Baltimore, The City That Reads Again: Black writers in Baltimore look to connect with local kids like never before

Student Kai Thompson reads Ta-NehIsi Coates' "Between the World and Me"
Student Kai Thompson reads Ta-NehIsi Coates' "Between the World and Me" (Tariq Touré/For City Paper)

"Troy it's your turn to read," Ms. Tilghman ripped from the front of the classroom.

"A'ight man, yelling ain't called for yah'mean?" Troy responded.


He began reading from "Julius Caesar" with his voice pitched high and stifled like he swallowed a small bird: "I am glad that my weak words, have struck but thus much show of fire from Brutus."

My entire 10th grade class drowned in laughter. Tears rolled down acne-riddled faces and ashy hands grasped bellies to stop the painful cackling. We all witnessed Troy conquer our English Literature teacher again. He became a king for it. Troy was a kid from East Baltimore who'd triumphantly mastered the fine art of going unnoticed in class, especially when it came to reading.


Every week he'd put a new maneuver on Ms. Tilghman, each more comical than the last. After a while I, along with pretty much everyone else in the class, noticed Troy couldn't read. He could only keep up by practicing the section he was to read in class over and over again.

It worked for a modest amount of time. But by mid-semester, all 25 or so students found more embarrassment in his deflections than anything remotely funny. Troy was two years out from getting a high school diploma, and the crux of learning was slipping from his fingertips.

Edmondson-Westside High School is a citywide school which allowed him to travel all the way from "over East" to the home of the Red Storm. Troy stood about five feet seven inches, had an apple-shaped face, and wore clothes so baggy his shirt collar could double for a basketball hoop. English was the only class I had with him in 2004.

Ever since that spring, I've thought about what it means to be in his position and what the world looks like when you cannot read.


In 1987, at his inaugural address, then-Mayor Kurt Schmoke called our beloved hometown "Baltimore, the city that reads," soon enough placing the statement across park benches, above corner stores, and just about anywhere within 50 feet of a school. As catchy as it seemed, the slogan received loads of criticism by residents who knew that it ignored a diseased public school system, backed by decades of unequal distribution of educational resources. When Schmoke's mayoral career ended, 36 percent of Baltimore's adult population needed basic literacy training.

A culture of reading and the results expected were still waiting to manifest. "To get a job as a cook or a mechanic, a person, generally, needs to read at an eighth-grade level," Elizabeth Holden, director of the Greater Homewood Adult Literacy Program, wrote in a 1999 op-ed in The Sun. "A ninth-grade reading level is required to comprehend a guide to Social Security benefits."

Meanwhile, parents, recreation center staff, and little-league coaches believed Baltimore was doing anything but reading.

But the city has a storied literary tradition. The Enoch Pratt Library system was kicked off with a $1 million check in 1882 from Enoch Pratt himself, who guaranteed that the library "shall be for all, rich and poor without distinction of race or color, who, when properly accredited, can take out the books if they will handle them carefully and return them." Pratt libraries are a demure safe-haven and staple in many communities shackled by era upon era of failed policy, punctuated by the gargantuan main library on Cathedral Street—which was the first branch to open. Soon after, branches opened up on Canton, Calhoun, Pitcher, and Light streets.

In 2016, I've found new hope in Baltimore for children like Troy and so many others denied the pleasure and power of reading. According to last year's test scores, an average of only 15 percent of students tested between grades three through 10 met English language arts and literacy expectations on the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) test. And there's a disparity between black and white students: 31 percent of white students met those expectations, but only 13 percent of black students did. But, it seems, reading books is hot now. Not fisticuffs-over-a-pair-of-crisp-leather-Jordans hot, but popular enough to spark the interest of kids like Troy forever. A bubbling scene of black writers has emerged, budding a representative archive of stories, poems, and memoirs that have made the love of literacy an admirable trait in the home of the O's. People such as D. Watkins (a CP contributor), Bilphena Yahwon, Kaye Wise Whitehead, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Bobby Marvin Holmes, Sharea Harris, Lester Spence, Celeste Doaks, Erica Caine, Nakia Brown, Derick Ebert, Cija Jefferson, Sadiq Ali, Upile Chisala, Candice Abd'al-Rahim, MK Asante, Lawrence Burney (a CP contributor), and countless others are human hard-drives for words, emotions, and moments that happen to end up organized into literature. Their recent releases and publications represent a commitment to Baltimore becoming a literary powerhouse in the world. Moreover, these writers are spearheading a movement that encourages literacy that meets young readers halfway and counters so many of the problems that have marred past attempts at engaging black folk.

The people are reading—about themselves.

