tv Damon Young What Doesnt Kill You Makes You Blacker CSPAN May 19, 2019 4:04am-4:59am EDT
[inaudible] >> buy copies of the book >> okay. >> all right. >> hello, everybody, can you hear me okay, am i loud enough? i'm supposed to speak directly into this, okay, great. so just housekeeping notes before we get started with the conversation with damon young, i just want to welcome, everybody, tenth annual gaithersburg book festival, rain or shine, it's great to see everybody having a good time. the city that proudly sports art of humanity and please to bring you the great event thanks in part with generous support of
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to send authors here to speak with us, so purchasing books from our partners politics and pros helps supports the greatest independent bookstores as well, benefits local economy and supports local jobs, by the way gifts, we have to make sure we share with folks. if you enjoy the program and in position to do so, please buy books here today. it's getting warm and humid so i will be fanning as well, fan away, everybody. so without further due i want to go ahead and introduce our guest author for the day and i'm going to be facilitating this conversation, really, really excited to be here today with damon young who is the cofounder and editor-in-chief of very smart brothers, senior editor at the root and columnist as gq and work appeared in outlets, really long list.
the last time i introduced someone and there was long list of accolades and i didn't -- i summarized, sort of like overview and afterwards i was shamed for it by this writer. >> no shaming. [laughter] >> okay. thank you for that, seriously. published in such outlets like "the new york times", washington post, cnnmsnbc, al jazeera, salon, guardian, essence, usa today and pittsburgh post, i didn't name them all by the way. his recently public collection what doesn't kill you makes you blacker, memoir and essays have been described as that chronical's young efforts to survive while battling and making sense of barriers, country has given him. both a celebration of distinctions of blackens and credit eke of white supremacy
and how we define masculinity in america, with hilarious and distinctive voice damon grapples with some of the complex issues from a deeply personal and honest place. so, please welcome damon young. [applause] >> so actually -- did you want to add anything to that? >> no, that was sufficient. that was a lot. thank you, thank you for that. thank you, carmen. >> absolutely. no, it's a pleasure. >> your hair is like amazing, i just wanted to say that. [cheers and applause] >> i know. especially with all the weather happening. >> oh, my god, that's why i will be -- >> i couldn't not acknowledge that. >> thank you. i really appreciate that, i do. yeah, that's why i need to be doing this a lot.
so i have to ask you this first question, i mean, because i know that the story behind this because you've actually provided interviews before and even know what i'm going ask, but the title, can you talk about what led you to this title, what doesn't kill you makes you -- >> that's not actually the original title of the book. when the book was sold, the title was nigga neurosis. >> everybody got that? [laughter] >> which appears in the book, you know, that term appears in the book and it is where, you know, you're questioning how your race may have affected your treatment or the way people act at you. did i get scholarship did i not get scholarship because i'm black, did i get the job because i'm black, did i not get the job because i'm black. my agency obviously loved it and
my editor, they both loved it and then my editor talked to her people at barnes & noble, her people at amazon, i can't wait for his book, you know, i can't wait to promote it but i don't know if we could have a book with nigga, maybe not put it banner point font on the website with that word or without like a bunch of italics which i didn't want. i had to go back to the lab. i was working on -- working on dialogue in second draft and that just came and landed immediately, googled it to make sure it didn't already exist, someone's twitter handle or
basement play or something and thought, yeah, it was free, and so that term, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, it's a way of encapsulating the idea that i feel like if you're black, if you're a black american you should know by now that stability is a fraud, that, you know, measures to assimilate, at least assimilate in a way that it's inauthentic, you are doing because you're trying to appease or humanity, that is just a waste of time. >> right. >> and so i believe that, you know, in order to survive and thrive while black in america, you almost have to double down
blackness, embrace it, marinate in it. all the other adjectives and, yeah, so that's kind of where the title comes from and i just feel like glad that we landed on that instead the original because i just feel that that's just a better better encapsulation of the book. although a part of me was anticipating why do people fumble with that, the original title. anderson cooper, like trying to figure out how to pronounce this. >> how do i say this, yes? >> your book n-word, can i say ninja neurosis. >> right. >> hay had to let go of that. >> that's a really good point, like i like how you're talking about how potentially that word, it's so meaningful and we've
talked about so often in american culture and black culture how the term has been appropriated and reappropriated, right, and, you know, but again could be a distraction even rergs today, i kept thinking there were so many passages that i wanted to, you know, to share with the group and i thought, well, includes reference to n word but the version of the n-word that so often many of us embrace, if you will, but i kept thinking, no, i'm not sure if this is a venue for that, you know, but also i wanted to honor the integrity of the project, right, so there's that too, i appreciate that. >> you know, i realize that's not the word that everyone is comfortable with. >> yeah. >> and one of the things i expressed, there's a chapter i
