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From the cofounder of VerySmartBrothas.com, and one of the most read writers on race and culture at work today, a provocative and humorous memoir-in-essays that explores the ever-shifting definitions of what it means to be Black (and male) in America For Damon Young, existing while Black is an extreme sport. The act of possessing black skin while searching for space to brea From the cofounder of VerySmartBrothas.com, and one of the most read writers on race and culture at work today, a provocative and humorous memoir-in-essays that explores the ever-shifting definitions of what it means to be Black (and male) in America 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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From the cofounder of VerySmartBrothas.com, and one of the most read writers on race and culture at work today, a provocative and humorous memoir-in-essays that explores the ever-shifting definitions of what it means to be Black (and male) in America For Damon Young, existing while Black is an extreme sport. The act of possessing black skin while searching for space to brea From the cofounder of VerySmartBrothas.com, and one of the most read writers on race and culture at work today, a provocative and humorous memoir-in-essays that explores the ever-shifting definitions of what it means to be Black (and male) in America 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.

30 review for What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker: A Memoir in Essays

  1. 4 out of 5

    Oriana

    I've been a big fan of Damon Young since way before Very Smart Brothas got rolled into The Root, so I was bonkers excited for this book. And I loved it, of course. I love his voice, I love the particular way he writes, full of meandering and often hilarious digressions, absurdist but totally on-point analogies, and long passages that start funny and shift slightly and slightly until before you know it he's holding forth with righteous anger. The book is full of lines like "Pittsburgh, a city so I've been a big fan of Damon Young since way before Very Smart Brothas got rolled into The Root, so I was bonkers excited for this book. And I loved it, of course. I love his voice, I love the particular way he writes, full of meandering and often hilarious digressions, absurdist but totally on-point analogies, and long passages that start funny and shift slightly and slightly until before you know it he's holding forth with righteous anger. The book is full of lines like "Pittsburgh, a city so historically, hilariously, and hopelessly white that Rick James once tried to snort it" and "high school classrooms are basically internet comment threads with acne" and "when drunk, I usually eat how rabbits fuck—angry, sweaty, and looking over my shoulder for falcons" and "to me, fucklessness is the pinnacle of manliness." In these essays he meditates on pick-up basketball, his terrible college poetry, down-ass white boys, his obsession with Kool-Aid, his parents' bouts with debt and housing insecurity, and the way society misperceives black children as less childlike and black women as stronger, thereby never allowing either group to be their authentic selves. He covers his substitute teaching days, why it took him until he was almost thirty to get a drivers license, why he served brunch at his wedding, and how he executed the world's slowest, most pathetic porn-video heist. He delves into his relationships with his parents, his girlfriends and later his wife, his (mostly black) social circle and his (mostly white) basketball peers. He wrings out his neuroses and anxieties, juxtaposing them with his incisive political and social analysis. I love his soliloquy on PTBD (post-traumatic brokeness disorder), his treatise on the tension between black men and homosexuality, and his firsthand struggles with the gentrification of his Pittsburgh neighborhood as seen through his decades going to different barber shops. The essay on racial relations vis-á-vis his (mostly white) pickup basketball team was gutting. The chapter on how to teach his daughter to grow up strong and proud and willing to try to be anything in a world that is horrifically harsh to black women was incredible. There were a few missteps. I don't think he really fully reckoned with rape culture and the entire universe of difference between men and women's experiences under the patriarchy—this is relevant because there's an entire essay on the time he wrote a pretty tone-deaf article about how women should work harder to not get raped. And I don't think he really faced the dynamic between his parents and what that meant for them both, which would involve a lot of summarizing to explain here but suffice it to say he gives his dad (whom he loves so, so much) pass after pass after pass, which is fine, but he has a whole chapter where he almost makes it to talking about what it meant that Dad was unemployed for most of his life while Mom (whom he also loves so, so, so much) supported the whole family. But also: who the fuck am I to judge Damon Young? This is his life, and these are his essays, and maybe he'll get to different places in subsequent books. For now, this is a fantastic collection, brave and brazen and righteous and important..

  2. 5 out of 5

    Reggie

    Performance isn't something exclusive to your favorite artist or to some of your faves whom you follow on Social Media. No, performance is something that dominates all of our lives. Moving respectfully, staying out of trouble, filtering our speech, amongst other things. Simply put: Performance is ubiquitous. A particular performance that has been held under the spotlight lately, for better or worse, is masculinity, Especially that of the heterosexual variety. If you are looking for a good example Performance isn't something exclusive to your favorite artist or to some of your faves whom you follow on Social Media. No, performance is something that dominates all of our lives. Moving respectfully, staying out of trouble, filtering our speech, amongst other things. Simply put: Performance is ubiquitous. A particular performance that has been held under the spotlight lately, for better or worse, is masculinity, Especially that of the heterosexual variety. If you are looking for a good example of the victories, anxieties, pressures, bonuses, and much more that accompany this performance than look no further than Damon Young's bold, humorous & vulnerable memoir in essays; What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker. Throughout this comical, yet serious, memoir you'll find essays that often place "Dame" 1 on 1 against his masculinity, anxiety & (sometimes) small lies from pretty much from day one. Worrying about everything from his parent's financial situation, to him not coming off as too hood at a somewhat bougie high school, to making sure to appear very "straight" after getting wind of a rumor going around that he was gay. We even see Damon overcompensating (in ways) for not reaching particular heights in basketball by becoming a "Bomb-ass poet." You'll see Damon Young confront complex situations that life is known to bring you. Such as meeting & getting close the woman that you may feel is the love of your life although she is in committed relationship & (one of my personal favorites) being apart of a group that plays basketball every Thursday. Where Young's favorite teammate is a white lawyer who openly supports 45---knowing that particular brand of politics not only oppose Young's brand directly, but also threatens his, & other Black folks, livelihood. Whether it's the aforementioned topics, getting the perfect haircut, obtaining a driver's license or becoming a new father, Damon Young always brings plenty of humor, vision & wisdom. WDKYMYB is probably the nonfiction book I'd first recommend to any of the men in my circle.

