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D. Watkins finds stories in the streets

By the time D. Watkins was in his early 20s, he had filled a shoe box with obituaries.

Kids he had grown up with in East Baltimore. Classmates, neighbors, guys from the corners. His uncle.

And, eventually, his older brother.

The brief paragraphs and grainy photos testified to lives cut short, lives touched by the drug trade: users, dealers, those caught in the crossfire. Watkins had 120 thin brochures from funerals, enough to fill a Nike box. They were the only printed records of the lives of people he cared about.

Watkins decided it was time for a change.

He quit what he wryly calls "the family business" — selling drugs — and enrolled in the University of Baltimore. Although he had graduated from Dunbar High School, he had read only three books in his adult life.

Now, less than a decade later, Watkins has read hundreds of books and is writing his own. He has received a bachelor's degree, a master's in education from the Johns Hopkins University and, last week, his second master's degree, from the University of Baltimore's creative writing and publishing arts program.

Along the way, Watkins, 32, has discovered that he is a writer. His unflinching portraits of the lives of poor, black Baltimoreans have gained him national recognition, a literary agent and talk of a book deal.

"I feel like I was blessed with a second, third, fourth, fifth chance at life," said Watkins. "My journey, my mission is to speak for people like me, people who don't have a voice."

Starting off early

Watkins grew up in a neighborhood called "Down the Hill." It doesn't show up in any city maps, but that's how he and everyone he knew referred to the swath of land between Johns Hopkins Hospital and Frank C. Bocek Park.

"That's where I honed my skills as a dirt bike rider, and that's where I learned how to sell drugs," said Watkins, who prefers not to use his given name, Dwight.

His mother was 15 when she gave birth to him; he was her second child. In published memoirs, he recounts watching her strut off to clubs clutching giant Gucci bags. He bribed his baby brother to stop eating lead paint chips.

Nearly all the men in his life sold drugs. They were complicated people, full of good and bad impulses, profiting off addiction but also handing out cash for groceries or school clothes.

"I came up in the crack era. I was one of the kids hanging out on the corner," he said. The dealers "were our heroes, We looked up to them."

After graduating from Dunbar, Watkins toyed with the idea of college, but the students seemed snobbish.

"I had no interest in that world. I didn't understand how important knowledge is," he said. "I was infatuated with street life."

So he sold drugs.

"At 18, I'd often slice the tips of my fingers up while shaving marble-size pieces of crack into smaller bits," Watkins writes in an article published in Salon last month. "I'd suck the blood off my fingers, rubber band the vials into a bundle, tuck them in my sock and then go off to my block around 8:30 a.m. to set up shop for my 10- to 12-hour shift."

As a drug dealer, Watkins abided by a code of rules he jotted down in a composition book. He didn't want to shoot anyone, and he didn't want to get shot himself. What he wanted was to make a lot of money.

"I had a strategic plan," he said. "I wanted to drive a Benz, have the best-looking women, buy them jewelry."

He thinks being a good communicator kept him out of a lot of messes. If there was a dispute, he talked it through. And he never got arrested.

But in time, the allure of the drug world dimmed.

His older brother was fatally shot. His uncle died of an overdose.

"Every time I go back to that neighborhood, the smell of dried blood comes back to me," he said.

A rebirth

When Watkins enrolled at UB, he wanted to be a lawyer. But he fell in love with history, exploring the forces that shaped life for his fellow African-Americans.

"I felt like I didn't have that much of a history when I was coming up," he said. "I was taught that Dr. King and Rosa Parks sat on the bus one day, and that's where I came from."

He created an honors project called "Crack in Baltimore," for which he interviewed dealers and addicts from his old neighborhood.

Then he took a poetry class.

He was shy at first but soon noticed that the other students wanted to hear his work. He realized he had important stories to tell.

"He started to make the connection that his childhood was a rich resource for making art," Kendra Kopelke, the UB professor who taught the class, said in an email. "He wrote about being a squeegee kid, for example, in the voice of a 6-year-old, that confidence and business savvy."

Kopelke, who directs the university's graduate creative writing program, said it was an honor to read Watkins' first poems. "In the poetry workshop, D. could see that who he was had value," she said.

Watkins said that his time at UB changed him permanently.

"I felt like I was reborn," he said. "I didn't know people cared."

