Dispatches from the Moth · Posted On: Aug 20, 2020

MOTHerview with Storyteller Damon Young

by Suzanne Rust

Damon Young

“Part of this story’s draw to me is the uniqueness of it and the anxiety I had--and still have--in sharing it.”

How did you know that this was the Moth story you had to tell?

In 2016, when I first started thinking about how my book What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker would work, structurally and tonally, this story was at the center of it, because it functions as a bit of a synopsis for the sort of book I wanted it to be---an irreverent, uncomfortable, transparent, and (occasionally) hilarious dive into some of the genuine absurdities of existing while Black in America. And, well, I’d never read or seen a thing like that before, and part of this story’s draw to me is the uniqueness of it and the anxiety I had--and still have--in sharing it. 

These are the same rationales that went into me choosing this for The Moth. Also, I knew that sharing this in front of a predominantly white crowd of hundreds would be uncomfortable for me too, so this became a bit of a personal challenge to see if I could pull it off and hit each of the notes the way I wished to. 

I’m not going to lie. When you told us that this was the story you wanted to tell, it caused quite a commotion in the office, with both Black and white folks alike. It’s not every day that we get a story about “the word that shall not be named,” especially framed in such a unique way. The defining incident in your story takes place when you were just seventeen. How has your relationship with “the word” evolved over the years?

My relationship with the version with the “hard r” has remained static. And, barring a lobotomy, will continue to. But my feelings about n*gga, which I use liberally, have evolved. Without getting too in the weeds about it, I used to believe that our (Black people’s) use of it gave white people a loose permission to use it too. I’d be bothered about it if they did, but I’d feel like a hypocrite. But now I recognize that it belongs to us because we’ve earned it, and that feeling of hypocrisy was based on the same logical fallacy I have to remind my four-year-old daughter of when we go to the park. Just because that kid over there is playing with a ball doesn’t mean you can play with it too, because that’s his ball.  

It’s June 2020. The murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd have set the country on fire. Protests for several weeks straight and some results.  I hesitate to say it, but something feels different this time. Do we dare feel somewhat hopeful?  I know this is a million-dollar question, but how are you feeling about our future? Is anything shifting in your opinion, and does any of it have the potential to stick?

What’s shifting now for me---and what I believe to be the impetus for the shift we might be seeing in white America---is COVID. Everything I experience now is filtered through and heightened by the reality of experiencing it during a pandemic. And I think it’s easier to see the tracks now. Easier for (white) people to see how white supremacy made a criminally (and transparently) unfit man president, how his presence actively sabotaged our national response to the coronavirus, and how white supremacy kills white people too.  

There’s just less room to deny what’s happening--what’s been happening---right in front of their eyes. Whether this shift sticks is yet to be seen. I'm neither hopeful nor skeptical. I'm just watching.

You have two young children. I know from personal mom experience that raising Black and brown kids in this country presents many challenges. Every Black parent knows about “The Talk.” What do you share with your kids? 

I think the main thing any Black parent can instill in their children is that they are loved, they are protected, they are valuable, they are worthy. I’m honestly not convinced that ‘The Talk’ does more good than harm, because I don’t want them to be terrified of the police. My plan is to teach them everything I know about America---and also to share that their parents don’t know everything, and some things you’ll have to learn on your own---and to enter the world equipped with that knowledge too. 

Who are your favorite storytellers and why?

Damn. There are so many people to choose from---Toni Morrison, Ghostface Killa, my dad, etc.---but for the sake of space and time I’ll go with Barry Jenkins and Nafissa Thompson Spires. Both of them are able to do things, to see things, to conjure things, to create things, to capture things, that I wish I was able to do. 

Proudest moment? 

Probably catching a last-second, game-winning touchdown pass in a Diocese championship game in 8th grade. That memory is so ingrained in me that I still remember what I had for dinner that night (pork chops, mac and cheese, and fried apples). Is it ironic that I played basketball in high school and college--and, pre-COVID, still four times a week now---but my favorite sports memory is a football one?

What are you working on now?

I’m currently writing another book. And, also a podcast with Crooked Media. And, also a script. And, also the blogs and essays I publish on VerySmartBrothas, GQ, and The New York Times.  

Please finish this sentence: storytelling is important because…

It’s a conduit for memories and truth. 

Will you tell another story with us soon?

Sure. Perhaps I’ll go find Ricky Schroeder, finally settle my beef, and talk about that. 

Would you like to share any of your social media info in case listeners want to keep up with you? If so, what are your handles in FB, Instagram and Twitter?

I’m DamonYoungVSB on IG and Twitter, and What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker is available wherever books are sold.

Fighting Words

by Damon Young

Damon Young questions his sense of self based on the power of a racial slur.

Listen Now Add to Playlist