Creating a “Living and Breathing Pylon to Black Culture” with Damon Young for Very Smart Brothas Live! Pt. 2

On July 7, 2018, Ace Hotel New Orleans hosted Very Smart Brothas Damon Young and Panama Jackson at the third annual Essentials, a series that Ace hosts concurrent with Essence Festival in New Orleans. Part 1 of the conversation with Jackson can be found here.

For part 2, author Damon Young picks up the linguistic baton and carries it forward with a live reading of an excerpt from his debut collection of essays, What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker, available now on Harper Collins. Part love letter to his young daughter Zoey, part cautionary tale of a life lived while black in America, Young’s words are a stunning celebration and reckoning in one. His words, like the home he’s built, forever “a living and breathing pylon to black culture, black art, black language, black history, black food, black joy, black love, and black people” — yours for the reading, below.

Panama Jackson: Everybody is a fan of Damon, I’m a fan of Damon. He’s one of my favorite writers. So like many people when he announced that he had a book I was extremely excited that I’d get some previews ahead of everyone else. But like everyone else I gotta wait. So, when he decided, when he told me he was gonna do a reading of this I was like, “Oh shit,” we’re gonna get to hear some of what he’s bringing to the table, something that I expect is going to have a ripple effect in the community. I think Damon is one of those people that have figured out his lane better than anybody else. And he has maximized it. He has been very efficient in what he does and I’m excited to hear what he’s going to bring to the table. So without further ado, I’m gonna have Damon Young come to the stage and give us an excerpt of his book. 

(audience cheers)

PJ: You know I love you, you my boo. 

Damon Young: Hey, let’s give another hand for Panama. For doing all that shit off the top of his head basically. I mean, nah not entirely true. He told me he was gonna do this last week, and then he was gonna do something about potato salad, and then it came back to this apparently. I had no idea that he had come back to this until he got in front of y’all and started talking. So that was, that was very impressive. I’m impressed, thank you. So like he was saying, in 2016 I signed a two book deal with Harper Collins. Umm, thank you. And the first book What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker will be out in March. It’s a collection of essays, it’s also a bit of a memoir. Just about the absurdity of existing while black in America.

So the whole first chapter is about, the first chapter is called “A Nigger Fight Story,” and it’s about how when I was 16 years old I have never been called a “nigger” by a white person before, but I wanted to because so many people I knew had “nigger fight stories.” Okay so this white boy called him a nigger, punched him in the face, boom you’ve got you a “nigger fight story.” And my parents had a great one — my, like, no seriously, my parents actually, there’s like an ice cream shop in Scroll Hill which is a neighborhood in Pittsburgh, that doesn’t exist anymore because of their “nigger fight story.” My sister has one, other people I know have them, and I wanted.

So the book deals with stuff like that, wanting this horrible thing to happen to you, just to see how I would react, and have this story which I felt like was kind of like a black boy’s Bar Mitzvah, beating a white person’s ass for calling them a nigger. Okay, so anyway, what I’m gonna read is an except from the last chapter. Picture up there, okay, there I go, that was taken, about two weeks ago, and that is my daughter sitting on my lap. I don’t know if you can really see her. She doesn’t look enthused with taking the picture. She’s two years old. Her name is Zoey. And the name of this chapter is “Zoey.” And again this is an excerpt from this chapter. 

DY: My daughter, Zoey, is now at the stage where she regularly surprises Alicia and I (and Alicia is my wife, when I say her name). I have heard from other parents, including dad, that children never quite grow out of that phase. Perhaps the surprise will become progressively more slight, but if you’re lucky, your kids will continue to do things even when they’re adults, that induce a wonderment in you. Whether Zoey will still be able to bring that out of me when she’s 40 remains to be seen. At two, however, she does everyday.

Just yesterday morning while Alicia and I were still in bed and Zoey was frolicking around our bedroom, starting messes and finding herself on casual adventures, I asked if she could hand me my wallet which was sitting on the dresser, so I could pay a bill. She’s also at the age where being asked to do things, like retrieve remotes is a fucking blast to her. I’m convinced that the driving force behind people’s decision to have multiple kids is to groom in-house replacements for the diminutive and jolly custodial service that they provide. 

(audience laughter)

DY: Anyway, she perked up, smiled, bounced over to the dresser, stood on her toes, stretched her little baby arms as long as she could to reach the wallet, which looked to be an inch or two out of her grasp. 