It's 3:00 a.m. on a Tuesday in Baltimore. The Bun Shop, a hybrid coffee-house-slash-Internet-café on Read Street, is peppered by yuppies stumbling through and creatives working tirelessly. Outside, the only other humans awake are hustlers, police about to change shifts, and Korean barbecue spots. The taps from award-winning author D. Watkins' battle-worn MacBook go from faint clicks to a drum roll every 10 minutes or so. He's successfully drunk enough French roast to power a small village in Bahia, Brazil, and he's just getting started. Most nights are just like this. Over the years, writing has become like yoga, crossfit, and occasionally fist-fighting for Watkins. Fortunately, it's paid off. He's become a reputable voice for articulating the gradients of the urban condition, specifically in Baltimore. His latest book, a personal memoir of his sojourn in Baltimore's open air drug market titled "The Cook-Up," released in May, is a dizzying uppercut following last year's right hook "The Beast Side," a collection of essays. Both books show Watkins' trichotomy of street aptitude, penmanship, and intellectual prowess.

Watkins is ecstatic about his book's success, but he wants its reach to go further. Hunched over an 88 percent eaten bagel, Watkins expounds on just what impact means.

"Bro, from first through third grade the average kid is learning to read. From then on out they're reading to learn. If these black kids don't learn how to read, they'll never understand the game being played out here," Watkins says. "It's like 10 things out here waiting to kill us. Reading prepares you for the first three."

With the one-year commemoration of Freddie Gray's murder passing months ago, Watkins, like a host of others, has been deciphering how to best reach the youth. This has been another troublesome year for Baltimore's black children, in terms of exposure to gun violence. He's convinced of the potency of literacy to impact hearts and minds, especially when it reflects its audience.

"The books you and I were given to read had no relativity to our situation. We could never even think of meeting the authors. I remember Ben Carson came to Dunbar one day and we read his book, but he was a celebrity. It wasn't like he was going to kick it with my class," Watkins says. "The idea of seeing yourself in books and media is alien to most of the youth here."


High school students have been able to meet face to face with Watkins almost every week in the past two years to talk life, streets, and education. Through his Instagram feed, you can rifle through endless pictures of pear-faced kids standing next to Watkins, beaming like he's a boxing champ.


He's gone further. "We gave away almost 100 'The Beast Side' books in 2015 and then another 500 of 'Baltimore's Son' in April in conjunction with [the coffee shop and bookstore] Red Emma's."

"Baltimore's Son" was a limited-run collection of essays he's written since the publication of "The Beast Side." It's for those that might come to one of his readings, but can't drop $26 on a new book, Watkins explains.

A D. Watkins mural painted by students at Reach
A D. Watkins mural painted by students at Reach (Tariq Touré/For City Paper)

Ty Hamblin is a 23-year-old Harvard graduate teaching African-American history at Reach High School (formerly Lake Clifton) in East Baltimore. He took notice of the youth's disinterest in reading. To meet his students halfway, he gathered as much new literature as possible, pulling from the stitches of black Baltimore's narrative. He presents like a power forward, and his boyish grin props up cleanly on his face's symmetry.

I walked into his dimly lit classroom mid-spring to find around six students talking among each other, tossing jokes back and forth. The windows emitted a hazy glow from their grayish tint. A chalkboard speckled with the names of African-American superheroes such as Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and Ida B. Wells overlooked seven rows of sandpaper colored desks. In one corner of the room were stacks of "The Beast Side" and "Between the World and Me," Ta-Nehisi Coates' latest literary phoenix.

Both books have been under the class' microscope. Seniors Dana Shird and Kai Thompson and junior Ericka Smith are a few of the students who've engaged with both Baltimore authors rigorously.

Shird decries the laziness of former teachers during Black History Month in past years: "It's the same thing every year, like I don't know why they make it so boring. But Mr. Hamblin brought stuff we could get into all year round."

Smith believes that she, as a black woman, hasn't seen herself in books or media portrayed well until this year: "It goes farther than books you know? Take [television show] 'Scandal' for instance. 'Scandal' doesn't represent all parts of me." Smith adjusts her glasses against the bridge of her nose pensively and adds, "I'm happy Mr. Hamblin's here to show us this stuff."

"If schools just stop throwing textbooks at us, we might enjoy reading. And then most of what's in the textbooks is lies," erupts Thompson, cuffing a copy of "Between the World and Me," then saying, "'We got to go to the roots of this stuff.' I've been up on Malcolm X lately so I feel like I have a lot more insight."

Most students in the school have been struck by the mural at the end of the lobby in the wing where Hamblin teaches. It is a depiction of Watkins with the Maryland flag swaying in the background. Similar to the pictures for "The Cook-Up," the eyes on the painting are unequivocally looking toward somewhere else in the distance.

"I'm really just happy to see my kids get engaged this way. In the beginning, it was tough to get them to be curious about reading. I can truly say I have some shining stars coming out now," Hamblin says. "It's nearly impossible to educate without students wanting to read let alone being able to. Now I even have some that want to take up writing."

