Damon Young | An excerpt from What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker | Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers | April 2019 | 11 minutes (2,900 words)
I forget sometimes that my parents and I were homeless for three months in 2001. Our landlord lived in Tampa, but decided to move back to Pittsburgh and back into his house, and he shared this information with Dad six months before he planned to return. Which fucking sucked. Our home on Clinton Drive was a simple two-story brick house with three modest bedrooms, two baths, and a tattered green awning stretched over a forty-square-foot front porch, but after escaping Mellon Street, it felt like the Taj Mahal. Cozy sometimes has a connotation of slight condescension, a smirking and backhanded commentary on an item’s size. But for us cozy meant safe, stable, and settled, and this was the safest, stablest, and most settled my family had been in a decade. Dad’s habitual joblessness ended, and he’d been employed at the same telemarketing firm for three years. My parents even finally had a car—a wolf-gray and whistle-clean 1995 Cadillac DeVille. Still, six months was more than enough time for my parents to find a new place and move. Dad, however, kept this information from Mom until a month before they had to leave. They weren’t able to find a new place in time, and they were forced to cram their belongings in a storage facility while crashing at Nana’s. This all happened my senior year at Canisius. I didn’t learn they’d lost the house until I was home for spring break.
In 2012, eleven years after that spring, a series of late paychecks from Ebony magazine (where I was employed as a full-time freelancer) began a string of financial setbacks that eventually led to the repossession of my car. After borrowing several hundred dollars each from Brian, my homegirl Liz, and a church’s credit union—and telling each of them my car was impounded by the police for unpaid speeding tickets because that was less embarrassing than the truth—I was able to get it back. But that experience left me with a fierce bout of PTBD—post-traumatic brokeness disorder. From then on, whenever I’m home and I hear the distinct beep . . . beep . . . beep of large trucks backing up in the street, my adrenaline and my anxiety spike as I fear it’s a tow truck coming for my car again.
Perhaps Dad was also suffering from PTBD in 2001. Maybe he’d been so used to being broke, and to having tenuous employment, and to navigating the world of overdraft fees and debt-collector-phone-call ducking that those habits and those fears stuck with him. And instead of just telling his wife about their unfortunate but less than dire predicament, he hid it from her for as long as he could, so possessed by the haunts of East Liberty that he couldn’t see anything but shame. Maybe he was paralyzed by the thought of that impending doom. Maybe he did what I did in the weeks before my car was repossessed, when I’d ignore the relentless calls and letters from Ally Auto as if they’d just forget about me if I refused to acknowledge them. Maybe Dad thought that if he didn’t tell Mom about their problem it would just wither away. Like the owner of their house was Candyman, and he’d only appear if you looked in a mirror and said his name five times. Or maybe Dad kept this information from Mom with the hope that he’d be able to fix it, somehow. Maybe he believed he’d be able to pull through in the clutch and just didn’t want her to worry about something he’d eventually handle.
I don’t know. I do remember how I felt after catching the bus home from Buffalo that spring, being picked up at the Grey- hound station by my parents, and being told during the drive that home was now Nana’s and they’d been living with her for a month. It felt like we were stuck in a morass of peanut butter. It felt like we were trapped underneath the tarp used to cover in-ground pools. It felt like we kept walking through invisible and unbreakable cobwebs. It felt like our lives would forever be drenched in static. It felt stupid and fake. It felt like “What the fuck, guys?” It felt like I was missing something. It felt like we were missing something.
Mom and Dad met on a blind date in 1975, and they came to each other heavy. Mom’s sister (my aunt Toni) was dating one of Dad’s niggas from college, and Aunt Toni—who also knew Dad from school (they all went to Knoxville College in Tennessee)—thought her baby sis would be a good match for him. Dad, who was named after my granddad’s brother Wilbur but is known as “Weeb” by everyone (except my grandma, who always called him Wilbur Allen as if she were calling his name from a porch after the streetlights came on) had already been married to and divorced from his college sweetheart. Mom, who was named after Vivien Leigh (Nana’s favorite actress) but spelled her name Vivienne, had a child—my sister, Jamie. She got pregnant while in high school and was subsequently sent, by Nana and Papa, to some sort of home in Cleveland for fast teenage girls who shamed their respectable negro parents. Mom gave birth to Jamie, came back home, somehow managed to earn a scholarship to Carnegie Mellon University, and attended for three semesters but never finished. I’m not quite sure how my parents were able to find each other and then fall in love through all of that noise. Dad used to joke that he hooked Mom with roses and a batch of New Castle hot dog chili, but I think they both just needed a reliable Spades partner.