“I can’t reach.”

Alicia and I looked at each other confused. 

“What did you say Zoey?” 

“I can’t reach it mommy, I can’t reach, I can’t reach, I can’t reach.”

We had no idea she knew what reach meant. Which also meant that we had no idea she knew reach well enough to use it in a sentence, and use it in the right context. 

“Thank you Zoey, I’ll get it myself.” I responded.

But she was dead in the middle of the wiggle dance she does whenever she senses we’re happy about something that she just did. So I doubt she heard me. When Zoey was born, she was a full shade lighter than Alicia and I, which was a bit of a surprise to us, because we’re both quite brown and we anticipated a Hershey Kiss of a baby. She wasn’t like, light-skinned, this wasn’t a real life example of sometimes on sit-coms when you have two dark-skinned people as a biological parent as a shade-away-from-passing little girl, who never, ever, ever, ever be the product of that union. I mean of course, black people have enough DNA in us that a medley of skin tones and hair textures are a possibility when we have children.

But sometimes on those shows, the difference between the parents and the kids are so unbelievably stark that you can’t picture the casting director thinking, “Yeah, we need a light and waif looking mulatto girl to contrast these black ass nigger parents. Our mean greater darkness needs to get down to a six. A median two if possible. Anything above an eight won’t test well in the rust belt.” 

“She is also a little black girl, and will eventually be a black woman in a world that is more dangerous for her than it has been for me.”

Yeah, while Zoey’s complexion was not something that we expected, a quick glance through my baby pictures shows that she was the same color I was then. I got progressively more brown as I grew older, and the same thing has happened to her now. We also have the same eyes, brown and somehow both sleepy and bright. We don’t have the same head shape, but she inherited my disproportionally large dome. Alicia has one too so that was Zoey’s destiny. She’s still too young for her personality to be something other than a sketch outline of what it’ll eventually be. But I can already see pieces of mine in hers.

She’s an introvert who has no problem entertaining herself. I’ve never told a joke as funny as the ones we hear her telling herself and laughing hysterically as she’s in her crib in the morning. She’s weary of new people. If she doesn’t know you, she will not come to you, she will not let you hold her, and if you try to get her to say, “Hi,” she might oblige? But she’ll probably look at Alicia and I like, “Who’s mans is this?” She is so committed to doing things her own way and at her own pace that sometimes if we ask her to do something you can see her processing in real baby time if it’s something she’s presently interested in doing and available to do. If neither applies, she’ll pretend she didn’t hear us.

She enjoys routine and familiarity and treats all new things with skepticism. If for instance, we introduce a new food to her, she’ll grab it with her hand, inspect it with her hand to insure it meets her standards of quality, she’ll raise it up to her mouth, and then she’ll touch it ever so slightly with her tongue. If she doesn’t hate it, she’ll touch it twice. If she likes it, on the third touch it’s going in her mouth. And if something happens while it’s in her mouth that she doesn’t agree with —maybe it’s a bit spicier or mushier than she expected — she will spit it out, but politely. As if to say, “I appreciate your efforts to expose me to Indian cuisine, perhaps if I were so inclined, I’d complete the eating experience and swallow, but alas, my palette is discerning and you will instead find the remaining contents of a samosa on the floor beside your right foot. Namaste.”

I know as she grows older, that the parts of me that are in her may grow more noticeable, more prominent. And there are, as I’ve come to accept, many good parts of me. This is not something that I always believed. And even when I began to believe it I didn’t believe that these parts were noticeable. I believed that they existed but were trapped in a room that only I and my parents and my closest friends had access to. I am hopeful that Zoey will also posses these good parts, but an enhanced version of them. I am also hopeful that her journey to accept and appreciate herself doesn’t last as long as mine did. And I am committed to doing whatever it takes to prevent myself or any others from sabotaging it. But I’m terrified for her. With a fear so present that the thought of it made me question whether or not I wanted to be a parent.

I don’t know how to pass on the good things without passing on the bad things. And I want those bad things to end with me. I want her to be observant and thoughtful, but not so thoughtful that she gives herself, as I have, acid reflux from the stress and anxiety that comes from overthinking. I do not want her to be on Nexium or Prilosec. And I do not want her to get multiple endoscopies to make sure the esophageal lining is still intact. 

