How It Feels to Be ‘Inside Out’ After 40 Years of Keeping Everything In

With Panama Jackson at Politics & Prose in Washington, D.C. I think I’m answering a question about bacon.
Photo: Panama Jackson

“I didn’t expect to know this much about your dick.”

I don’t know where to start, so I’ll just start with the bar I sat at while writing this. No alcohol was served or consumed, but I could see my three tour companions: a bottle of Cutty Sark and a bottle of Lazzaroni—the ingredients for a Godfather (my go-to if I just want one drink), and a bottle of Jack Daniels—which is what I drink with ginger ale if I plan on dranking. They’re standing in formation.

Advertisement
With Nikole Hannah-Jones in Brooklyn.
Photo: Tanya McKinnon

The partnership with them began in Brooklyn. It was Tuesday, March 26. The day my book dropped. I’d done three interviews already that day—all in Manhattan—jumping in and out of Ubers with my backpack, my publicist (Caitlin), and maybe a sandwich or a slice of pizza. I felt greasy and wrinkled and sweaty and also kinda good about the sweaty cause it meant (in my head) I wouldn’t be ashy too. I also felt tired and terrified and excited and aroused. Not aroused like with sex, but just how you feel when you can feel all your senses working. It felt like I was on fire while marinating in ice. It felt like I’d been at Kennywood all day.

But before I left Manhattan and rode to Brooklyn, I needed to find a liquor store. I made a promise to Nikole Hannah-Jones—who would be joining me on stage that night to talk about my book—that I’d gift her a bottle of bourbon for agreeing to do this. We were joking when I said that—it was an email exchange and I wanted to believe that she maybe chuckled even though she didn’t strike me as much of a chuckler—and I wanted to surprise her with an actual bottle.

So Caitlin and I found a liquor store. And then I settled on a bottle of Bulleit. And then we hopped in the Uber and got to Brooklyn 90 minutes before my talk. And then we decided to kill time at a bar. And then we had a few drinks. And then we walked three blocks to the theater. And then I was met at the entrance and shuffled to the green room. And then I was amused to see that this green room was actually green-ish. (They’re usually shades of beige.) And then I saw Nikole sitting on a couch. She was wearing Js. And then she spoke.

Advertisement

“I didn’t expect to know this much about your dick.”

Not “Hi.” Not “What’s good?” Not “What’s in the bag?” Just “I didn’t expect to know this much about your dick.” I laughed, because what else can you do when told the truth?

Advertisement
With The Atlantic’s Hannah Giorgis.
Photo: Genese Cage

Calling What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker a memoir in essays isn’t untrue. Because it is that. It even says that on the cover, and someone smart once said that covers don’t lie. (I think it was the GZA.) But it’s that the same way a foot amputation is a lower leg contusion. A more accurate (and probably) much less marketable way of synopsizing What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker is that it’s a pool of blood and guts and memory and marrow. It’s a bag of Skittles that is also a bag of glass. It is all the things that have made and still make me. And some of those things, many of those things, are not the things that I wanted people to know about me. Including things like the first time I had sex with an ex-girlfriend, and I was so anxious to impress the fuck out of her (heh) that I couldn’t keep it up.

Advertisement

When I tell this story in the book, it’s with the same sort of esoteric, absurd, vaguely inappropriate, and food-related humor that threads throughout much of it. It’s an on-brand passage; one of my favorites to write and now one of my favorites to read. But it is still an articulation of an experience that, at the time, was deeply embarrassing. So fucking embarrassing. I wanted to hide inside of a shoebox. And not even a box of some cool shoes, but like some Lugz boots. And now, since I put it in the fucking book, people are reading about it. Real actual people. Nikole Hannah Motherfucking MacArthur Genius Jones is roasting me about it in a green-ish room in a Brooklyn theater and would ask me to read it to the mostly black and mostly female audience as soon as we got onstage.