go really deeply into to and the genesis of the word and just, you know, what compels to use it and an idea of permissions, whatever, where there's no consensus among us. there are black people who believe that that's a word that we should never use. >> that's right. >> no matter what form or context. >> and so, yeah, i realize that there's no, like, there's no uniformity with that. not even racial uniformity. >> that's right, yeah, thank you for that, i thought it was important for us to hear more about that. >> i want to share a little bit of what you say early in the book about being black in america, for instance, you say to be black in america is to exist in absurdity, perpetual
reality tra transmits equilibrium the way extended space alters human dna. it is perfectly sane to be black and allow outrage to conquer you. you say, how else are you supposed to react when first learning about red-lining when first reading about lynching, when first having gerrymandering and justification explain today you, when first studying the colossal racial disparities in everything from income to education and when first encountering a white person intentionally oblivious as to how being white in america is like seeing open book examine on the same lesson material that we weren't allowed to study for. that's pretty heavy. >> pretty relatable for a lot of us and yet, you know, i think despite a lot of the conclusions
that you're drawing that are really, really tough and really emotional and a lot of us can relate to the struggle and the pain and the confusion and all those things, there's so much humor in this book and, you know, there's such a lightness and so i'm wonder if you can share with us despite all of these critiques and pulling apart, if you will, these issues relative to being black in america, what role does humor play in this narrative for you. >> i mean, to -- to -- thank you. thank you for that and for me to write a book, a memoir that didn't include humor which would be disingenuous because that's just a foundational part of how i view the world, how i interact with the world and how i, you know, i deal with the world,
like they -- therapy and some is talking absurd. [laughter] >> and needs to be acknowledged as absurd, you know, and yet, it's sobber, you know, traumatic, but -- but then, you know, what is the phrase, comedy is tragedy plus time. >> yeah. >> when you shift perspective of it, sometimes you could see like this is funny. this is hilarious. 50 years from now i think the best -- if we -- if america, the best media, the best literature of time in office will be comedy. can't really see right now because the reality is just -- it is too absurd to actually
make that sort of and actually too present, too dangerous. we space away from it and i think that the best pieces of art that are going to reflect the time are going to be intentionally funny and humorous, whatever. and so, yeah, that -- without it being funny. >> yeah. >> and funny in quotations because not everyone thinks that i'm that funny. [laughter] >> i have a 3-year-old who does not laugh at any anything, at jokes. i tell myself because it's loss of translation. you need to go back to lab and, you know, redo that punch line a little bit. >> yeah, yeah. but it's also, you know, laughing, to keep from crying, you know, kind of motif there
that we see so often in black literature, like, you know, we are not for that, how would we process the absurdity if you will of -- of being black, right, in america, yeah, yeah. i want to also share little bit more about what you say in terms of why you wrote this. yo say you wrote the book because it's something that you've always wanted to read. you say i know my story isn't unique and there are other similar works like for many of the same things, you say i wrote this to examine and discover the why's of my life instead of continuing to allow the what to dominate and bog my memories. you also say, you're telling stories of mom and wilbur your dad, to know them even just
sliver of them i was able to capture, know how blackness doesn't find beauty in a country consistently to crush them and to know them is to know what was happening and what would happen but didn't allow premonition from preventing from fighting it and capacity to love. so when you think about the purpose among other things and there's a lot more you say about why you wrote this, but when you think about the purpose behind the project for you, knowing that, you know, your words, your story, your ideas were going to resinate with folks, that there was going to be someone on the other side consuming off of this and interacting with this, who did you have in mind, who was ideal audience for this? >> me. yeah, i'm the target audience of
this book. that may seem selfish or self-centered but my primary objective when sitting down write this, us to write theme that i would have wanted to read, that i would want to read today, that i would want to read when i was 15, 25, 35, and then from that point you extrapolate out and, you know, just hope that other people are able to connect to and relate to the themes that are expressed in the book. >> yeah. >> it's a book that deals, very race heavy but, you know, the underlying theme has to do with anxiety, self-consciousness, vulnerability, being comfortable in those skin and those are universal concepts so any one who has held any of that in their lives and appropriate art
that -- that deconstructs it and critiques it and just sits in that. >> yeah. >> i believe would -- would also appreciate the book. but, again, my primary -- my base audience is me. >> okay. >> so i'm wondering were you thinking at all about after you wrote it, like, were you thinking maybe about how this would resinate with black men, black youth, black male youth even and -- and if so at any point like how would you want them to think about what you have to say and share. >> you know, i -- of course, i did hope, you know that i wasn't the only one who read it. >> yeah. >> i wouldn't be sitting here. [laughter] >> one person that bought the book, it's just me. one amazon order.
