Vulnerability, Sex, Parenthood, and Podcasting With Damon Young

Where to send your child to school, the existence of God, and accountability on the internet are big and complex enough topics to make your head spin. So on Stuck with Damon Young, the award-winning author of What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker ventures into the world of podcasting to grapple with these questions. He dives deep and candidly into each of these topics and more—and he does so with some of the brightest and Blackest people he knows.

The new Gimlet and Crooked Media podcast, which debuted in mid-March, features Damon Young himself in conversation with guests like writer Samantha Irby to discuss money, comedian Roy Wood Jr. to cover religion, author Jason Reynolds to understand sexuality, and journalist Nikole Hannah Jones to dive into education. In each conversation, the guests deconstruct and explore all of these topics, as well as their intersections with race and class—and how that makes for some unrealistic expectations around human behavior. 

For the Record had the opportunity to discuss some of this with Damon and even threw a new topic into the mix: the opportunities and struggles of podcasting for the award-winning writer. 

You cover sex, parenthood, religion, and performing Blackness—what would you say is the overlying theme of all these conversations?  

The umbrella theme of the series is etiquette. When we think of etiquette, we think of silver spoons and table manners, things of that nature. But it’s really more about expected behavior and expected experience. This show is about the collision of expectation, socialization, reality, and dreams. All of these expectations of behavior, all of these actual behaviors, and all of these aspirational behaviors: When they collide and collapse into each other, what happens to your brain? Does that affect your anxiety? Does that create neuroses? For me, the answer for all of those is: definitely. The show is a very granular, even esoteric, look into topics that so many Black people are grappling with.

What’s one of the subjects listeners get to work through with you?

The sex episode features Saida Grundy, a friend of mine and professor at Boston University, and Jason Reynolds, the LeBron James of children’s books. I wanted to talk about sex with them and the anxieties that Black people bring to it. And it’s a very hetero episode—I want to make that clear, because there are many different ways to have sex, but I wanted to speak from my experience. 

And so we talked about some of those intra-racial anxieties and how, when you’re Black and male, there’s what people call a “positive stereotype” of virility—that we as Black men are aware of. And so I have this expectation to perform in a certain way too. And that can create neuroses within you even though it’s supposed to be a positive stereotype. 

That idea of the hyper-hetero, hyper-virile straight Black man, even if you recognize, “hey this is bullsh*t, this is a racist stereotype that has permeated our cultural understandings of sex and of gender and race,” or whatever, even if you have all the knowledge, education, progressive politics, it can still affect you. We have this shield we bring there, and this armor, and that armor is considered swag. It’s considered cool. But it’s still armor. Even if that’s all you see, it was still something that was constructed to protect us, to protect ourselves from the world. 

Vulnerability is a theme that is coming up in your stories, and Black men are not often given space to be vulnerable. Do you see podcasting as a medium that can expand or allow for more of those opportunities? 

What I’ve tried to do with the podcast is bring as many elements from my writing as I possibly can, and my writing does that. In my writing, particularly in the last five or six years, I’ve been very intentional with exploring all of these anxieties and neuroses and vulnerabilities. And I’ve been trying to do it with humor, trying to do it with some observational rigor. Maybe trying to tell a larger story about America, about white supremacy, about Black people, about Pittsburgh, about whatever—but that’s been a very consistent element of my writing and so there’s no other way I’d do a podcast. 

How are you enjoying the podcasting experience? What are you learning from it? 

Podcasting is not aspirational for me. Writing is my thing. I always passed on podcasts because I wanted to have a level of control. And one of the many challenges with podcasting is not necessarily the lack of control, it’s just that I don’t have as much control speaking out loud as I do when I write.

When I’m writing, sometimes words just come immediately. And I can always figure out the perfect analogy or perfect phrase, or perfect adverb, or whatever. And sometimes, speaking out loud, it takes a little bit longer. But one of the benefits of this medium is that it has expanded my writing. There are certain distinctions in the writing you do that is meant to be read, and the writing that is meant to be heard. So I’m still learning, I’m still rewriting, I’m still editing, and just being able to hear the voices in my head when I speak them out loud to myself will help me with my essay writing and my book writing too.

What are you hoping fans walk away with? 

I’m a fan of so many of the authors who are working and writing today, and I just want to create things that hit people and that f*%k up your brain, the same way some of the books that I read f*%ked up my brain in a good way. Or, “Whoa, I didn’t realize you could write a sentence like that.” And I have some of those writers—some of my favorite writers—on the show. And so again, I want to bring some of those elements to my podcast to maybe have the same effect on people.

Look out for new episodes of Stuck with Damon Young every Tuesday. This week, tune in for Stuck on All the Shiny Sh*t I Want to Buy,” where Damon unpacks the whiplash of new money with Samantha Irby and Mehrsa Baradaran.