  3. 4 out of 5

    chantel nouseforaname

    I really enjoyed this book because it felt like the definition of black boy joy and young, youthful, black curiosity. I found every story relatable and possessing this kind of understated, but really powerful, silent respect for it's being put on paper. There's so much power in capturing BIPOC stories, even chill ones. Nothing really crazy happens in this book, nothing too out of the ordinary (when it comes to life, love, birth and death), but we need all the coming of age and young adult storie I really enjoyed this book because it felt like the definition of black boy joy and young, youthful, black curiosity. I found every story relatable and possessing this kind of understated, but really powerful, silent respect for it's being put on paper. There's so much power in capturing BIPOC stories, even chill ones. Nothing really crazy happens in this book, nothing too out of the ordinary (when it comes to life, love, birth and death), but we need all the coming of age and young adult stories representing the swath of black experiences that exist, so I respect this book for being just that. HOWEVER, a couple of things - my nigga, you loved the word 'nigga' way too much. I mean I get it - I went through that period too, as does every young black teen, and yo I still call mad close friends niggas but dude; you overkilled it my g. Secondly, there was something about this entire memoir that felt a little fraudulent, and I don't even think that that's the right word. It's the word that came to my mind but it's not even fraudulent, you know what it is, it's - posturing. That's what it is. It was something that just nagged at me the entire time. I felt it come up during the time where he was talking about - and I'm paraphrasing... but - he was talking about playing basketball with white people during the trump election and not wanting to talk about it (the election) with them. He didn't talk about his discomfort, because it's like these white people let me in.. or something. He'd show up to basketball, watching them and some black conservative guy communicate about shit and try to make peace about trump's being elected; he'd feel awkward, wouldn't invite any of them white people to his home (to not give them any more space in his world), he'd swallow the racist tension that comes with knowing that folks on his team voted for that orange nigga and just sit and live with that and continue every week to play ball like nothing happened, like worlds weren't changing. To me, I was like - why are black women always willing to go "there", fight, have those "hard convos" with many a becky and hank (I'm referencing all the other black female memoirs of this style: This Will Be My Undoing, Eloquent Rage, I'm Still Here, etc.) and black men always wanna chill in the cut and still hug up the white situations of oppression by "not getting into it"? I get the need to not always want to fight about race, politics, etc. I get that, but I don't know - you were earlier talking about wanting to have a "nigga fight story" (like Chapter 1) and you actively walk away from a time to educate surrounding the fucked up situations such as trump's election (like Chapter 13-onwards) I mean, I also get it - that's pretty much Damon Young's m.o., he avoids confrontation (re: Chapters of people thinking he was gay, and him never just coming out and saying yo, I'm not gay.). I get it, that's just how some people deal with things. However, avoidance, plus standing present in fucked up situations, them two elements together just seem fake to me. BUT THAT'S JUST ME and this is my opinion; so it is what it is. Overall, it was a pretty good memoir with a lot of laughs, some really sad times (poverty, familial death) but also some really high highs (marriage, children, hope for the future). Outside of the issues, I fuck with this book overall and halfway recommend it.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Janet