We also brought the bottle of Bulleit with us and crushed it on stage that night too.

Advertisement
With AIan Holt in San Francisco.
Photo: California Institute of Integral Studies

I wanted Nikole with me in Brooklyn, and Hannah Giorgis in Manhattan the night before because I knew I needed help unlocking the things I needed to unlock in order to be comfortable spilling so much blood in front of so many people while on tour. I knew they’d both ask probing questions that would force me to sit with the shit I write, that would force me to think and process instead of just recall and repeat, that wouldn’t allow me to always lean on the crutch of self-depreciating humor and self-medicating introversion that helps me stand when noise gets too thick. And they did. And Panama (D.C.) helped too. And David Dennis (Atlanta) helped too. And Sam Irby (Chicago) helped too. And Ijeoma Oluo (Seattle) helped too. And Tony Norman (Pittsburgh) helped too. And, well, Jack Daniels (everywhere) helped too.

Advertisement

I didn’t get drunk before every tour stop. (Or any.) But I did make a pre-talk drink or two a part of my routine. And it helped alleviate some of that self-consciousness, even if the drinks were mostly placebos.

Advertisement

And now the tour is mostly done. As are the profiles about me and the book. And the reviews, the podcasts, the people and publications critiquing the articulations of my blood. (I actually really looked forward to that, the reviews. I never had my work critically deconstructed and assessed in print before.) It took me to cities I’ve never been. (Atlanta, St. Louis, San Fransisco, and Seattle.) To Buffalo back at my alma mater (Canisius College) for the first time in 17 years. To Detroit for the first time in 30. To London for a week. Breaking bread and spilling blood in each city, each country, each continent that invites me to do so.

Advertisement
At the Young Vic Theater with Melanie Eusebe.
Photo: Holly Aston
Shots after a panel at Facebook UK on black masculinity.
Photo: Damon Young
Advertisement
Shots after a panel at Facebook UK on black masculinity.
Photo: Damon Young

And right now, today, I don’t quite feel like myself. But I also feel like the most me possible, which I think is why I don’t recognize this feeling because I’ve never been the most me. So much time and effort and thought and bandwidth spent hiding this thing or that thing. Or pretending to myself (and others) that this other thing didn’t happen. Or that this other thing did. Or suppressing this feeling. Or inventing that feeling, allowing this economy of concealment with occasional microbursts of curated personality to exist in place of the me-est me.

Advertisement
With Pennsylvania State Rep. Summer Lee and a group of students at Woodland Hills Junior Senior High School.
Photo: Damon Young

And right now it feels like I’m watching myself watching myself. It feels like I’m shedding. It feels like that moment when you get out the shower and before you grab a towel, which (to me) is when I feel the most naked. The most vulnerable. The least safe. It feels like, to quote Kiese, I’m inside out. 

Advertisement
Kiese Laymon and I, after recording an episode of WNYC’s Sex, Death & Money. We were probably thinking about cakes.
Photo: Damon Young

It feels like writing this book and publishing this book and getting in front of people to talk about this book and talking to people who read this book and reading the things that people have to say about this book broke things in me. Barriers, dams, partitions—whatever the fuck you want to call them. They’ve been breached. It feels like I’m overwhelmed. But not the sort of overwhelming that braces and crushes; but like the overwhelming that happens when you’re laying in the sand and the waves hit you and you remember why you came to the beach even though you can’t swim. And it feels like those companions—that Jack, those Godfathers, and the various other liquors that encouraged me to forget to be uncomfortable—don’t need to make the trips with me anymore. I think I’m comfortable being the mostest me in front of strangers without them now.

Advertisement
If you squint you can see me.
Photo: Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures

I’m tempted to say that they never actually did, that I never actually needed them and that it was all in my head. But why start lying again now?

Share This Story

About the author

Damon Young

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB and a columnist for GQ.com. His debut memoir in essays, What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker (Ecco/HarperCollins), is available for preorder.