Dad and Mom were two of the brightest, funniest, wittiest, worldliest, sharpest, and blackest people I knew. Dad taught me how to write. He’d revise and rewrite the take-home essays assigned to me in seventh and eighth grade. I’d—well, he’d—get A’s, and then I’d eventually attempt to mimic the stylistic choices he’d made and the flourish he’d peppered his sentences with. He taught me words like permeate, conniption, obtuse, and behoove, and I’d incorporate them at recess with moderate success (“I BEHOOVE YOU TO PASS ME THE BALL”). Mom taught me, while watching Goodfellas, how breaking the fourth wall was a Scorsese trademark. And also what the fourth wall was. And also that Scorsese could break the fourth wall because he’d mastered the fundamentals of filmmaking. And that after you’ve mastered the basics, you can break rules. Mom taught me how to be a badass, if I wanted to be one. (I didn’t.) I also learned from them that it was bad luck to place a hat on a bed or a couch. And where to position a motorized fan on a cracked windowsill in the summer so that it best replicated an air-conditioning unit. And that if a black man was the first person to enter your home on New Year’s Day, it was promised to be a good year. And that respectability politics were a fucking fraud. “Don’t break yourself trying to appease white people,” Dad told me while we were sitting at the dining room table a day after they took me to see Malcolm X on my thirteenth birthday, and an hour after I lamented to them that Tommy Weismen’s parents wouldn’t let him come to my birthday slumber party because East Liberty was “the ghetto.” “Martin Luther King was killed in a suit.”
I just didn’t understand how these beautiful and talented people kept finding themselves in hardship. And it felt like whatever it was that was infecting them—whichever invisible and arbitrarily cruel entity was committed to keeping them an inch away from exhalation—was contagious, and I wanted no part of that. Or them. I still loved them. I was just tired of seeing them like this. And tired of them seeing me see them like this. When they picked me up from that Greyhound station and told me about the house, I wanted them to drive me back downtown so I could hop on the bus and get back to Buffalo.
The source of that invisible force and that unstoppable inertia that kept teasing them, that kept allowing them to break through for a stretch before tripping them up and pulling them back again, that would lay latent until it saw fit to remind them it was there, is obvious to me now. White supremacy is so gargantuan and mundane that sometimes its existence and its proficiency can’t be measured, addressed, or even seen without a stark change in perspective. It isn’t like gravity. It is gravity. It is a ceaseless pressure intended to keep blackness ground-bound and sick.
White supremacy is so gargantuan and mundane that sometimes its existence and its proficiency can’t be measured, addressed, or even seen without a stark change in perspective.
And it wasn’t that my parents’ blackness itself was pathological. It wasn’t. It never has been and never will be, for anyone. It’s just that blackness in America meant that setbacks, like my parents getting their car stolen in 1990, were tsunamis. It meant that there were and would always be environmental factors they needed to overcome. It meant a permanent cushionlessness where tripping and falling left broken bones instead of bumps and bruises. It meant supporting and relying on an entire economy dependent on that perpetual vulnerability. It meant emergency room visits and Rent-A-Center living room sets. It meant payday loans and phone bills in toddlers’ names. It meant standing in line at Money Mart and “ridin’ dirty” for so long you forgot what it meant to be clean. It meant participation in that self-mutilating symbiosis was necessary if you wished to survive. It meant that, in order to combat and withstand this force, they needed to be perfect. Or lucky. Or perfect and lucky. It meant that any victory, regardless of how definitive it seemed, was tenuous. It meant that the black people who seemed to be able to escape it—the families like Brian’s whom I envied because they just didn’t seem to be awash with the same burdens—were exceptions. It meant that even those few special and lucky and perfect niggas weren’t exceptions. It meant that the tsunami could hit those special perfect lucky niggas too. It meant that special perfect nigga luck just placed those special perfect lucky niggas a little farther inland. For my parents, it meant an aggregation of tiny little defeats culminating in twelve weeks on the couch in Nana’s frigid and mildewy game room, sleeping next to stacks of ten-year-old Jet magazines and boxes of artificial Christmas trees and broken ornaments.
It’s just that blackness in America meant that setbacks, like my parents getting their car stolen in 1990, were tsunamis. It meant that there were and would always be environmental factors they needed to overcome. It meant a permanent cushionlessness where tripping and falling left broken bones instead of bumps and bruises.
I slept in that game room with them, in a tree-bark-brown Barcalounger that had belonged to Papa and hadn’t been sat on that much since he died in 1985, and I’d rock and seethe myself to sleep. I was too selfish and too twenty-one then to be as empathetic as I needed to be; as they needed me to be. Too hoggish to realize that I was able to return to my off-campus town house with my bomb-ass-poetry-writing-ass-nigga starter kit in Buffalo if I pleased specifically because of them and the sacrifices they made. Too myopic to be proud of them for fighting that behemoth long and hard and fierce enough to eke out some safe space for me in East Liberty and at St. Barts, Penn Hills, and Canisius.