    This memoir in essays by the blogger known for Very Smart Brothas was very smart, very funny, keen-sighted, outraged, yet often self-deprecating and revealing on blackness at every level and scale,--family life, being broke, being a black man hoping to be loved by black women, being a black man trying to get ahead. The pressure of performing blackness and black male-ness and searching for his own authenticity within that pressure to perform, and how to think of and deal with society's all pervas This memoir in essays by the blogger known for Very Smart Brothas was very smart, very funny, keen-sighted, outraged, yet often self-deprecating and revealing on blackness at every level and scale,--family life, being broke, being a black man hoping to be loved by black women, being a black man trying to get ahead. The pressure of performing blackness and black male-ness and searching for his own authenticity within that pressure to perform, and how to think of and deal with society's all pervasive whiteness. Damon Young, like all good memoirists, finds nothing too personal, too small, too large, too embarrassing, too condemning, to turn under his often sardonic eye. He sees phenomena from a number of different perspectives a the same time, like hating the gentrification of his old East Liberty neighborhood of Pittsburg while at the same time really liking the burgers at some high price cafe. The multiple layers of questions and performances and genuine desires and questioned desires that make black life so stressful, and especially his life so. Like all good memoirists, he doesn't spare himself--andmany of the essays do turn upon the things he doesn't like about himself, issues and behavior that trouble him. His sense of humor allows him to tread on those coals on the page, and talk about things that have seared him very badly in life. There was a lot about basketball--to Young it was (and is) intrinsic to having a place in the world-- from a young age, a place in rough neighborhoods and a ticket into safer ones, a mooring in the frightening transition into sexual possibility, a negotiating place for himself within blackness and with whiteness. It is a connection with his father and hope for the future. It is about masculinity, and the performance of masculinity. He sees men in terms of their game. His relationship to romance was particularly paradoxical--his longing to be loved by black women but also and sometimes more importantly, his desire for the status that girls can give him--that other boys SEE him as attractive to women, a theme that he readily acknowledges. The details of black culture were terrific--like his relationships to black barbershops in "East Liberty Kutz"--one of the best essay. He tells us of the significance of a really sharp haircut that has me seeing black men more clearly, noticing the hairline, aware of the upkeep. And then there's the specifics of his own barbershop-- a shop he wants to support in the gentrification of his old neighborhood, but he begins to tire of the lousy haircuts and his shame that he starts seeing a better barber at a gentrified shop nearby. Each essay casts its net wide--to pick up history, personal anecdote, political insight, and to bear down on the way they impact each other, that you can't explore any aspect of black life without understanding the meld. and I liked the messiness of his trajectory, the often clashing opinions he has of himself and the world, his take is almost always layered and sometimes paradoxical--sincerely calling out his own dishonesties. And the book is so often funny that in the times when he is singularly NOT funny, it snatches you up--hey, this is dead serious now. Here's just the opener, an essay called "Living While Black Is An Extreme Sport.", talking about the Polar Bear Plunge in Pittsburgh: "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 willing exposing ourself to frostbite, hypothermia, and the trillion year half life Mon Valley isotopes floating downstream is about as "that's some white-peole shit" as "that some white peole 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 end 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 of you're Barack Obama, Michello Obama, Chaka Khan or Shaka Zulu--you become , from the time you climb back out of the water, white by osmosis. "Having to go to such extreme lengths to feel a rush is an alien concept for me, since living while black has provided me with enough thrills to make Wes Craven scream. Whenever I am followed by a police officer while driving, for instance, the theme song from Mission Impossible plays on a loop in my head, and the mental checklist I run through reminds me of Ethan Hunt attempting defuse a nuclear warhead." Serious and funny and furious, anxious and embarrassing and fond--revealing on blackness and whiteness and most of all, on Damon Young. A terrific book.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Traci at The Stacks

    Parts of this book are take your breath away emotional and good. Parts are a little too funny/silly for me. I loved getting to know Damon Young and reading his thoughts on the big WHYS of his life instead of the what’s that so often fill memoir. The second half of this book was more enjoyable for me. I appreciate this book and what it does though I was often annoyed because I felt the amount of cute humor took away from the gravity of the work. Though I have to admit I laughed sometimes.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Corvus

    After reading what he thinks about his writing on rape (basically he wouldn't want to deal with being called out again because it wasn't very fun, but he stands by his comments and just wished he was more articulate about them,) I did some reading (I hadn't heard about this controversy until this book.) The worst things he said are left out of his book (as far as I noticed) such as suggesting we "educate women" not to drink too many shots on the "first, second, or third date..." lest they be rap After reading what he thinks about his writing on rape (basically he wouldn't want to deal with being called out again because it wasn't very fun, but he stands by his comments and just wished he was more articulate about them,) I did some reading (I hadn't heard about this controversy until this book.) The worst things he said are left out of his book (as far as I noticed) such as suggesting we "educate women" not to drink too many shots on the "first, second, or third date..." lest they be raped and then somehow partly responsible. More here: https://www.theroot.com/in-a-rape-cul... This memoir is also full of misogyny but I was writing it off as a dude talking about his youth where most boys learn to be terrible and many of us were not very awake in our youth. He was accountable somewhat but then takes 3 steps back. I decided I'm not going to give this dude any more of my time, plenty of books by Black women on my to-read that would be better time spent. It's a shame because outside of this, the book is well written, funny, and has a lot of Pittsburgh nostalgia. I would have rated a little higher for that, but it already has high stars and will survive my lowly rating just fine. (Edit: I am adding more stars because white people are showing up with low ratings based in low-kay-at-best white supremacy and I'm balancing them out)

  7. 4 out of 5

    Tiffany Reads

    I really wanted to like this book but there was an excessive use of the “n” word and the time jumping from one essay to the next was a tad too much which messed up the flow. Damon is a voice I truly enjoy reading but I think I’ll stick with his articles.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Ken

    I'd never heard of Damon Young, and it wasn't until I was deep into the book that I learned he was a successful blogger back when blogging was young and still cool, writing something called VSB (which means "Very Smart Brothas," which still can be found online by adding dot com). These essays meander off topic at times, but there's no denying they are often funny and entertaining and, especially for white readers who are cave smart but not street smart, revelatory. Getting the POV of someone wit I'd never heard of Damon Young, and it wasn't until I was deep into the book that I learned he was a successful blogger back when blogging was young and still cool, writing something called VSB (which means "Very Smart Brothas," which still can be found online by adding dot com). These essays meander off topic at times, but there's no denying they are often funny and entertaining and, especially for white readers who are cave smart but not street smart, revelatory. Getting the POV of someone with so radical a different background on America (though, politically, we are extremely close) is an education. It's one of the functions of being a reader, though, exploring the mindsets of cultures foreign to our own. I would never think of calling America "white America, Young would never think of it as anything else. While I am aware of white privilege, I don't know the half of it and never will. Most surprising is how completely honest his voice is. Young writes things most men wouldn't even admit to themselves, much less to the reading public. He's right there with it. Hello. Quite refreshing, actually, and part of the book's charm.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Amy Bruestle