I want her to continue to regard new things with a healthy and safe skepticism, that allows her to stay true to her convictions and not be susceptible to peer pressure, as many of her friends and classmates might be. It’s an attribute that has served me well. I am writing this in 2018 which means that I will be 40 at the end of this year, and I’ve never had a homie or new girlfriend play me or was revealed to be a fraud. But sometimes I’m reluctant to reveal my reservations and worries paralyze me, where my reticence and doubt congealed into a void of assertiveness and I ended up not doing things I wanted, because I wouldn’t find a will to be fearless. 

I want her to be too empathetic to bully or humiliate people she’s bigger than or smarter than or cooler than. But if she ever has to compete in sports, in school, wherever, I want her to posses the killer instinct that her dad just never had. I don’t want her to feel bad about beating an opponent, especially if the reason why she’s able to be successful is that she worked harder than them. But I also want her to be aware of any privileges she possesses that might have made her rise to success a bit clearer than someone else’s.

I want her to continue to entertain herself and make herself laugh. But I don’t want her to be so lost in her thoughts and in herself that she forgets, as I do from time to time, to experience the now. I want her to retain that independence. But I don’t want her to ever hear from a romantic partner, what I’ve heard from multiple partners, including Alicia, which is “You act like you don’t need anyone, including me, and I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with that.” I am petrified of the thought of someone maybe making fun of my beautiful and curious and mirthful little girl, because her head might be large, like how her dad’s is. But teasing is, unfortunately, an inevitability, and she will have to deal with her fair share of it.

What scares me even more is the thought of me bequeathing my self-consciousnesses to her, and her allowing that teasing to hurt her. And believing, as I did, that the things kids say to other kids just to fuck with them are true when they’re said about her. And that the only escape from that is to swallow and retreat within herself. And this is just what she might possibly inherit from me, her dad. She is also a little black girl, and will eventually be a black woman in a world that is more dangerous for her than it has been for me. 

“Our house is and will continue to be a living and breathing pylon to black culture, black art, black language, black history, black food, black joy, black love, and black people.”

Alicia and I have already begun to think how we’re gonna teach her about race, and racism, and whiteness, and white supremacy, and racial profiling, and police brutality, and implicit bias. She will know what red-lining and gerrymandering means. She will be aware of gentrification, colonization, and displacement. And she will know what happened in each liberty between 1995 and 2015 to provide an applicable and intimate context. She will be taught, as mom and dad taught me, about how lynching was such a vital and mundane function of America’s ecosystem that there were post-cards made depicting them and sold during them. She will know that 1839 is both the date of the Amistad Slave Revolt, and the home address of Aunt Ester, the iconic matriarch in August Wilson’s, Gem of the Ocean.

She will know who Ruby Bridges was, and she will know that four little black girls not much older than her were killed in 1963, when her church was bombed by a racist. And if she ever attempts to discount that sort of racial violence as something from the distant past, she will be reminded that, five months before she was born, a sad and terrified and terrifying 21-year-old white man, sauntered into a South Carolina church and executed nine of its members after sitting and praying with them. She will also be exposed to Toni Morrison and Beyoncé. To Bell Hooks and Black Panther. To Octavia Butler and Ava DuVernay and Moonlight and Alex Hailey and Love Jones and Wu-Tang and Kara Walker and LaToya Ruby Frazier and both Smokeys and D’Angelo’s “Cruisin'”. 

Just as our house is and will continue to be a living and breathing pylon to black culture, black art, black language, black history, black food, black joy, black love, and black people; her bedrooms will be museums of carefully curated blackness, brimming with black dolls and black figurines, and books by black authors about black people, with little black girls like her on the covers. Her hair is and will likely to continue to be kinky and thick and nappy, and she will know that if someone every said those things about her hair to her, that the proper response would be, “Thank you.”

She will know why there’s a small broom on the wall underneath Alicia and I’s wedding day, and she will know what trumpet and broom and where that act originated from. If she is interested in college, she will know that despite neither of her parents attending a HBCU, black colleges are legitimate options. She will be able to code switch but she will never be pressured by her parents to do so. She will be taught the verse of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” that I didn’t even know existed until a year before she was born. There’s three verses to that, everyone knows that, okay, I’m just. . . yeah there’s the third verse that no one knows. Alright.

