Like second team, third team all-league caliber type player and not a dude that's on any sort of NBA radar at all. He was head and shoulders above me.

I'm thinking if this [guy] is not even on the NBA radar, what about the people my size, the people like 6'1, 6'2" whatever, like how good are they? How good do you have to be to be that sort of person? Then it was just like, yeah, the NBA is just not a thing.

I'm sure now you can probably beat the hell out of a bunch of writers at basketball. [laughs]

I've been waiting for someone to hit me up about like a writer/blogger/media person hood league.

I'm down.

I'm ready for it.

I'm T'Challa.

You know what, to be honest with you, we have some dudes that can go in Pittsburgh, like Jesse Washington from the Undefeated, he's in the ‘Burgh and he can still hoop. He has a son that plays for Drexel.

Terrance Hayes, the poet, I haven't seen him hoop, but I've heard that he can go too. So if we did like a city-to-city type of thing, like a three-on-three tournament, I think Pittsburgh would be in the top of the bracket.

I used to hoop every morning at like 7 a.m. with the writer MK Asante. We used to ball all the time back in the mid 2000s. Solid point guard, so it might be enough to put something together. So when you discovered basketball wasn't going to be thing for you, you write watching the movie “Love Jones” and the inspiration there with writing. You were just lucky enough to sit back in front of a TV see Larenz Tate in a motorcycle jacket and you were like “I want to be that guy? I want to put on that leather jacket in the summertime. I want to do spoken word”? We all wanted to date Nia Long. [Laughs.]

Yeah, everyone wanted Nia Long, so there was that. Like what can I do that will get me closer to Nia Long or a similar league of Nia Long? I went to school in the late '90s, early Aughts, and that was when the coffeehouse, spoken word, Def Poetry, everyone talks like this, and the Five-Percent Nation.

Boot cut jeans and conspiracy theories.

Boot cut jeans, selling pre-paid legal, going table to table.

I hate pre-paid legal. [Laughs.]

I went to maybe three meetings. I went to at least three pre-paid legal meetings where I was like this close to actually signing up and being one of the people who —

The intro fee was probably like two grand.

Yeah, that's what stopped me. You had to pay before you could get paid and you had to give blood. I feel like it was some sort of, I don't know, entry point for the Illuminati.

So I'm in college, there was a girl I liked, and I wanted to woo her with poetry. Instead of writing my own poems, I would go into lyric archives and cut and paste the most obscure rap lyrics. I was taking Wu-Tang, which wasn’t obscure at all back then.

No U-God though.

No U-God, no Masta Killa. I would cut and paste and send them to her, saying that they were from you to me—my poetry. She was like this is awesome, but it didn't result in any — we didn't do anything — it didn't like arouse her or anything like that. So, I kept stealing s**t from the Wu.

Be careful though, because they might try to come for the royalties.

I know, they might. Raekwon might show up, might be there when I go downstairs right now.

Then that was a bit of a springboard for me to start writing my own poetry, which was terrible, because everyone's poetry — well, not everyone's — but my poetry was terrible back then. That was the segue for me to start writing more experimental essays. I ended up writing for the school newspaper. I ended up just taking writing more seriously.

In reading your book, I like how you handle masculinity within different elements of your life. I think a lot of young guys could benefit and learn a lot from this book. How should we be describing this idea of masculinity to young people?

A common thread throughout the book is the idea of performance, where so much masculinity is tied into being a certain hyper-hetero ideal. Like 00000.1 percent, only a very small percentage of us, are actually able to meet that. A lot of us are trying to meet this ideal and not meeting it, so you do a lot of pretending, you do a lot of performing.

We talked earlier about the perspective of going back and thinking about those experiences, when you are a person who has whatever neurosis or anxieties, self-consciousnesses or whatever, you sometimes can feel claustrophobic. It's singular, you're the only one who has it, particularly if you're a black male and an athlete. It's like, I'm an athlete, I'm not supposed to feel this way. But then looking back and thinking back and just re-remembering those memories, you see how other people perform too and how that performance was an essential part of man making.

Yeah, everybody needs to take their mask off. I also like what how you wrote about Barack Obama. I've written about my 2008 Obama feeling versus my 2012 Obama. 2008 I might have had an Obama sweatshirt on, I'm walking around, I'm donating money, I'm campaigning, I'm stumping, this is the first time that I ever voted in my whole entire life. Mind you, I was old enough to vote for maybe two or three times before that, but this time it meant something. For you, what was was the difference between your 2008 Obama and then the re-up in 2012?

In ‘08 I had the same feeling. I had the bumper stickers, I had the Shepard Fairey shirt with his face on it.

Iconic hope.

I would scour YouTube for freestyles where people would incorporate his name. Like Obama, Botswana, a llama. I was deep. I was in the tank for Obama. Watching him on stage in 2008 when he won the presidency and gave his acceptance speech, I remember thinking, yo, get the f**k off the stage because they're gonna assassinate you. That feeling existed throughout his entire first term.

Whenever he would have his first State of the Union, or his inauguration, or anything that was like a very public first, I would think, "Okay, this is when it's gonna happen." It obviously didn't happen then, so by the time 2012 came around, there wasn't that anxiety that was attached to him. I also wasn't as dogmatic. I just felt like, okay, this is our guy. I still felt like he was our guy and he's gonna beat their guy again, but I didn't feel the same sort of visceral thing. No bumper sticker. I wasn't campaigning. I still was watching everything and I still was a fan, but I wasn't like a Stan.

Obama introduced me to politics in general. This is my job now, but I never would have even flipped on cable news or opened up a blog and read a passage or anything until that.

I have to ask you a question and I address this in my book. In 2008, when he was running, was any part of your feeling about him not just wanting to see him win, but wanting to see them lose?

Oh absolutely. I couldn't tell you three things… hope, change, you know what I'm saying? His middle name Hussein. Michelle. Leave me alone.

Hope, change and Michelle. That's all we knew. That's all we had to know.

They could have said, the white president wants to give every black person $250,000. I would have been like, yeah, but the black one got two daughters, we're voting for him. It wouldn't even matter. But then also I might be a special case because, again, I never paid attention to politics. I actually heard junkies fussing about superdelegates with the dudes who they bought their dope from on the corner. It was all like a new world. Then we get this Trump guy. What changed for you after this guy wiggled his way in?

One thing I'm looking forward to, if the world is still here 20 years from now, is some of the books that are going to be written about this whole era that we're in right now. I feel like things are happening so fast that we can't even really get a handle. There's so much s**t that's just coming from his mouth and coming from the White House, so many things that aren't even newsworthy that should be. You're in front of a fire extinguisher.

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

MORE FROM D. Watkins