    I won this book through a giveaway in exchange for an honest review.... First off, I must say, Damon man, you are quite HILARIOUS! A+ as far as humor goes! The only down side to this book for me was that I felt like a few of the different chapters were just a bit drug out and repetitive. However, all in all, one of the best memoir style books I have read so far!

  10. 4 out of 5

    Ruby

    This memoir was not designed for a reader like me. There were so many cultural and basketball references I did not get or understand. And, at the same time, especially toward the end, the author's dissertations on racism and white supremacy should be required reading for everyone.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Mehrsa

    One of the funniest memoirs I've read in a long time. I loved it. His section on Obama and the one about basketball at the end made me both laugh and cry.

  12. 4 out of 5

    stacia

    I *loved* this book. I like memoirs that aren’t chronological or linear, so the decision to make this a collection of essays that read as reflective vignettes worked well for me. I also just like that, though this is a Black personal narrative that addresses trauma, the trauma isn’t the focus or the point. It’s part of the fabric of the Black experience but it isn’t the sum total of it and Young gets that in a way and allows himself the freedom to toggle between laughter and gravitas. He takes h I *loved* this book. I like memoirs that aren’t chronological or linear, so the decision to make this a collection of essays that read as reflective vignettes worked well for me. I also just like that, though this is a Black personal narrative that addresses trauma, the trauma isn’t the focus or the point. It’s part of the fabric of the Black experience but it isn’t the sum total of it and Young gets that in a way and allows himself the freedom to toggle between laughter and gravitas. He takes his childhood seriously but not too seriously, and that’s refreshing for memoir. What’s also so resonant for me is that Young is constantly complicating the concepts of the Black nuclear family, Black suburban life, and the Black middle class. This is very much a story about how tenuous and insecure those states are, how shakeable circumstance makes them. Our memoirs don’t talk enough about few Black families are *solidly* situated within one class instead of straddling two or more from year to year. There’s also just gorgeous writing in here about fatherhood, grief, love and marriage. I can’t recommend it enough.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Julie Christine

    "So much of the national dialogue about race deals with either terrible trauma or black excellence," Young said. "I was more interested in the space in between, because that’s where I exist." Damon Young, in The New York Times, March 2019. I love this, in all the ways that I love when writers examine those in-between spaces of theme, language, character, place. Reading this gave me the space to enter into a conversation with Damon Young while reading his raw, irreverent and fun-as-hell-to-read c "So much of the national dialogue about race deals with either terrible trauma or black excellence," Young said. "I was more interested in the space in between, because that’s where I exist." Damon Young, in The New York Times, March 2019. I love this, in all the ways that I love when writers examine those in-between spaces of theme, language, character, place. Reading this gave me the space to enter into a conversation with Damon Young while reading his raw, irreverent and fun-as-hell-to-read collection of personal essays. The opening essay, Nigger Fight Story and a mid-collection piece, Three Niggas are two of the standouts to me - revealing Young's very complicated relationship to those very complicated n-words and the Black community's rightful claim over their use, intent and impact, as well as the lament to Pittsburgh's gentrification, East Liberty Kutz and his beautiful ode to his darling parents, Living While Black Killed My Mom. I was far less enamored of Banging Over Bacon which was TMI of ridiculous proportions. As witty and self-effacing as Young tried to be over the story of how he and his wife ended up together, it felt tawdry and sad. None of us is above judgment. But this wasn't a story that needed to be shared. Some of the essays that reveal past relationships with women and alcohol become repetitive in context and content, more like a sandwich that's all puffy bread and not enough meat. The acerbic wit feels forced. But when Young weaves his coming of age in Pittsburgh — and how beautifully he crafts a character out of this landscape — into the tapestry of being Black in the early 21st century, his words refresh, reveal, and rivet.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Melissa

    Young uses the form of the essay to both tell his own story of growing up black in Pittsburgh AND write about the culture around him. He has a sharp turn of phrase and a dry humor that I really enjoyed. There is a lot to think about here, from ripping culture, to masculinity, to use of the N word in black culture, to his lack of an driver’s license and how that impacts employment, to his new identity as a parent. I really appreciated how he constructed the chapter about his mother’s illness and Young uses the form of the essay to both tell his own story of growing up black in Pittsburgh AND write about the culture around him. He has a sharp turn of phrase and a dry humor that I really enjoyed. There is a lot to think about here, from ripping culture, to masculinity, to use of the N word in black culture, to his lack of an driver’s license and how that impacts employment, to his new identity as a parent. I really appreciated how he constructed the chapter about his mother’s illness and death then comments on how the white medical establishment views black women’s pain and bodies; very well-crafted.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Aaron S