She will know gospel music and she will eat healthy-ish soul food. I haven’t quite decided yet when an appropriate age for her to use “nigga” will be. But I want her to know and be comfortable with that word. I want her to eventually be a veteran nigga user like her mom and her dad. I desire meeting and marrying a woman I can nigga banter with. Now that I found that I look forward to providing nigga use mentorship for our daughter. Perhaps, she’ll never be interested in up in space and learn how to play it, but she’ll see Alicia and I challenge her friends enough and have so much fun doing it that it will be hard for her to resist that temptation. And she will know that her greater blackness will not be determined by how quickly she takes to spades, how easily she learns the wobble, and how interested she is in rap music.

She will know that there is no such thing as grays of blackness. She will know that she was born black, and there is nothing she can do not to be black, and that if she chooses to do a thing, anything, that thing is officially black enough by virtue of her desire to do or be it. She will be taught that while black people have been victims of oppression, subjugation, bias and hate, and that we face these things in various forms and various measures of intensity, for the duration of the hundreds of years we’ve ben in America, blackness itself is not the problem. Her blackness is not the problem. It’s not her skin. It’s not her hair. It’s not the way she looks. It’s not the way she talks. It’s not the blood coursing through her veins. It’s none of the trillions of particles and elements that decided due to divine providence to comprise her. She will be taught that whiteness needs blackness. The nigger specifically, in order to possess and retain its value.

She will learn that whiteness requires something of a point to claim itself better than. She will know that it needs that whipping boy and that bedtime story and that cautionary tale in order to sleep, and find a reason for waking. She will be told that the man who was elected president in 2016, was anointed because of whiteness urgent desire to preserve its supremacy, and be elevated above the nigger, even if that elevation is self-destructive.

Since whiteness was invented, blackness has been the position as an unseemly and uncivilized. Blackness is to whiteness, the puddle you attempt to avoid when crossing the street. And if whiteness is feeling particularly ambitious that day, blackness is a puddle you place a coat jacket over so that other whites can step into it without being affected by it. Perhaps, after learning this she will be compelled to believe that blackness is the antithesis to whiteness. After nearly half a millenia of the nimble propaganda of white supremacy, it is natural and freeing and vindicating and deliciously petty, to believe that whiteness is the source of all evil and blackness is the light. However tempting this is, I will remind her that it merely mimics the humanity of whiteness, which is a lesser and incomplete form of incapsulating her existence.

She will be taught that while humanity can be sublime, if you are human, you are capable of evil. You are capable of oppressing. You are capable of everything the inventions of whiteness has done to the people who have been deemed not white, and everything that offending whiteness has done to the people deemed white. But, she will also be taught that because of this boundless racial antagonism, blackness allows her humanity to be stretched and extended and amplified and evolved in a way that neglects both those who oppress and those who have benefited from it. It forces you to love harder. It forces you to entertain the concept of forgiveness and choose whether or not that’s a thing you’re interested in possessing. It forces your kisses and your hugs and your daps to be tighter and longer, like a book that makes you slow your reading speed because you’re not quite ready for it to end. It forces an improvisation to be an immutable function of life. It forces you to seek solace and respite in community wherever it can be found, which makes you more cognizant of the world’s crevices and margins and ellipsis and any other space where those twinkles of colony might be stashed. She will be taught, above everything else, that she can be whoever and whatever she wants to be, and this is where I have to stop, because this is where I’m stuck. 

“I will watch her scurry away, this miracle, and I will see Alicia, I will see dad, I will see mom, I will see me, and I will smile.”

This is where, if she retains the things that I teach her, and if she continues to be as curious and as thoughtful and as intuitive and as quick and as skeptical as she currently is, she might eventually ask, “How?” How can she be whoever and whatever she wants to be if there’s a hawking and dexterous and devious 500-year-old force constructed specifically to prevent her from doing that. How can she have a limitless future in the same America that killed her grandmother who died two years before she was born? She might not know yet what the word “paradox” means but she will know what I have taught her is paradoxical. How can all these great things about her potential be possible, be true, if they exist at the same time as this other thing, the other thing, does?

If my daughter asks me those questions, I will have no choice but to be honest with her. I don’t know. I will tell her despite the years of knowledge and experience her dad possesses, I do not how such a thing is possible. I don’t know how my little black girl can be all she can be when she can bounce in the lap of her grandfather, my dad, a man who is so much wittier and kinder and funnier and worldlier than so many of the white men that have been my teachers and lawyers and doctors and accountants and college basketball coaches, but has never and will never experience the success and the status and the privilege that has come to them.

