“What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker” by Damon Young (Ecco) 320 pages, $27.99
At first glance, author Damon Young and I have seemingly little in common. There is a 15-year age gap. He is black. I am white. We come from drastically different backgrounds, and our life experiences vary widely.
And perhaps this is what intrigued me most – the opportunity to observe a reality I will never be able to have or fully understand. Because once I started reading “What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker,” I simply couldn't put it down.
“What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker” is Young's coming-of-age memoir – reflecting both his introduction as a first-time author as well as his path from adolescence to new husband and father. He never tries to speak on behalf of all African American men, but at the same time, he expertly expresses the fact that, as a society, we never let him forget he is an African American male.
He acknowledges as much in the book's introduction: “Does this motley crew of disconnects and angst and anxieties and neurosis exist independent of race, or are they specifically and inexorably connected to it?”
Young's entertaining story-telling skills – along with the universality of topics such as relationships, sex, language, adolescence, jobs, sports, and friendships – reeled me in immediately and offered a clear window to his reality. There were laugh-out-loud stories of cringe-worthy mishaps, heartbreaking challenges of real family life and keen insights into the realities of male bonding – all of which easily garnered true empathy.
Best of all was Young's complete vulnerability in sharing the why behind the what of his journey through these pages. He expressed a level of introspection and self-reflection that most men never bring up with their most trusted peer group, let alone in a book for the world to read. I was completely inspired by his willingness to share this vulnerability in such a natural and normal way – exposing himself not only to the harsh light of both male and racial stereotypes, but his own assessment of actually being the person he believed himself to be.
For me, this vulnerability is best expressed through the audio version of the book. Young's voice, inflections and emotions bring the story to life in a way my imagination could never replicate via the written word.
But the ultimate beauty of Young's memoir is it transcends so many seemingly disconnected items without trying too hard to do so. It is not a hero story. It is not a manifesto on solving the realities of racism. It is not a biography or an essay. But yet, it is all of those things at once as he deftly and sincerely shares his experiences with brutal honesty, humor, humility and no-holds-barred language.
Young subsequently tees up the reader for what he hopes will happen after they finish the book – exposing himself once again with his own fear. “I'm terrified of the possibility of this book changing my life and terrified of the possibility that it won't change anything,” he wrote.
Young also shares his struggles with the conflicting life lessons he and his wife want to pass on to his young daughter. “'I don't know,' I will tell my daughter if she asks me how it's possible to be all of the things I've told her she can be if American is all the things I've told her it can be.”
For me, I believe Young's contribution in this ground-breaking memoir is not in providing the answers, but rather providing the storyline for change and progress. Young's story is replicated in every city in America. It has nothing to do with race and everything to do with race. It is entertaining and thoughtful. It is simple and complex.
“What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker” is the perfect conduit for people to feel connected; to experience empathy for people they don't know; to gain perspective on experiences other than their own. And most important, it's the conduit for all of us to help create a new reality in America where Young's daughter can grow up without the feeling of a “perpetual otherness in my own country.”
John Christensen is editor of Fort Wayne Magazine.