Like father, like son?
Big Dwight Watkins and Lil Dwight sit side by side on a bench on the deck outside Lil Dwight’s house in Homeland. They are tall men, and their bodies incline toward the right, legs spread out in front of them and arms resting on the bench backs.
Both have wide faces and when they smile, their cheekbones angle sharply into their chins, as if not afraid to make a point.
Lil Dwight — aka the Baltimore author, professor and public intellectual D. Watkins — rarely hesitates to say what’s on his mind, whether it’s in his newspaper columns, to his students at the University of Baltimore, in his four published essay collections or in his screenplays. He is always searching, always questioning, reexamining his own assumptions, rejecting superficial conclusions, pushing harder, probing deeper.
“We both have bigheads,” the younger man said. “We have that in common.”
In his newest and most deeply personal book, “Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments,” Watkins, 42 and a first-time father, began to explore what it means to be the parent of the little girl that he and his wife named “Cross” because it means a commitment to faith.
“This is the beginning of you,” he writes in the letter to his daughter that begins the memoir.
At 2 ½ years old, Cross is a smiling, bubbly toddler who readily reaches up to grab a visiting grown-up’s hand. She looks just like her petite mother, Caron, but has her father’s — and grandfather’s — laugh.
“All three of them laugh in a big burst of air,” said the author’s mother, Jeanie Watkins, 63. “You don’t have a choice but to laugh with them.”
But Watkins soon discovered that he couldn’t come to terms with being a father without first grappling with what it means to be the son of Big Dwight, the larger-than-life center of any party, the impeccable dresser with the best dance moves, the man who bought his son his first pair of the Air Jordans with which the author continues to be obsessed.
“You’ve been through more than most,” Lil Dwight writes to his 65-year-old father in the book’s dedication, “and strangely make all of this life stuff look easy, too easy. If I end up being half as great as you — I’ll be forever grateful.”
“I have to take the mask off’
Words have never come quite as easily to Big Dwight as to his talkative namesake, and that’s particularly true now that the older man is struggling with the aftermath of a stroke. But though his sentences may emerge more slowly, his articulation is precise and his determination is palpable.
“With my kids, all subjects were on the table,” the elder man said. “We talked about everything. I knew I had to be open and honest, even if it was something I didn’t want to discuss.”
And there was plenty to discuss about life in East Baltimore, the neighborhood where the Watkins family lived and a life-altering presence that the author describes as his “other father.”
“I belonged to my block,” he writes, “the alleys and busted-up avenue corners that outlined my life. The boarded-up row houses with plywood windows and yellow WARNING tape made me.
“Funny thing about the streets is that they were just like my blood father — sometimes everything I needed and other times the root of my problems.”
The son writes of being sexually abused by a counselor at a summer camp he attended when he was 9 years old, a horrific episode that affected his relationships with women for decades. Watkins kept his abuse secret. He never told his parents and didn’t disclose it to his wife until after they were married. Now, he’s telling the world.
“If I’m not being honest,” the author said, “if I’m subscribing to a misplaced notion of masculinity, I’m not being a good father or a good man. I have to take the mask off.
“That became even more urgent when I found out I was about to become a father.”
Before Watkins could put the past behind him, he first had to put it on the table, not just the pain he experienced, but the pain he caused: the cocaine business he ran as a young man, the people he beat up to protect his territory from encroaching drug dealers.
“I felt like a terrible person,” he writes after describing one early beating.
“Knowing this, I continued to choose violence — like a wave of destruction that I continued to ride for most of my life. But this is what it took to handle all things like ‘a man,’ like the men in my family, and on TV –– you had to pretend that fear and regret didn’t exist.”
When Lil Dwight was on the streets, he felt that he had to act like a man. But when he was home, he got to be a kid, one of the handful of boys in East Baltimore to live in a two-parent home.
“Crack, crack sales, and prison ate up the other dads in my neighborhood,” he writes. “Mine was still around living and breathing in my house. My friends all longed for their fathers, but most of them were either dead, addicted, or missing.”
Big Dwight worked in the processing department of Good Samaritan Hospital and always had a side hustle going on. But he could be found on paydays frying something in the kitchen. He was around to drop his son off at kindergarten and to wipe his dirty nose — to the boy’s everlasting embarrassment. He was there to interpose his body between his family and two gunmen who had just broken down the door of the family home.
“You were always present,” the author told his dad. “That’s one of the main things I learned from you about being a father.”
‘We’re all trying to get to be better people’
Being present isn’t the same as being perfect. The memoir recounts Lil Dwight’s gradual realization that the father he adored, protected and depended upon was addicted to cocaine. But Big Dwight didn’t let the drug vanquish him. He committed to recovery, and has been in a 12-step program for 35 years.
“You have to surrender to the disease,” he said. “It’s a process, and with the help of your sponsor and the fellowship, it works. We’re all trying to get to be better people.”
Like father, like son.
The son’s journey has perhaps been more public. Several of his books made The New York Times bestsellers list, including the 2021 biography he co-authored with Carmelo Anthony, a basketball player for the Los Angeles Lakers and former Baltimore resident.
More recently, Watkins was a writer on the acclaimed HBO miniseries, “We Own This City,” and penned the third episode, a project he loved in part because of the opportunities it created for Baltimore residents.
“We employed 5,000 people in front of and behind the camera,” Watkins said.
“Many of them were victims of the Gun Trace Task Force. People who had not been working during the pandemic got the opportunity to make money. We gave some of them speaking roles, and they joined the union. We were able to elevate a whole lot of actors who didn’t even know they were artists.”
In between writing columns for Salon, where he is an editor at large, and freelance opinion pieces for such publications as The New York Times and “Rolling Stone” magazine, in between his teaching duties, Watkins is working with the director Anthony Hemingway to develop another television show. That project is in the early stages, but the pair have signed an agreement with the Disney/ABC Television Group, which has the right of first refusal.
Big Dwight’s journey has been more private, but it is no less profound. His stroke damaged brain cells that control language, and this lifelong reader now struggles to make sense of sequences of letters.
But just like his son, Big Dwight refuses to succumb to his limitations.
“We just hired a reading tutor,” he said. “I’m looking forward to that.”
Big Dwight takes his time, proceeds at his own pace. His son watches his every move, just as he’s always done, just as his daughter watches him now.
It’s time for the little girl to go to preschool. She and the author move down the sidewalk, hand-in-hand. Some older kids are holding a graduation party outdoors, with balloons and cups of fruit punch. Watkins walks a little stiffly, one knee not quite right as the result of an old basketball injury.
Cross stops and holds out her arms in the universal children’s gesture that means “lift me up.”
And that’s exactly what he does.
“Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments” is published by Legacy Lit Books. 240 pages, $27.