And then, one day, it all changed.
The biggest takeaway from season four of HBO’s The Wire, which is the year centered on the lives of four adolescent boys (Namond Brice, Michael Lee, Randy Wagstaff, and Duquan Weems), was that the only way for a young person from West Baltimore to not succumb to the streets was for someone to come and literally lift him out of them. It didn’t matter how talented or resourceful or dynamic you were. (At least it didn’t matter as much as it should’ve.) Your destiny was largely dependent on magnanimity and luck. Which, in the right context, can be a fancy way of saying charity. By season’s end, the only member of that crew to escape those corners is Namond, who was first introduced to the audience as a spoiled and nasty scion of an infamous mass murderer. So spoiled and nasty that he was removed from his eighth grade classroom (he called it “gen pop”) and selected to be part of an experiment where the school’s worst and most disruptive students—the “corner boys”—were all placed in the same classroom and taught a street-based curriculum. It was here that he met retired and disgraced policeman Howard “Bunny” Colvin, who helped teach and mediate that classroom, took a liking to Namond, and eventually adopted him. The last scene of the season shows Namond doing homework on Bunny’s porch in a still and presumably middle-class neighborhood. He looks like a regular kid. Which is exactly what he is when he’s able to be one.
On the third day back from spring break, while we were sitting in the car outside of Guardian Storage in Shadyside, waiting for Dad to retrieve a coat he’d accidentally packed away there, Mom shared something with me. “Hey, Dae, your dad and I are trying to buy a house. There’s one on Graham Boulevard we really like, and we’re going to view it tomorrow. You should come.”
The concept of homeownership was unfathomable to me then. My parents had never owned a house. And while I didn’t know much about credit and bank loans and mortgages and down payments then, I knew enough to know that my parents had shitty credit and didn’t have much (if any) savings. She might as well have told me they were building one of those transporters from Star Trek. It was just something that people other than people like us did. But we were apparently going to see that house tomorrow.
Mom, you should know, was a bit of a trickster. It wasn’t uncommon for me to walk into a bedroom or a bathroom and then be startled out of my skin by her jumping out of a closet or from behind a shower curtain. “Your turn!” she’d scream. I’d spend the next week plotting for ways to get her back, but she’d usually outsmart me and sniff out my hiding places before I even had a chance to return the scare. When I was young, she had me convinced she was magic. It wasn’t until I was a teen that I realized she’d always find me because I was breathing too loudly and couldn’t keep a straight face.
We did view that house the next day. And it was on Graham Boulevard. But they were not trying to buy that house. They’d already bought it. Mom broke the news while showing me the bedroom that would eventually be mine. “I know you know your dad and I have gone through some things” she told me as we stood in that empty room. “We didn’t want to tell you anything. You worry so much and we wanted you to be focused on school and not your little old parents.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Not simply that they’d bought a house, but that they were able to. It just didn’t compute. Mom saw the look on my face and continued. “We . . . we went to three separate banks. This house was on the market, and your dad and I had been saving. The first two denied us. But that third bank . . . Damon, I begged that woman. I begged that woman’s boss. I begged her boss’s boss. I prayed while we were sitting there. Your dad and I stayed in that bank for five hours. We whipped out so many forms and papers . . . I think I even showed them your SAT score. And somehow, through the grace of God and the skin of our teeth, we got approved. We got approved, Damon. Your dad and I got approved.”
I went back to school a week later. When I returned home in May, I slept in my new bedroom for the first time. The same room Mom and I cried in after she told me it was my room. I woke up the next morning to the familiar scent of vanilla extract, maple syrup, and nutmeg, which meant Mom just made some French toast and bacon. I got out of bed, stretched, put on some sweats and a T-shirt, and walked down the hallway. As I neared the living room, two mysterious ghost hands reached out behind me and tickled my underarms. I yelped and flinched so quickly I almost stubbed a toe on a loveseat. I turned around. It was Mom. Of course it was Mom.
She laughed. “Your turn!”
* * *
Damon Young is a co-founder and editor-in-chief of VerySmartBrothas, a senior editor at The Root, and a columnist for GQ. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, MSNBC, Al-Jazeera, Slate, Salon, The Guardian, New York magazine, Jezebel, Complex, EBONY, Essence, USAToday, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Excerpted from the book What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker: A Memoir in Essays by Damon Young. Copyright © 2019 by Damon Young. Reprinted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
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