Writers such as Watkins and Coates conjure narratives about the black experience that resonate with just about any person living in what James Baldwin once called the "mortal envelope" of black skin. They've both leveraged their talent to become superheroes.

Bilphena Yahwon is a Baltimore-based Towson undergrad and former Liberian refugee whose debut book "Gold Womyn: Teaching Gold-mah How to Heal Herself" is what she calls "a testament that black Baltimore has and needs an inventory of voices."

Yahwon's poetry spills out from her childhood of movement, releasing the toxic slime of the identity pressures of cultural norms. "Gold Womyn: Teaching Gold-mah How to Heal Herself" shows the darkness of the refugee experience and the light of a Liberian girl stepping into a liberated womanhood. Catering to a small but largely unspoken youth refugee community in the Baltimore area, Yahwon taught public speaking and creative writing to students just recently leaving war zones.

"There's a certain disconnect between me and Baltimore as far as the centering of black male narratives goes," Yahwon says. "I'm a female refugee from Liberia who is essentially navigating a Baltimore that has nuances that affect my nationality, gender, and cultures."

Yahwon is one of many women writers beginning to see her works elevated on the towering list of new Baltimore reads. The next question is how to ensure that this moment for literature in the city isn't a fly-by-night thing.

In tandem with her literary pursuits, Yahwon co-founded a monthly series called Yanja to engender a healing space, particularly for women of color, through arts and storytelling.

"We cannot just sit among intellectuals. It's imperative that those of us who have platforms make these books, articles, and research available for the everyday man or woman," Yahwon says. "If not we'll just be talking to ourselves, elitist to elitist. And we have to invest in programs that help people be able to read them too."

Rastehuti Missouri presents like an offensive guard for the Ravens, walks like a colonel, and rhymes as if he sleeps at night in the '90s. His poetry bit into a packed house at Red Emma's as he opened for the Baltimore Youth Grand Slam back in March. The event was a part of Dewmore Baltimore, an institution that introduces hundreds of Baltimore's middle and high schoolers to spoken word.

For over two years, Missouri has had the privilege of being mentored directly by author and filmmaker Bobby Marvin Holmes. Holmes has used the books barreling out of Baltimore's black literary renaissance to spur conversation while instilling life skills and easing the rites of passage that Baltimore puts before its youth.

"I didn't dive into black literature until I was in college. I didn't know black people wrote so much!" Holmes says. "When I got my hands on Walter Dean Myers and Richard Wright, my mind exploded. I had new thoughts, different ideas, and a widened perspective on the world changed."


Holmes, like many others, feels an obligation to at least expose his mentees to the content that provided so much clarity to what he was seeing everyday: "The kids eat what I put in front of them up. It just helps tremendously to have brothers and sisters locally that I can refer to. They see what they read as living breathing things."

"Casey's Day with Daddy" is Holmes' children's book that navigates fatherhood from the perspective of father to daughter. It's an appropriate compliment to his two documentaries "Live Young Blood" and "For Him I Will," both of which address cyclical social breakdowns in the black community in a raw yet comprehensive framework.

"Culturally relevant content in every medium is needed if black and brown youth are going to see themselves as more than what mainstream society is telling them every day," Holmes concludes. "I know I have to use my literature and the work of others to help them start the road to positive self-image and critical thinking."

I reflect on my encounter with Troy and the genius that could be tapped if reading had been regarded as "lit" or "dope" or any other euphemism we use now to describe something worth not staring into smartphone screens for longer than 30 seconds. I imagine a city where Troy would meet and learn from contemporary black authors and writers.

Troy could possibly take part in Black Words Matter, another educational start-up that encourages students to read and then contribute their own revolutionary prose. On any given day of the week Troy could find Baltimore's gold mine of black intelligentsia at Everyone's Place Bookstore. The Baltimore that is undergoing a heat of black penmanship would welcome his interest like a lifelong neighbor.

The home of crabs, bloody-lipped games of basketball, and ravishing church hats suspended magically on the heads of grandmothers still suffers from entrenched issues. The recent murder of one of Baltimore's prized rap artists, Lor Scoota, on a Saturday evening in late June is a testament to how much further we have to go as a city.

Before his death, that same young man, whose raps convey a thorned jubilance in the midst of an ecological horror show, a sound that makes the elderly cringe and music purists massage temples, was positioned no less than two feet in front of first graders at Samuel Coleridge Elementary, reading. Lor Scoota read from a children's book about Martin Luther King Jr. and added his own short lesson on the book.

Troy wasn't some character in a slideshow of my life that I'd collected—he was alive again, offered another chance to learn to read, sitting, bright-eyed, listening to a "trap rapper" read to him.