People new to town won’t recognize the East Liberty in Damon Young's What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker.
For one, the East Liberty in this book is Black.
Before the public housing buildings were demolished, and gentrification brought in luxury condos and replaced mom-and-pop shops with Target and Whole Foods, and the attempted rebranding to a friendlier sounding “Eastside,” East Liberty was Young’s home. It was a Black neighborhood full of primarily Black businesses and hangouts, where Young was once told by a classmate that he couldn’t come to his birthday party because his parents said he lived in “the ghetto.”
What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker is a series of personal essays from one of Pittsburgh’s best known, and most respected, up-and-coming writers. It chronicles his life from a young poor Black kid in East Liberty, where his house was once shot up by a gunman who mistook his family’s home for that of a local drug dealer, to his Pittsburgh celebrity status as a co-founder of the popular blog Very Smart Brothas.
The comparison between the old and new East Liberty is a lot like Young’s own journey from the poor boy he once was to the “Young, Black and Successful” man he became. It’s a coming-of-age story, and a reflection on what it meant to both grow up Black in Pittsburgh and live while Black in the city today.
Along the way, Young shares stories from his high school years as a basketball star at Penn Hills, and how that affected his own self-image as both a Black person and a man. We witness his transition from sports hero to poet. Then, after he graduates from college, we ride along on the bus with him to his temp job as a substitute teacher because he didn’t have a driver’s license.
It’s a complicated journey, full of tales about race, masculinity, love, and masturbation. Young rubs it out a lot in this book. Did I mention he’s also funny as hell?
Fans of Young’s posts on VSB will recognize the wit, but these essays dig deeper than his typical blog posts. Here, you see his vulnerability and insecurities. He seems torn between being surprised that he’s successful, and being surprised that it took so long.
The N-word — in both of its spellings and iterations — is in the book a lot. Like a lot, a lot. The book also makes it clear that white people should never use either version — see his chapter “Three N-s."
Pittsburghers from back in the day will dig the mentions of Shadow Lounge and Ava, happy hours at Savoy, and after-hour buffets at Eat‘n Park. (Even Pittsburgh City Paper is name-dropped, as a measure of what it meant to be “Young, Black, and Successful.”)
Young’s parents appear frequently in the essays. If I didn’t love my own folks so much, I’d wish that Vivienne and Wilbur Young were my own. One of the most touching memories in the entire book is when Young discovers his large father wearing his tight basketball shorts to try to stretch them out for him because he knew he was embarrassed that they didn’t fit right. Then, there’s “Living While Black Killed My Mom,” a chapter that, sadly, speaks for itself.
When speaking of his parents in his prologue, “Living while black is an extreme sport,” Young notes that one of the reasons he wrote the book is because “blackness doesn’t just find space but conjures beauty in a country specifically constructed to crush them.”
Young’s book is, largely, a love letter to the parents who raised him, the wife who elevated him, and the friends who stood by him. You could also say it’s a little like a love letter to Pittsburgh too, but one that doesn’t let the city get away with any of its shit. It’s a refreshing, honest look at a city that still has a long way to go, but one that has hope if people like Young are still creating inside of it.