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What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker by Damon Young
Essays

What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker

Debut

We love supporting debut authors. Congrats, Damon Young, on your first book!

by Damon Young

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Quick take

We think the title says it all.

Synopsis

For Damon Young, existing while Black is an extreme sport. The act of possessing black skin while searching for space to breathe in America is enough to induce a ceaseless state of angst where questions such as “How should I react here, as a professional black person?” and “Will this white person’s potato salad kill me?” are forever relevant.

What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker chronicles Young’s efforts to survive while battling and making sense of the various neuroses his country has given him.

It’s a condition that’s sometimes stretched to absurd limits, provoking the angst that made him question if he was any good at the “being straight” thing, as if his sexual orientation was something he could practice and get better at, like a crossover dribble move or knitting; creating the farce where, as a teen, he wished for a white person to call him a racial slur just so he could fight him and have a great story about it; and generating the surreality of watching gentrification transform his Pittsburgh neighborhood from predominantly Black to “Portlandia ... but with Pierogies.”

And, at its most devastating, it provides him reason to believe that his mother would be alive today if she were white.

From one of our most respected cultural observers, What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker is a hilarious and honest debut that is both a celebration of the idiosyncrasies and distinctions of Blackness and a critique of white supremacy and how we define masculinity.

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What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker

Introduction

Living While Black Is an Extreme Sport

Every New Year’s Day, hundreds of people gather together on the banks of the Monongahela, a 130-mile-long river that begins in Fairmont, West Virginia; runs along a stretch of factories, steel mills, and power plants through the Mon Valley; and flows to Pittsburgh, where it converges with the Allegheny River at Point State Park to form the Ohio River. Once there, these people strip and dive in. New Year’s Day, as you probably know, occurs in January, and the average temperature in Pittsburgh then hovers somewhere between “hold my beer” and “fuck this shit.” Which means that they’re usually splashing butt-ass naked in an Appalachian Slush Puppie. They call themselves the Polar Bear Club (and their annual dive the Polar Bear Plunge).

Perhaps, while reading that paragraph, an image of a Polar Bear Plunger plopped into your head. Without knowing anything about you, I know—I am certain—that the bare-chested, shivering, and possibly inebriated person you envisioned happened to be white. And not just because whiteness is such the American default that it has even colonized our imaginations, but because willingly exposing yourself to frostbite, hypothermia, and the trillion-year-half-life Mon Valley isotopes floating downstream is about as “that’s some white-people shit” as “that’s some white-people shit” gets. Only someone so comfortably ensconced in privilege that they need to find ways to fabricate closeness to death to feel alive would leave their bed and blankets and house and clothes and city and the tens of thousands of years of civilization devoted to finding more efficient ways to protect us from the elements in the dead of winter to belly flop into a billion gallons of toxic ice. It’s so white that if you happen to be a nonwhite member of the Polar Bear Club—and it doesn’t matter if you’re Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, Chaka Khan, or Shaka Zulu—you become, from the time you remove your clothes to the time you climb back out of the water, white by osmosis.

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Why I love it

Let’s keep it real: Who among us hasn’t dreamt of fighting somebody because they said something dumb? I’m black, gay, nonbinary, and have a Twitter account—meaning that on most days, I need half a reason. But since I was raised right, I can’t just walk around letting folks catch these hands, so instead I look for books that make me feel like I have. By this, and any standard, Damon Young’s What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker is a gem of a find.

From the opening essay about waiting to be called the N-word by a wayward white person (so he can fight them and be a man!), to “Bomb-Ass Poetry,” where he admits to writing truly awful Love Jones-inspired verse (reprinted—for funsies!), Young consistently interrogates, analyzes, and yes, straight-up reads, for utter filth, his earlier thinking and behaviors around the development of his masculinity. As a cisgender heterosexual man, he never exempts himself from his own contemporary, socially-aware critique.

What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker forces you, as a reader, to look at your own position in the world and hold yourself up to the microscope, but it does so lovingly and humorously. Boyhood hijinks abound, misadventures, basketball dreams, and like every boy, comedic overanalyses of the difference between gay and soft—all of which are examined, then cast aside in the quest to be a better man.

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Member ratings (874)

  • Ashley G.

    Four Oaks, NC

    Powerful essays, humorous, real. As someone who lives in Pittsburgh, it’s great to hear the perspective of someone whose grown up and watched the gentrification and acknowledge the racial issues here

  • Lesley M.

    Youngsville, NC

    I loved that this was a memoir that was not toned down to keep readers comfortable. He is honest and open about his experiences, insecurities, and triumphs. And don’t forget his laugh out loud wit!!!

  • Chelsey N.

    Vineland, NJ

    I have been wanting to really educate myself on what it really means to be black in America. This book was thought provoking, funny, and heartbreaking sometimes all at the same time. Highly recommend.

  • Brittany S.

    Washington, DC

    From the prologue I could tell this would be a fun and funny read. These individual stories were compiled with cohesion and intention that ranged emotions and provoked thought. Enjoyable and fast read

  • Whitney H.

    West Peoria, IL

    This was a slow start for me, but by the end I felt like I knew the author pretty well. He did a great job of sharing his life & his perspective as a Black man. Very good book! Would highly suggest!

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