    Dear Damon Young, Thank you for writing this book. Early on you said you wanted to write something that you would’ve wanted to read. I hope this lived up to your expectations because it far exceeded mine. I listened to you on a panel at Los Angeles Time Festival of Books and thought it was easily one of the top three panels/discussions I’ve ever heard at that event. The book was excellently crafted with exceptional diction and topic arrangement. I will and have recommended this to many people a Dear Damon Young, Thank you for writing this book. Early on you said you wanted to write something that you would’ve wanted to read. I hope this lived up to your expectations because it far exceeded mine. I listened to you on a panel at Los Angeles Time Festival of Books and thought it was easily one of the top three panels/discussions I’ve ever heard at that event. The book was excellently crafted with exceptional diction and topic arrangement. I will and have recommended this to many people and wanted to personally thank you again for sharing your thoughts and experiences for all to partake in and hopefully learn from.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Mark

    This is, quite simply, one of the best books I've ever read -- not only because it so funny, so well crafted and so openly honest, but because it opened up a parallel universe for me, into the everyday experience of blackness in America that, in this case, is literally right next door to me. Damon Young is a writer who expresses his wisdom at the site Verysmartbrothas.com in Pittsburgh. He also grew up in East Liberty, the Pittsburgh neighborhood where my church is located, where I shop, and whic This is, quite simply, one of the best books I've ever read -- not only because it so funny, so well crafted and so openly honest, but because it opened up a parallel universe for me, into the everyday experience of blackness in America that, in this case, is literally right next door to me. Damon Young is a writer who expresses his wisdom at the site Verysmartbrothas.com in Pittsburgh. He also grew up in East Liberty, the Pittsburgh neighborhood where my church is located, where I shop, and which is one neighborhood away from the one I live in. In this brilliant combination of memoir and commentary, Young takes us through his upbringing in a lower-income family, his experiences as a high school basketball star and then struggling college player, through his relationships with women, the world of black barbershops and haircuts, the experience of trying to make enough money to live a middle-class life, and the constant racism that permeates and informs his world. On top of which, and infusing every word, are his hard-won wisdom and his insights. When I say parallel universe, I mean that quite literally. Not only is this book full of Pittsburgh places and businesses and neighborhoods and streets that I know, but they exist in superposition to my own life. I walk and drive these streets, visit many of these businesses, can visualize one site after another, and yet I am made painfully aware by Young of how he lives in a separate world from me, an older white privileged male who faces none of the historic and contemporary obstacles that he encounters every day. For whites seeking to understand racial divisions and tension and see a hope for the future, some of the books by black authors may seem intimidating or aggressively sharp-edged. Damon Young takes you through that crucible without pulling any punches, but also, because of his willingness to write about his anxieties and mistakes and self-doubts, he allows you to join the journey, knowing that you will never have to experience what he does, and yet, in the end, grateful to have been along for the trip. Just. Flat. Out. Brilliant.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Rupa

    On a scale from 1 to Queen Latifah’s cover of “I Put a Spell On You”, how cool did I feel reading a galley of this memoir on the subway? Pretty damn cool. This book was such an absolute pleasure to stumble upon. I wasn’t familiar with VerySmartBrothas.com but Young’s writing in this collection of essays is so incisive, so honest, so full of love, and so goddamn hilarious that I know I’ve been missing out. The fact that any discourse about race in this country so often has to be cloaked in humor On a scale from 1 to Queen Latifah’s cover of “I Put a Spell On You”, how cool did I feel reading a galley of this memoir on the subway? Pretty damn cool. This book was such an absolute pleasure to stumble upon. I wasn’t familiar with VerySmartBrothas.com but Young’s writing in this collection of essays is so incisive, so honest, so full of love, and so goddamn hilarious that I know I’ve been missing out. The fact that any discourse about race in this country so often has to be cloaked in humor for people to listen is of course a disheartening one, but I was too busy cackling to mind. In particular, Young does such a beautiful job of explaining his relationship to the n-word, how it can be a blunt instrument coming from the mouth of a stranger but a measure of the utmost comfort, playfulness, and security when spoken by a friend. I want to throw a copy of this at every person who ever complained about the unfairness of not being able to use that word, because if you don’t get it after reading this book, you ain’t never gonna get it. (Note: If I had been a reader of VSB, I might have been turned off by Young’s “Rape Responsibility” piece and not given him or the book a chance, so maybe I should be grateful that we weren’t previously introduced because the loss would have been entirely mine. In an age of hollow apologies, Young’s unsparing account of that incident comes across as that of someone mature enough to examine, recognize, and indeed take responsibility for an extremely misguided take, and he earned my enduring respect as a result.)