>> just one. [laughter] >> one review by that one person. >> by me also. go read damon's book which i wrote. i will say this, i -- i haven't had in terms of, you know, the question -- anything particular that i wanted black males to take away from this. i removed the male part of it and more, you know, once you get past my own, you know, wanting to write for myself, it is a letter to black people, so if not, i don't like at it as saying that it's specifically for black men, black males, black boys but just for black people in general. if you want to attach racial angle on, i guess, conception of the book, like thinking of it in terms of creating a thing that
-- that boy, men, whatever would appreciate, i hope that -- that they do but, again, i think of it as a book that is much more black women, just as much for black girls. >> just given that there wasn't necessarily this intention for you to gender like over explicit way your experiences and even when you think about an audience for this, i think that in itself challenges convention, right? when we think about like what we expect of, you know, blackmail writers and artists, performers,
readers even, right, so for you to suggest that, you know, for you, right, this wasn't necessarily about gendering experiences, i think it's really, really noteworthy, i think it's an aggressive way of thinking about it. >> yeah, it's more -- i might be wrong, but. >> yeah. >> i can't personal story because i'm a man, but, yeah, that wasn't the -- like i don't want to injoke that intent because i wasn't there. my intent was to tell my story. >> right, right, sure, yeah. i want to explore that a little further in just a bit. so you share a lot about your experiences growing in predominantly white east liberty
and pittsburgh -- >> me. pittsburgh itself is predominantly but the neighborhood i grew up was very, very black. >> okay, thank you. you moved -- >> i moved to suburb and it was racially mixed. >> i want to read a few passages about what you have to say about that and i'm also wondering if you can sort of respond to the question of coming to terms with how race, socioeconomic status and privilege and oppression and all these things have and cite -- crete you say i was actually from the
hood and you just clarified that, you made that clear. east liberty served as nexus point for 3 violent gangs terrorizing the city, the bloods, the cribs and the law. i lived on the hottest block, 700 block of melon street and then you say a little later. i knew i was from the hood and i didn't feel i was from the hood until we left hood and in the parents not owning a car and dependence on pat bus became another thing that i needed to be self-conscious about. and then i have a little more here, you say i couldn't embrace my humble background because it wasn't something to be embraced, it wasn't considered to be proud of and definitely not something to promote as some sort of standard viral legitimacy.
