If Damon Young, the author of “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker” were describing himself, he might say: Damon Young is a soul-food restaurant that almost every black person knows about and not many non-black people know about and even fewer visit. He’s a restaurant where the location, menu, decor, mood, target market, staff and their approach to service are all designed for peak blackness.
Young would add a pop culture reference either from 1973 or five minutes ago, his description of himself would include a couple of f-bombs, both fitting in comfortably like Don Cheadle in a Showtime series, and for sure he’d use the n-word every chance he got.
In this memoir in essays, we learn about Young through 16 pieces that are ostensibly about something else. Chapter 6, called “Driver’s Ed,” begins with Young’s favorite salad, then tells the story of a job requiring a driver’s license which he applied for even though he didn’t have a license, how he was offered the job, then backs up to his own penchant for lying, described in a couple of stunning examples, how he told the truth about not having a license and lost the offer, and how, after getting his license, he landed another job that required a license, but for much lower pay, thus perpetuating financial struggles that plagued him and his parents throughout his parents’ lives and much of his.
Readers who know Young’s work from the blog he co-founded, Very Smart Brothas, will recognize his voice, his fondness for lists, his precise, comprehensive and spectacular references to pop culture, his wit and his keen mind. They will be familiar with his fondness for descriptions like this one, used to express his hope that the Obamas will go into seclusion after eight years of scrutiny: “I want them to deep-sea dive and spelunk; to parasail and learn to practice kundalini yoga; to spend an entire year milking cows in Aruba and eating fistfuls of Frosted Flakes straight from the box; to binge watch ‘Atlanta’ and barbecue … naked.”
If Young were a soul-food restaurant and “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker” were his current menu, not every dish would succeed. Some essays fail to showcase Young’s loftiest ideas, and the book gets off to a slow start. Still, the overall menu is outstanding, especially Chapter 9, “Broke” and Chapter 13 “Living While Black Killed My Mom,” which offers poignant and beautiful insights into Young as a writer, his life, his mind, his heart, where he comes from and from whom. It’s the kind of offering that’s so good even those of us who frequented the joint before word got out will end up hoping this chef will get his due and the line to see what he’ll cook up next will stretch around the block.
Michael Kleber-Diggs is an essayist and poet in St. Paul.
What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker
By: Damon Young.
Publisher: Ecco, 307 pages, $27.99.