'Redemptive power'

Watkins sat at a wooden table at Teavolve on a warm spring afternoon, a stack of student papers and a half-read anthology from the Paris Review before him. His gaze is intense, thoughtful. His words tumble out in fully formed paragraphs — a helpful skill for an adjunct professor.

He taught five classes at Sojourner Douglass College and Coppin State University in the spring semester, in addition to writing for several online publications and working on a memoir.

"I feel like this is what I want to be doing with my life," he said. "I want to go into the neighborhoods, into the prisons, and tell people it doesn't have to be that way. I want to show the redemptive power of education."

The struggles of his early life help him connect with students, he said. They often pour out their life stories in his office.

"I had to go through what I had to go through to touch some of the people I know now," he said.

Watkins has been fortunate to bond with mentors who have helped him learn the craft — and business — of being a writer.

M.K. Asante, a celebrated Morgan State University professor and the author of four books, has been a major influence in Watkins' career. The two men played basketball together before they connected professionally.

Asante, 31, drafted Watkins to help with his memoir, "Buck," the story of Asante's own turbulent adolescence in Philadelphia. He invited Watkins to accompany him on trips to Nigeria, where he gave a writing workshop, and London, where he attended a symposium on the English language with famed slam poet Saul Williams.

Both were powerful experiences. The conference in London, in particular, awakened Watkins to the power of words.

"I'm being told I'm irrelevant every day of my life, but then I see how black people in the ghetto, we energize the English language," he said. "We reinvent English every day."

Watkins started writing on the way back to the hotel and didn't stop on the plane ride home.

"He's in the tradition of black writers who use their own story and their own narrative as a way to look at the bigger picture," said Asante.

Watkins tells stories of people who are too often ignored, people hobbled by poverty and addiction, violence and systemic racism. In his memoirs and essays, he writes of the good deeds that happen in the worst of circumstances, the unemployed man who scrubs the house of an ill elderly friend because he has nothing else he can give.

"When you look around Baltimore and you see the condition of the people around Baltimore, you realize a voice like his is important," Asante said.

Getting recognized

"Two taps on the door, it opened and the gang was all there — four disenfranchised African-Americans posted up in a 9 x 11 prison-size tenement," Watkins writes in a piece for Salon earlier this year.

The article, "Too Poor for Pop Culture," describes a night of cards at the home of "Miss Sheryl," a pseudonym for an older woman Watkins knows from the Douglass Homes public housing complex.

Along with friends Dontay and Bucket-Head, Watkins and Miss Sheryl drink cheap liquor, play spades and discuss the selfie that Obama snapped with the Danish prime minister at Nelson Mandela's funeral.

White sheets evoking "soiled ghosts" divide the rooms of Miss Sheryl's apartment; her son stole the doors years ago to pay for drugs. He is dead now; she cares for a disabled grandson with severe lead-paint poisoning.

The article soared to the top of Salon's most-read list and received nods from dozens of bloggers and online publications, including the Atlantic. Thousands shared it on social media sites and hundreds commented, many saying they wanted to read more.

"A whole rack of literary agents hit me up" after it was published, Watkins said. He has been in tentative discussions for a book deal.

The article also met with some criticism. Two commenters said that Watkins hardly seemed impoverished to his UB colleagues. The remarks were later deleted, but not before it came to the attention of the City Paper, which wrote a blog post about it.

Watkins, who now lives in Ednor Gardens, said that as an adjunct professor, he is not living large, noting he drives "a Honda with a dent in it."

He followed up the piece with two other Salon essays — one calling out rappers for glamorizing drug dealing, another pointing out just how hard poor, black people work.

Marion Winik, a UB professor who has worked closely with Watkins, said she can see Watkins publishing many books.

"He has amazing material and he has such a clear, engaging voice in telling about it," she said. "Certainly, not everyone has the kind of material his life has given him. And if they do, they don't necessarily have the storytelling chops that Dwight has."

Watkins is just getting started. He wants to continue to chronicle the lives of the urban poor with nuance and depth, and to spur conversations about poverty, oppression, addiction. In some ways, he said, it's an extension of his project on the history of crack in Baltimore.

It's also an homage to the people whose stories he tucked into that Nike shoe box and to those he harmed while selling drugs.

"It's like I'm giving back now for some of the years I've taken away," he said.

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

twitter.com/juliemore

D. Watkins

Age: 32

Family: Married, no children

Career: Adjunct professor at Coppin State University

Coming up: Watkins will read from his work at 7:30 p.m. June 18 at Red Emma's, 30 W. North Ave.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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