there's no shame there, right? talk a little bit about how you feel thinking about where you grew up and that existence for you in a space such as you described, violent, et cetera. >> you know, just to put that in context the main story of the chapter is going to suburban high school, being from where i'm from and meeting a guy there who was on basketball who was also in basketball team with me who was from the suburbs and had like a front yard and backyard and enough money where he had a car and he was a crip, he was a crip in name only. instant oatmeal crip. knowing that if you're from that, it's not something to brag about. it's just, you know, who you are
and where you're from, whatever and seeing someone like that at this school, you know, the idea of performance. performing blackness, performing poverty even and it was -- it was just jarring to see that and he wasn't the only one at the school that did that and so a theme throughout the book is the idea of performance. >> yeah. >> and how essential it can be to masculinity, black male masculinity in particular, so there's this that you're supposed to aspire to and if you don't reach that you fill the gap between the reality and the
aspiration with performance. and -- and gets to the point sometimes where the performance can become so vital in how you see yourself and how you interact with people that becomes own -- >> yeah. >> performance actually exists in place of you. >> yeah. >> and throughout the book i was asked -- i played basketball in college. how many girls i'm supposed to sleep with, how am i suppose today carry myself, that was never me but i did do a lot of performing. i had so many pairtions just continually and i guess by the end of the book and, you know, the book starts when i'm like
maybe 15 and probably goes to 38, 39, i am just tired of performing. >> yeah, yeah. >> when i talk about hoping 15 or 25-year-old could maybe read this, that's probably the greatest take away that i would hope that they would get from it , realize that it's not necessary. >> right, right. looking back and rewriting, everyone was performing. >> everyone. [laughter] >> i was going through that and i felt like i was the only one, it created phobia and you think
back and actually see how other people acted and see what other people did, they were doing it too. >> yeah, yeah -- >> all trying reach this ideal that like denzel in 1989. glory, 3 people on earth that reached that ideal and the rest of us are like that's who you are supposed to be. >> yeah, yeah. >> and, again, i'm just tired of that. >> it's exhausting. at the same time it's -- i mean, some of our earliest writers, literature talked about that, the work and the labor of being black and performance and we started calling things like code switching and things like that, just to survive and get through when we are trying to figure
out, you know, who we are, you know, in this, you know, really contentious hostile space of whiteness. >> bless you, code switching of interacting with white people, we also code-switched within ourselves too. >> right. >> like there are ways -- really hard to explain, there's code-switching just within black people. but for performance in regards to masculinity, even though whiteness existed as backdrop and performance can't be acknowledged without acknowledging context, performance was more for other black people.
>> yeah. >> we had code switching and that sort of performance on wasn't hand and then even within ourselves and within the community there was performance where i need to be a certain way. >> right. >> so that, you know, i don't know. >> yes. just to be, i don't know, less -- what's the word i'm looking for? just to be normal. >> yeah, yeah. >> right. well, you also talked about -- like you sort of assigned -- right, right, whatever that means, normal. but you sort of assigned colorism to a lot of that. i remember this one moment where you talked about how, you know, for instance, for light skin black men, they had to work extra hard. [laughter] >> to perform their blackness and sort of hypermasculine and tough, but the blacker and darker you were, you were hard, tough, but also thinking about, you know, colorism as part of
that but those are all sort of manifestations, if you will, of sort of the internalization of what culture has imposed on us as well. yeah. and i have to say in some of the ways that you talked about like how you, performances in either black faces or white face, i was thinking about 20th century humorous neil and essay how it feels to be colored, she talks about leaving her all-black community in florida and when she left it, you know, she always talked about her color came, how her color comes, how she feels, the blackness when she was with her community she was dora and so i saw sort of a play as part of that tradition but i'm wonder if you can talk a little bit too about, well, obviously more about race in
america. i recall your your talking about white privilege, for instance, and i wanted to share with folks this passage, short passage about that. speaking of blackness, you say white privilege, provides benefit of doubt and flexible and perpetual get out of jail free card is often dismissed by critics and even spoken by believers in it as abstract and academic term with no basis in reality, feelings, thoughts and desire and opinions matter more than feelings thoughts desires and opinions of nonwhite people, black people specifically. did you want to say anything about that, what you -- --
>> yeah. living while black killed my mom. >> yeah. >> it's about my mom who 6 years in september, 6 years in october since she's met and diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer a year before she passed, she was given 6 months, 6 more yet to come to the illness. and i think about -- when i think about my mom, you know, especially in this context, i think about the years to diagnosis and she would go to the doctor, complain about back pain, stomach aches, headaches and they gave her advil, tell her to take less advil or tell
her to drink less pop, get more exercise, and those are all, you know, those are all good pieces of advice, whatever, but, you know, talking about the idea nigga neorosis that i started talking but i can't help but wonder if her pain would have been taken more seriously if she was a white woman. and you think about someone, you know, even, you know, not about my mom, serena williams who, you know, as many of us almost died after having her child because or nurses in delivery ward
weren't taking pain seriously. she kept going back, hey, something is wrong with me, something is wrong with me, take this test, whatever, yeah, you just had a baby, you're fine, we will send you home, you're fine and she kept at it for hours, maybe a couple of days until they finally did the test, whatever test they needed to take and saw that, yeah, if they would have let her go home she would have died. and that's serena williams. >> right. >> if anyone knows their body is world-class athlete, greatest athlete living perhaps, with all the money, all the power, all the status, and so if someone like her is treated like that, i mean, what about my mom?
