I became aware of the Baltimore that D. Watkins talks about in his debut essay collection, "The Beast Side: Living (and Dying) while Black in America," some time before I knew his work existed.
As a former Baltimore City middle school teacher at a persistently dangerous school, I spent many days helping my students to process and write about their lives growing up in their neighborhood. Similar to Watkins, they wrote about their morning treks walking by crack pipes, passed-out drunks and boarded-up houses, and of the nights they spent lying in their bathtubs doing their homework while waiting for the gunshots to stop.
They argued, in the same way that Watkins so clearly states in his book, that there are two Baltimores: one that is white and privileged, with private schools that have air conditioning and doors on the bathroom stalls — and theirs, which is black and poor, where police harass you and you rarely get a second chance.
The latter is the same Baltimore that Watkins grew up in and the one that he writes about in "The Beast Side," an odd assortment of essays that cover topics ranging from dealing drugs to his obsession with Instagram; from his hatred of the national anthem to his belief that black lives do matter to white capitalists; and from his problems with the second term of President Barack Obama to his argument that Baltimore has been and will always be a deeply divided city.
"Black Baltimore," he writes, is all about "crack sales" and "being harassed by cops, pit bulls, dirt bikes, church, diabetes, and staying in black areas." While "white Baltimore, which in most cases is only two miles away from these black areas," is all about "sniffing coke," "free-range chickens, playing Frisbee, jogging, being loved by cops, and staying in white areas."
Baltimore is segregated, and it is a microcosm of America — a place that vividly evinces the long-term impact of systemic racism, classism and black-on-black crime. Watkins deftly takes on these issues, addressing them one by one. With a dry wit and searing honesty, he paints a picture of what it means to grow up black and poor in this city. It is a depressing book, and I found myself laughing and crying at the same time. I had to put it down and walk away from it more than once. It is hard to read because Watkins, in the same style as Amiri Baraka, has a way of pulling you into the story and making you feel as though you are being held accountable for what happens next.
I thought of my students, who dreamed of making it out, though most of them said, with a sigh, that they probably never would. "We're black," they said, "and black folks don't make it out of the 'hood." Watkins, unlike many of them, did make it out. He knows that he is a success story, the person to help white folks understand how an inner-city Baltimore kid can move from drug dealer to college professor.
In his essay "My City Is Gone," Watkins writes about how anyone with an interest in Baltimore wants to meet with him because he has become "the go-to guy on issues concerning the Negro culture of our city." It is this essay, one of the stronger ones in the book, that provides the most insight into the person that Watkins — after receiving two graduate degrees, being an adjunct professor at Coppin State University, and writing that he is "too poor for pop culture" — has become. (Watkins has also started a three-month stint as a regular contributor to The Baltimore Sun's op/ed page, with columns running every other Sunday.)
It is an internal struggle laid bare on the page as he talks about how his beloved Baltimore — the same one where he dealt drugs, watched both the police and his friends bet on junkies fighting, and where it is "easier to get a gun than a job in east Baltimore" — has fallen prey to gentrification.
"My city is gone," he laments, "My history depleted, ruined, and undocumented. I don't know this new Baltimore, it's alien to me." His Baltimore has ironically become a place where "black history is bulldozed and replaced with Starbucks, Chipotles, and dog parks."
This is Watkins at his best as he openly struggles with trying to make sense of where he fits in this new Baltimore. He says that it is "becoming a place for the rich" and that he does not speak the language. But after reading his book, it is obvious that Watkins speaks for the heart of the city, for those who have yet to claim their voice or have forgotten that they have one. Watkins speaks for those who the world would prefer to keep silent and hidden.
He challenges stereotypes that have existed for years, the ones that continue to view black boys through a distorted lens, making sweeping generalizations about their lives. It is this exploration into the complexities, aesthetics and emotions that define being black and male in America that sets this book apart and allows "The Beast Side," for just a moment, to go beyond being just a Baltimore experience.
The writing is uneven, the language is raw, but the emotion is real. By the time you get to the end of the book, you have a better understanding of why Watkins is so committed to using his writing as a way to get people to listen and then to rethink and reframe their understanding of his Baltimore.
Karsonya Wise Whitehead is an associate professor at Loyola University Maryland and the author of the new book, "Letters to My Black Sons: Raising Boys in a Post-Racial America." She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the book
"The Beast Side: Living (and Dying) While Black in America" was released Tuesday by Skyhorse Publishing. 176 pages, $21.99.