  18. 4 out of 5

    Andre

    Damon Young provides the reader a look at the peculiarities of the Blackness from a Black male perspective with a mix of honesty, hubris and humor. Certainly, these essays will resonate with those in the tribe. But, the prose is inviting enough to pull in any reader interested in the lives lived from the edge. Damon names the introduction, Living While Black Is An Extreme Sport and writes, “This hypercognizance of both my blackness and what the possession of blackness in America is supposed to me Damon Young provides the reader a look at the peculiarities of the Blackness from a Black male perspective with a mix of honesty, hubris and humor. Certainly, these essays will resonate with those in the tribe. But, the prose is inviting enough to pull in any reader interested in the lives lived from the edge. Damon names the introduction, Living While Black Is An Extreme Sport and writes, “This hypercognizance of both my blackness and what the possession of blackness in America is supposed to mean has created a n#**a neurosis—a state of being where Did that happen because I’m black? and If this is happening because I’m Black, how am I supposed to react as a Professional Black Person? are never not pertinent questions.” It is this neurosis that informs this book of memoir through essays. His voice is valuable and valorous, for Living While Black can indeed be a battle as Damon declares with examples galore from his own life. The one thing that rankled me, is the use and vigorous defense of the N word. I’ve heard all the excuses, explanations, etc. for the continued use of it and I’m not buying any of it. However, that’s my personal issue and doesn’t keep me from recommending this book. Read, laugh, learn and reflect.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Gemini

    I’ve never read a book that touched me on such a personal level. Damon Young perfectly described the neighborhood that raised me. The neighborhood that I no longer recognize thanks to gentrification. Every restaurant & lounge that he mentioned was familiar. His funny stories about his best friend resonated with me because that’s exactly how I remember Brian from high school. I swooned when he talked about the book release party that sparked his relationship with his wife. I was at that party. Wh I’ve never read a book that touched me on such a personal level. Damon Young perfectly described the neighborhood that raised me. The neighborhood that I no longer recognize thanks to gentrification. Every restaurant & lounge that he mentioned was familiar. His funny stories about his best friend resonated with me because that’s exactly how I remember Brian from high school. I swooned when he talked about the book release party that sparked his relationship with his wife. I was at that party. When he talked about writing in his favorite coffee shop, it reminded me of the time I saw him there. This book felt like a long overdue visit to my hometown. I am so thankful for the eloquent way that he painted a view of what my city looked like in the 1990’s.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Colin

    Disclaimer: I am white, I am male. I am glad I read this book. I had hoped to learn more about life in America as a young African American. I would say about 15% of his stories are unequivocally uniquely from this experience - the rest is just the human condition. I worry that the ossified boundaries between our communities leaves us convinced that our human experience is unique and the "other" is simply not human and cannot understand. I will always strive to understand, but it can be enervatin Disclaimer: I am white, I am male. I am glad I read this book. I had hoped to learn more about life in America as a young African American. I would say about 15% of his stories are unequivocally uniquely from this experience - the rest is just the human condition. I worry that the ossified boundaries between our communities leaves us convinced that our human experience is unique and the "other" is simply not human and cannot understand. I will always strive to understand, but it can be enervating to face that lack of comprehension knowing no light can shine through.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Kimberley

    ***3.5 STARS*** I was excited to read Damon Young's book. As one who's familiar with the work he's done via Very Smart Brothas, I was interested to learn more about him. However, this read less like a memoir than a collection of anecdotes--told in no particular sequence--which seemingly span the entirety of his life, from the time he was a boy, to now. If you're familiar with Young's style of writing--lots of satire, colorful language, regular use of the "n" word and heavy on the tongue-in-cheek-- ***3.5 STARS*** I was excited to read Damon Young's book. As one who's familiar with the work he's done via Very Smart Brothas, I was interested to learn more about him. However, this read less like a memoir than a collection of anecdotes--told in no particular sequence--which seemingly span the entirety of his life, from the time he was a boy, to now. If you're familiar with Young's style of writing--lots of satire, colorful language, regular use of the "n" word and heavy on the tongue-in-cheek--then you won't be surprised by his storytelling method. However, what works for a blog doesn't always translate well in book form, particularly if the subject is of a personal nature. In other words, if the subject is you, is it necessary to make every uncomfortable situation read like a caricature? For example, in one particular chapter, describing his life-long "hatred" of one particular peer, he went on for multiple pages describing the extent of said "hatred": It's been more than twenty years since we were teammates on the basketball team and at least fifteen years since I've last seen him, but I still root for bad things to happen to him--not death or disease or anything, just a perpetual parade of sh*tty mundanities, random misfortunes, and miscellaneous pratfalls. I hope that every time he rund for a bus he misses it by seconds and is close enough to see both the bus pass by and the perfunctory shrug of feigned pity bus drivers tend to make when that happens. I hope that at least once a week he attempts to make spaghetti, and while transitioning the Giant Eagle--brand angel hair pasta from the box to pan, it slips from his hand and falls to the floor--and the five second rule doesn't work because the floor is covered with cat hair...I hope that.... While funny, without question, Young continued describing said "mundanities" for roughly another page or two. Just the mundanities. Long after you'd gotten the gist. Where this may have worked for a blog post, because you're not looking to relay anything more than the details of that one story, it took away from the actual point of the story;in this case, Young's later realization as to why he disliked this person as much as he did. In the end, the reason for the story was actually a lot deeper than you'd assume, but you had to wait for it and wade through a lot to get there. There are certainly many instances of Young sharing epiphanies he gleaned once he grew comfortable with himself and understood his role as a man--particularly in the chapters concerning his mother, rape culture, and fatherhood--but the majority of this book could be likened to perusing the archives of someone's blog. While that's not necessarily a bad thing, I was expecting something more than that within these pages; still, it's a book worth a read and I certainly will continue to support Young's work. *Thank you to Edelweiss+, Ecco, and HarperCollins for this Advanced eGalley of Mr. Young's work. Opinion is my own and was not influenced.*