>> yeah, yeah. >> what about my wife, my daughter. >> yeah. >> and so, you know, in talking about white privilege and, in that passage is thought of really academic, you know -- >> yeah. >> theoretical term. it literally kills people and i express in that chapter too, am i 100% certain that my mom was white she would have been here today, i'm not. you can't be. >> right. >> like you can know about serena, you can see what happens, you can know, you know, you could have read whatever study that have proven that doctors still believe that black people have a super natural
tolerance for pain, you can do all of that but can you say with 100% certainty that things would have been different, that race definitely without a doubt impacted my mom's treatment. i can't say that, i'm not 99.999 sure but that tinny bit of doubt that's left that's what can drive you crazy. >> yes, yes. you're absolutely right about that and i think we live in a culture where that is a valid question, like that's a valid question to be asking, you know, and the fact that you -- you are compelled to ask that question tells us something about the normalcy of whiteness in the culture and does have real lived experience validity in our lives, so, yeah. and just a couple of minutes i'm going take a pause and let folks ask questions of their own, but
i do want to acknowledge something else that you write about, you talk about obama and the obamas and their legacy and you talk about, i kind of think about it as like for a lot of us like where were you when you learned that, you know, become president and, you know, one californian so that was sort of like -- and i'm thinking about how you talked about the fear you had about or for his safety. >> a lot talking about, oh, my gosh, i'm so worried for this man. a lot of people nodding their heads. as validating as it wassened reassuring and affirming that it was, all that, we were scared. >> yeah, i'm glad -- no one asked me about that.
>> really? [laughter] >> one chapter that no one talks about. >> yeah. >> the night he's elected, you know, i'm like screaming, the president is black, calling people, hitting up kfc if i can get free because obama is president. everything that was on the the chapelle show if a black man is ever elected, black person is ever elected. i'm making up my own. fox news just to say, yeah. [laughter] >> okay. >> what are you going say now? >> right. [laughter] >> i'm doing all of that, like, feeling as high as i have ever felt, outside of like, you know, something happening in my own
life and then gave his acceptance speech and all of that excitement, a lot of that joy, just -- just progressively was flattened out by a fear of him getting assassinated. and just that gamut of emotions and we are talking, we are not even talking about the whole day, like 2 or 3 hour span, highest of highs to screen, this is going to happen, they are going to kill him. >> right. right. >> now, you know, i'm a spoiler alert, it did not happen. [laughter] >> that did not happen.
but that fear continued, like throughout first year or two in office, like whenever you have a really public first, like it's first day state of union, inauguration, during the summit. they will give us poison there. [laughter] >> and so it didn't happen but it seems even now, you know, i can understand how it might seem absurd. i can understand how someone who is hearing this for the first time without this context might consider that to be absurd, ridiculous thought, ridiculous fear, can happen but odds are great but shouldn't be present fear but as you were saying for many of us, that was the reality that you have the highs of highs
and then you're thinking, and in talking with a few of my friends about this, no one actually vocalized it. >> right. i thought that was crazy too. >> like if you've spoken to -- >> yes. >> so, you know, maybe it's just in my head. i don't want to speak this in the air because it can -- i don't know, the universe might catch that and might end up happening. you know, some sort of -- i -- yeah, so first time i actually said that out loud. >> wow. i have to say it felt validating for me because i swear you, i had the same fear very, very often and i never talked about it and, in fact, i was listening to a radio station, i was living at the time -- i forget where i was living, i've lived in so many different places, i remember listening to the radio and there was a story about it and someone had vocalized at the
time that someone -- that they had a fear of this and everybody else on the radio show, that's crazy, that's ridiculous, no one has ever said that, why would you feel that way, oh, my god, such a way of shutting that down because a lot of us had that anxiety, right, so thank you for sharing that. again, i think it was a pretty validating moment and i think you're right and not enough talk about this and i appreciate that, you know, said i hope that they -- like never seen again, like they are so far away from the rest of us, they've done enough for us. >> for him to come back and get back into politics. >> leave him alone. >> go get your -- >> yes. >> do all that. i did enough. >> thank you. >> time for new people. >> yeah.
