SORAYA NADIA MCDONALD: Here's how you know you're a very smart brotha - when you find a way to get paid and praised for your insights about race and stick it to your high school bully at the same time. In his new memoir about his experiences as a native son of Pittsburgh, Damon Young writes about a tortured relationship he had with a high school basketball teammate named James. The essay reveals so much about the performance of race, masculinity and class. Both boys pretended to be something they weren't.
James pretended to have more street cred than he actually did. Young tried desperately to hide the evidence of his family's poverty. His parents were twice served with eviction notices. Young recalls one of James' taunts. Yo, how are you going to drop 28 game and not have no hos? It's like being a millionaire and no one cares.
Then Young delivers a compassionate analysis of what both boys were going through. There were dozens of Jameses swaggering the halls of the suburban and solidly middle-class high school, all desperately wanting to be exactly what America would see when it saw them, he writes, all searching for a fabricated authenticity that didn't exist.
"What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker" is a work about the many absurdities that come with living while black. In one chapter, Young explains how he feels he's missing something because he's never gotten into a fight over someone calling him the N-word. (Reading) Being just black wasn't enough. I wanted - needed - to be black enough to not be the guy white people asked for directions or sat with if the seat next to him on the bus was free, Young writes, so I could finally prove to myself that I had what it took to overcome it, to persevere past it.
When someone finally called him the N-word, Young was so stunned that he couldn't come up with a quick response. Then he realized the folly of itching for a fight. His wishing for an N-word instigation reminded me of middle school classmates bragging about how they would fight back against the slave owner's lash or brutal cops. It takes a little more living to understand that those calculations can be more complicated than they first appear, and Young's way of illustrating this is funny and relatable.
Young gets more serious in reflecting about the right way to be a man. He offers a mea culpa in a chapter called "How To Make The Internet Hate You In 15 Simple Steps." Young recounts the very public education he received on sexual violence in 2012. After publishing a response to an Ebony column about who bears responsibility for rape, Young faced an immediate backlash. What's stopping us from steadfastly instilling no means no in the minds of all men and boys and educating women on how not to put themselves in certain situations, he asked.
In his book, Young explains what he learned from the experience. He realized simply going through life not assaulting or harassing women was not the same as being an ally in the fight for gender equity. Decent was and is a baseline, Young writes. You are decent not because you do things that actually matter and actually help but because you don't do anything. What mattered and still matters is being worthy - worthy of the readership and the follows and shares and retweets and comments of the thousands of black women who continue to engage with and amplify my work.
Young is 40 years old with a wife, two young children and a mortgage. He is by all measures a real, true grown-up. But youthful uncertainty lingers in his writing. Jay-Z once remarked about the reason rappers so often grab their crotch on stage. The bravado is intended to deflect from internal insecurity. Young deploys humor and repetition the same way. He punctuates the story of his basketball bully with a few pithy lines that read like an unnecessary safety net. (Reading) I'll settle for hoping that James accidentally butt-dials someone he really, really, really, really, really doesn't want to talk to today and ends up in a 45-minute-long conversation with them, he writes before tossing out a few more hypothetical unpleasantries. It's like a perfect "SNL" sketch that becomes a little bit less so because it carries on just to mine a few more cheap laughs.
Young's book reads like he still has one foot in the world of blogging and another in the more literary style of essay and memoir writing. His sometimes petty, repetitive humor is what put him on the map. But it may be time to put that behind now that he's transitioning to a different stage of his career. Young has much to say that's valuable and important about race, about power and about how to be a modern man.
BIANCULLI: Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She reviewed "What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker" by Damon Young. After a break, Maureen Corrigan looks at two other books, and we listen back to an interview with Jo Sullivan Loesser, the musical comedy actress who died Sunday at age 91. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JASON MORAN'S "LULU'S BACK IN TOWN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.