A nonprofit booked me to speak to some young writers from Baltimore. "How does it feel to be the voice of the people?" a girl in square frames with a pumped fist asked. "I don't speak for all of Black America," I told her. "I'm not the voice of black Baltimore, or Down Da Hill, or Latrobe Projects or any other section of the city. I'm just one guy."
The group shrugged in confusion.
I find myself saying that over and over again every time I do an event or appear on one of these TV or radio shows that book me every week. And don't get me wrong, I love representing my people and my city, and I try to do so with the utmost respect; however, we need to move beyond the idea of there being one black voice. J-Lo isn't the only Latina, and if David Duke kicked a black infant, I'm not going to assume Flacco does the same — so why does there have to be one black voice?
I don't study policy and hang around City Hall, so how can I have a say over the African Americans that mastered that? I spend my free time in the street. My little homie Nick, a 13-year-old, needed a couple dollars and some guidance to keep him away from selling pills –– I stepped in, provided that and a dream of making similar contributions on a larger scale. And again, I'm just one guy with one story.
The fact is that there are so many black people in Baltimore doing great work. Chris Wilson is providing training and employment opportunities for people who are newly released from prison. Lance Lucas is offering free A+ certifications and gateways to employment based on those skills for anyone who wants them. And Adam Jackson, who has a long history of activism, is doing everything from running voter registration drives to training young debaters. The list goes on and on. All of these people are leaders in their own right with their own ideas and agendas. I'm sure that I and some of the people mentioned don't agree on everything and that's cool –– the idea isn't to propel one holy black anointed person as the chosen one, but for all of us to reach mastery at what we do, work together, share those skills and support other. Activism has many faces.
I had a conversation with Quincey Gamble, director of One Baltimore, about this the other day.
"A young man told me that he didn't respect anybody in a suit! As if we are the problem," he said. "I told him that us suits are the ones who go downtown to get the permits that keep you young guys out of jail when you organize these marches."
I agreed, everyone has to do his or her part if we really want the city to change. The age of having one black leader is over with as it should be. It's hard enough to get a group of five to agree on something as simple as dinner let alone the direction of an entire race. I try to make that point crystal whenever I can, and I'm really going to drive it home at the book launch for my essay collection "The Beast Side" next month.
I'll be taking the podium at Union Baptist Church where Ta-Nehisi Coates launched his bestseller "Between The World and Me," last month. Mr. Coates did a string of interviews that followed his Baltimore lecture that kind of hit on the same point about how his book wasn't written for any group or class, it was based on what he knew –– his American experience.
I hope the idea catches on. We must move beyond the "black box" that marginalizes what our experiences are, or what they can be. If we can successfully do that, a new wave of black voices will flourish and social relations will enhance drastically. I'll see you on September 9th.
D. Watkins is a Baltimore writer whose essay collection, "The Beast Side" (Skyhorse: Hot Books), is due out in September. His email is email@example.com; Twitter: @dwatkinsworld.