>> so i'm -- yeah. >> thank you for that. so questions. questions? someone there. it's so hot. >> have you heard from any of the people that you mentioned in the book like particularly the bully or some of the girls you dated, have you heard from them, what was their reaction? >> i will answer the second question first. so the people who i've been in romantic relationships with, i reached out to them before putting them in the book, do you have an issue with this, hey let me know now and i won't put it and after i wrote it i went after first draft, you know what, it's here now, so no -- speaking out or forever hold your peace, everyone was cool with it. i happened to be in contact, still in contact with many of the people that are, you know
that are mentioned in the book. in fact, one exgirlfriend, i went to her wedding last year. now the bully, i think he's in prison now, so if they have this book in prison library then maybe he's read it but, you know, i haven't reached out to him. >> yeah, yeah. in the front here too and someone over here. okay, great. >> hi, i haven't read the book yet but i plan to. >> thank you. >> but hearing about your neorosis, would you be writing second book related to the conditions that we are going through now?
>> i don't know what my next book is going to be about. [laughter] i haven't yet decided what that's going to be. and, yeah, i mean, writing about the last, you know, 3 or 4 years, there's definitely a lot in there. one thing that really comes to mind for me and this is more personal, throughout the book a threat of economic insecurity, you know, where i grew up, grew up broke, poor, whatever word you want to use to describe that and -- and now i am not. i was doing okay for, you know, a few years in my 30's but my circumstances have changed drastically and so i might write
about that whiplash and how that can also be anxiety inducing and whiplash inducing and existence to be more surreal and putting that in larger context which is america and money and blackballing people with money. so, yeah, but the idea about the last 3 or 4 years is definitely something that i plan to grapple with. >> i've been following you in your blog, i'm happy to see both of you progress. >> thank you. >> but my question is as a writer how do you keep your momentum and stay consistent even though you might be writing and like you say, you might have been the only person that bought the book or read your posts, how do you stay motivated?
>> so, you know, it's funny that you ask as follow-up because one of my primary -- one of the primary fuel for whatever ambition i've had to get -- to get better as writer, it's desperation because we -- when we started in 2008 and i was working at the university of pittsburgh at the time, i was running college prep program in school of business, the program shut down in 2009, it was like a recession related casualty and i was out of a cross roads then, i went on a couple of interviews, nothing really panned out and now academic offices at carnegie melon and i made a decision to write full-time and by i made the decision, i mean, i was kind of forced into the decision, kind of like learning how to
swim and someone just throwing you in the deep end of the pool and i was on an appointment for a couple of years, i was doing freelance work here and there and again what drove me at the time was desperation, was knowing that you know i need to get better at this if i want to eat, if i want to have lights, if i want to go to brunch because i need to go to brunch. [laughter] rar. >> and so, yes that was the thing. and even though i don't necessarily have a need but sort of desperation anymore, that hasn't gone away completely. now, when it goes away, it might, i don't know what it would be then.
maybe just to get better. i wish i could have had 2 more months with this. >> yeah. >> like i hate reading things -- i very often hate reading things that i've written like a week ago because i want to change things and i want to change lines, i want to change like -- i think that will never go away and so perhaps that's going to be the driving force for continuing to stay fresh or continue to go -- continuing to write. >> i'm so sorry, running out of time. can we have one more -- go ahead, yeah, yeah. >> thank you so much. i want to say that i sat on a lot of different book conversations about black people in america and we have a lot of white allies in the room right now and so i know that a lot of times white people ask me well, what can i do and so sometimes people just need to be told what