  22. 5 out of 5

    Aqura (engineersreadtoo)

    I am a sucker for memoirs so I thought I would fly through this one, but that wasn’t the case. All in all, I feel neutral about it. There were a few essays that I enjoyed, specifically the two dedicated to his mother and daughter. Other chapters I thought were somewhat longer than necessary to get the point across, but I think that’s just Damon Young’s style and I respect that. He is brutally honest, sharing his failures, fears, and vulnerabilities while being unapologetically Black; and that is I am a sucker for memoirs so I thought I would fly through this one, but that wasn’t the case. All in all, I feel neutral about it. There were a few essays that I enjoyed, specifically the two dedicated to his mother and daughter. Other chapters I thought were somewhat longer than necessary to get the point across, but I think that’s just Damon Young’s style and I respect that. He is brutally honest, sharing his failures, fears, and vulnerabilities while being unapologetically Black; and that is what I appreciated the most about this memoir.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Ylenia

    That last chapter...

  24. 5 out of 5

    Punk

    The essays in this book stand alone, but also come together nicely as a memoir. You really feel like you're getting to know Young the more you read. The book is written with non-black people in mind, but not always—this isn't a criticism, just an observation about the diversity of the audience Young is addressing and how he deliberately includes and excludes through his writing. The essays cover basic straight male anxieties: basketball, girlfriends, getting into fights, not being mistaken for g The essays in this book stand alone, but also come together nicely as a memoir. You really feel like you're getting to know Young the more you read. The book is written with non-black people in mind, but not always—this isn't a criticism, just an observation about the diversity of the audience Young is addressing and how he deliberately includes and excludes through his writing. The essays cover basic straight male anxieties: basketball, girlfriends, getting into fights, not being mistaken for gay, sexual performance. All the things certain men think prove and display manhood. I heard way more about this guy's dick than I'd like. And then there are the anxieties specific to being a black kid in America, a black man, husband, and father. I much preferred the essays from the second group. They felt more substantive, hung together better, and had less of Young's dick in them. "Obama Bomaye" was a great piece about election night in 2008 and the elation Young felt as Obama was declared the winner, how, he writes, that uncontrollable joy that had him hollering out his window without a second thought almost felt like being white. And how that was followed, almost immediately, by the fear that Obama would be assassinated. "Zoe" is about his infant daughter and how he's going to teach her what it means to be black—and a black woman—in America, and how his message that she can be and do anything she wants is going to run up hard against reality and what he's going to do next. "Thursday-Night Hoops" required more basketball knowledge than I possess but I liked the message inside it—how, following the election of Donald Trump, his regular pick up game was invaded by the idea that at least one of these white guys voted for Trump, and how that soured this important part of Young's routine. But, and how to say this, the more I learned about Young's personal life—and his lack of care with language—the more I wanted to distance myself from him. In "How to Make the Internet Hate You in 15 Simple Steps," Young writes about a flippant response he made to a black woman's essay on rape. In his public response, Young wrote that women ought to be at least somewhat responsible for their own behavior so they can at least try to prevent getting raped, that there shouldn't be so much pressure on men to not rape women. The internet helpfully pointed out this is an ignorant, offensive, and shitty opinion to have. He gave a half-assed apology because he still didn't get why what he said was wrong, but, over time, he eventually comes to realize that he was wrong, and his own behavior around women could be seen as problematic—or even threatening—as this was never something he considered when approaching women. I was interested to see if he'd refer to his friend from an earlier essay, "Bomb-Ass Poetry," and the way he aggressively petitioned for a sexual relationship with her despite her many, many soft rejections of him. But he doesn't make the connection, leaving me to wonder exactly how much self-reflection he put into this. In fact, many of these essays feel like they stop short of real insight, ending before they make a solid landing, like he reached what he thought was the punchline and slammed on the brakes instead of coming to a smooth and mindful stop. Contains: anxiety; the n-word and—more frequently—its colloquial variant; colorism; racist language against non-black groups ("Eskimo kiss," "Chinese water torture," "gypsies"); crude language directed at women supposedly as a form of affection ("ho," "bitch"); a teenage sex worker (referred to as a "prostitute"); homophobia and homophobic language; joke about gun violence; reference to sexual assault; vomit; infidelity; death of a parent after a long illness.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Jared Gulian

    Until we are able to download someone else’s consciousness into our brain in order to fully understand how the world looks from their perspective, I will continue to read memoirs from people with very different life experiences from my own. These essays are smart and insightful and sometimes funny. They opened up my brain in new ways to what it’s like to be a black American. I was bothered by the overabundance of the N-word and the F-word, but Young wasn’t writing to please people bothered by th Until we are able to download someone else’s consciousness into our brain in order to fully understand how the world looks from their perspective, I will continue to read memoirs from people with very different life experiences from my own. These essays are smart and insightful and sometimes funny. They opened up my brain in new ways to what it’s like to be a black American. I was bothered by the overabundance of the N-word and the F-word, but Young wasn’t writing to please people bothered by those words. His is an authentic, unapologetic voice, and I appreciated that. In fact, I listened to Young narrate the audiobook, so I literally heard his voice. At times I felt he showed incredible self awareness and courage. At other times I was just annoyed at how juvenile he was (like when he told a story at great length about the time he threatened another man over something silly just to prove his own toxic masculinity). But I forgave him when he later said he doesn’t have time for that sort of thing now. By the end of the book, I felt like he'd grown up and I wanted to sit down and drink Honey Jack with him. Every once in a while, he meanders in these essays a bit too much for my taste, and sometimes he wrings the goodness out of a joke for a little too long. But these are quibbles. The entire book is worthwhile. The last three essays are amazing. Sections about playing basketball with a Trump supporter and raising his daughter are particularly moving and powerful. Well worth the read.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Jenny Shank

