Damon Young talks Pittsburgh, writing and racial identity at Pitt event


Ethan Shulman | Staff Photographer

Damon Young, right, speaks to Michael Sawyer in Alumni Hall Monday evening.

By Abby Lipold, Staff Writer

Damon Young had a message for Black Pitt students who struggle to feel validated in their racial identity. 

“Separate those two words — authentic and Black — instead of trying to say authentically Black,” Young said.

Young, author of the award-winning memoir “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker,” sat down with Pitt professor Michael Sawyer on Monday night to discuss his experiences growing up in Pittsburgh and his identity as a Black writer. The memoir, an NPR Book of the Year nominee, explores these ideas of Black identity through Young’s relationships with his family and peers.

Many students at the event said they found Young’s themes of Black identity relatable, and there were several questions from the audience on how to remain true to Black authenticity. 

Tafarah Cherilus, a first-year English writing major who found out about the event through her Honors College book club, said the most compelling part of the interview was the audience Q&A session. 

“A lot of the people had questions that ran through my mind, too, and he answered them really well,” she said. “Like, the whole idea with if you feel like you’re more Black than someone or less Black than someone … if you’re Black, then you’re just Black.”

Young added that there are deeper social layers to these kinds of racial insecurities. 

“It’s all just a distraction,” Young said. “It’s all a product of racism. It’s all a product of being told that we are less-than, that being Black is less-than. It takes a whole lot to not internalize that. It takes a whole lot to try to subvert that.”  

Young said he discovered writing through his father, and the first poems he “wrote” were plagiarized rap lyrics for a girl he liked. But he didn’t decide to pursue writing until his time at Canisius College, where he played Division I basketball. He didn’t want to play basketball as a career, so he decided to go into journalism and creative nonfiction instead. 

When asked about vulnerability in his writings, Young emphasized that courage is an “ongoing process,” especially in memoir. 

“It wouldn’t be interesting if I just wrote about all the great things … because that’s not compelling,” Young said. “No one’s interested, so I had to include all the works, too, and things that, even reading about today, made me cringe.” 

The conversation turned toward Pittsburgh and Young’s perspective on the gentrification of places such as East Liberty, the neighborhood where he grew up. 

“Pittsburgh is Wakanda for white people,” Young said, referring to the way the city hides within the forested hills of Pennsylvania. 

“Whenever I was doing an interview or a podcast or something I was talking about growing up in East Liberty, and I had to qualify it because if you are [traveling] through Pittsburgh and you go to East Liberty now, it’s like, okay, there’s $10 milkshakes and $17, $18 tacos, $4,000 lofts,” Young said. “When I grew up in East Liberty, you know, we’re talking the early ‘90s, there were gangs, there were drive-by shootings on my block.”

He said he harbored a “deep ambivalence” toward the neighborhood changes. He said he liked the emergence of stores such as Target and Whole Foods in the area, and many of the people who were eventually displaced from the neighborhood liked them, too — but he questioned why they had to be displaced for the communities to develop. 

“The question … that is here, and also in Oakland in California, in Brooklyn, Harlem, D.C., is why did we have to be displaced for all this investment to happen?” Young asked.

Rachael Betz, a first-year physics and astronomy major, said she plans to “check out his podcast, see more of what he has to say.”

Young gave the audience a preview of some of his future works, including a book on his experience of the transition from economic insecurity to wealth, a children’s picture book and a young adult novel. He will also release a second season of his podcast on Thursday.