Dad is 68 years older than Zoey is and the America he was born in is different than the one she was. This is true. The ceiling that looked above him and everyone else born black back then has been punctured. There are cracks in it wide enough to inch through, but the ceiling is still there, mostly intact. She is still in danger. She is still thought to be a threat. She will still have people see her and assume she’s older and stronger and tougher than she actually is. She will still encounter nurses and doctors that assume she doesn’t experience pain, that same little white girls do. She will still have her intelligence doubted, as if it’s possible to be that black and also be that sharp. She will still have to watch racism and sexism join forces to attempt to pathologize her. She will still contend with the Chinese water torture of racial micro-aggressions. She will still exist in the same country, in the same region, in the same state, in the same county, in the same zip code, in the same city, in the same voting district, in the same neighborhood, in the same block, in the same school, and in the same classroom as people who will see her sweet and brown and perfect little round face and see nothing but a nigger. 

I don’t know. I will tell my daughter, if she asks me how it’s possible to be all the things I’ve taught her she could be in America, if America is all the things I’ve told her it can be. I don’t know how it happens. I don’t know how it’s possible. I just don’t posses the level of intelligence necessary to know how both of these things can exist at the same time. But I know it happens, Zoey. I know it’s possible. I know you can and will be those things I said you can be. 

If the conversation goes anything like the conversations we have now, she will ponder what I said, she will nod her head, and she will leave and go and find another adventure to relieve herself in. I will watch her scurry away, this miracle, damn, I haven’t read this out loud, I did not expect this to happen. Wow. Okay, alright. I’m gonna start that paragraph over. If the conversation goes anything like the conversations we have now, she will ponder what I said, she will nod her head, and she will leave and go and find another adventure to relieve herself in. I will watch her scurry away, this miracle, and I will see Alicia, I will see dad, I will see mom, I will see me, and I will smile, and then I will hope, and I will wish, and I will dream, and I will pray to God she believe me. That’s it. 

(audience applause)

DY: Thank you.

PJ: Man that was dope.

DY: Appreciate it, thank you, thank you.

PJ: That was dope, I know, that was some real black man vulnerability, right there. I love that. That was awesome. And that’s why Damon Young gets to be Damon Young, the writer extraordinaire, and why this man has books that are coming out and will be in stores, and making every other writer look pretty terrible soon. That was very good. One more time for Damon, let’s give him a round of applause. Really that, that was dope, I mean I don’t know if y’all know but like genuinely part of the reason why this VSB thing works is because we’re actually really fans of one another like genuinely fans, so, I’m like, probably one of Damon’s biggest fans on the planet. I guess outside of family and wife and all that stuff you know I’ve got to join in the hierarchy where I belong, but that’s why what you just read is why I’m such a huge fan of yours and why I think you have some fans as a writer in general.

I’m actually glad that he went after I did, I’ll tell you why. We were talking about how we were gonna do this upfront, and um, it was like, do I go first? Cause clearly I’m gonna be shenanigans. And then he’s gonna be more structured and like more poignant. And so I’m glad I didn’t go second, so that after I walked up after this deep discussion that actually matters I’d’ve been like, “Sooooo y’all give at shit about ‘Return of the Mack’ or nah?” Like it’d be one of them type deals, but this is also why I think VSB works so well. We are two halves of a very interesting whole.

DY: And, and don’t minimize what you did for that first half hour, because again, you managed to engage an audience full of people with an argument no one gives a shit about, and you made everyone care. 

PJ: I’m not sure if anybody cares.

DY: And the thing is that is a talent. That definitely is a talent. 

PJ: Well, well I appreciate that. 

DY: That’s not easy to do what you just did. 

PJ: Yeah, right, the jury is out on that one but you know what I enjoyed myself so who gives a shit. 

DY: The VSB live thing — this was Panama’s idea so, give him a shoutout yeah. This is something.

PJ: We’ll . . . we’ll fine tune it. You know.

DY: Yeah, it is the first one. 

PJ: It is the first one. 

DY: There you go. 

PJ: Well, thank you all for coming out, enjoy yourself, go drink, be merry, enjoy Essence Festival and thanks for being here.