    from https://www.barnesandnoble.com/blog/5... Damon Young is the cofounder and editor-in-chief of VerySmartBrothas, a senior editor at The Root, and a writer of great wit and acumen who tells the story of growing up black and male in Pittsburgh with incredible verve. He wrote this book, he explains, “to examine and discover the whys of my life instead of continuing to allow the whats to dominate and fog my memories.” Why did he wait until age 26 to earn a driver’s license? Why did his mother die from https://www.barnesandnoble.com/blog/5... Damon Young is the cofounder and editor-in-chief of VerySmartBrothas, a senior editor at The Root, and a writer of great wit and acumen who tells the story of growing up black and male in Pittsburgh with incredible verve. He wrote this book, he explains, “to examine and discover the whys of my life instead of continuing to allow the whats to dominate and fog my memories.” Why did he wait until age 26 to earn a driver’s license? Why did his mother die young? Why did he enjoy Kool-Aid into adulthood? How can he reconcile the fact that he’s troubled by his neighborhood’s gentrification when he also enjoys the upscale amenities this brings? Young tells stories from his life in his trademark kinetic, discursive, joke-cracking style. These essays will amuse and trouble. “Thursday-Night Hoops,” about a pickup basketball league Young plays in with mostly white teammates, should be required reading to help understand the complexities and contradictions of black and white people coexisting in America today.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Ebony Rose

    I enjoyed this far more than I expected (mostly because I had NO idea who this author was before hearing him on an episode of the Death, Sex and Money podcast with Kiese Laymon, which was recommended to me by a friend (thanks, Camille!!)). So I went into it sort of blind, but this was a fantastic reading experience for me. A laugh-out-loud-funny memoir that displays an immense (and sometimes shocking) level of honesty, accountability, wit and keen observations about blackness and the world, Damon I enjoyed this far more than I expected (mostly because I had NO idea who this author was before hearing him on an episode of the Death, Sex and Money podcast with Kiese Laymon, which was recommended to me by a friend (thanks, Camille!!)). So I went into it sort of blind, but this was a fantastic reading experience for me. A laugh-out-loud-funny memoir that displays an immense (and sometimes shocking) level of honesty, accountability, wit and keen observations about blackness and the world, Damon Young nailed this essay collection. It is entertaining, and thought-provoking, and just so damn hilarious. However, if you don't typically enjoy culturally specific humour (of the blackity-black variety), meandering stories that branch off into 10 mini-stories before getting to the ultimate point, and gratuitous use of the n-word, this one may not be your cup of tea. But it was definitely mine and I had such a good-ass, black-ass time reading this book. I loved What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker and I would read more from Damon Young in a heartbeat. Highly recommend.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Laura Hoffman Brauman

    Young takes an unflinching look at America and race in this collection of essays/memoir. It's thought provoking and moving, and he is exceptionally good at using humor to make a point. I laughed out loud more than once and then stopped and thought, yeah - I hadn't thought about it that way before. In addition to the exploration and discussion on race, I also thought the sections on gender as performative were really interesting, in particular the idea of what you do or how you act specifically t Young takes an unflinching look at America and race in this collection of essays/memoir. It's thought provoking and moving, and he is exceptionally good at using humor to make a point. I laughed out loud more than once and then stopped and thought, yeah - I hadn't thought about it that way before. In addition to the exploration and discussion on race, I also thought the sections on gender as performative were really interesting, in particular the idea of what you do or how you act specifically to impact how someone else perceives your masculinity. I have seen a lot of discussion about this related to femininity, but not as much about how this also impacts men. The essays in here were all well-constructed and made me think, but the essay "Living While Black Killed My Mom" was particularly powerful.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Max G.

    As a longtime VSB reader, I went into this book feeling like I knew Damon, and I got everything I expected; the pithy observations and wry humour that make his writing so distinctive and enjoyable. But what I didn’t expect was the feeling that Damon knew ME that I got from this book. As he might say, there’s some deeply insightful sh!t in this book that brought clarity to some of my own experiences; both as a Black person in a white world and as a slightly awkward perpetual over thinker. In short As a longtime VSB reader, I went into this book feeling like I knew Damon, and I got everything I expected; the pithy observations and wry humour that make his writing so distinctive and enjoyable. But what I didn’t expect was the feeling that Damon knew ME that I got from this book. As he might say, there’s some deeply insightful sh!t in this book that brought clarity to some of my own experiences; both as a Black person in a white world and as a slightly awkward perpetual over thinker. In short, I flucking loved this book. His raw honesty had me dying laughing at some points and wiping away thug tears at others.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Morgan Gayle

    4 1/2 stars to be exact.

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