D. Watkins book describes a Baltimore that isn’t usually written about. (Photo Credit: Lisa Snowden-McCray)
In his essay, “Stoop Stories”, D. Watkins writes about a time where he crossed over from one Baltimore to another. He had been invited to Center Stage, to a fancy storytelling event. Seeing the other participants dressed up in their finest, as opposed to the jeans and hoodie he chose to wear, Watkins knows he has crossed into what he describes as “one of those events.” That is, “a segregated Baltimore show that blacks don’t even know about.”
That story is part of his recently-released collection, “The Beast Side: Living and Dying While Black in America”. The book is a collection of his musings on life as a young, black man in Baltimore City.
The 34-year-old Waverley resident has been steadily making a name for himself. His 2014 essay, “Too Poor for Pop Culture” was published on the prestigious news website Salon.com and made him, in his words, “semi-relevant on the Internet.” Since then, he has appeared on NPR, Huff Post Live and lots of other places.
Watkins writes about the gritty side of Baltimore. He tells tales of bloody shootings, dysfunctional schools and bodies bloated with cheap, unhealthy food. He said that his writing is a way of reaching out to all parts of Baltimore – rich and poor, black and white.
“I’m using my story as a tool to connect with people,” he said. “I’m a servant. I work for the people of my city. I’m just trying to take you to a world that you haven’t been to before.”
For poor black people, Watkins says, his stories are an acknowledgement – a way of describing things, places and people that are often ignored.
For others, he’s offering an education.
“For people who are far removed from those communities, it’s a lesson,” he said.
Watkins said that although it was the part of Baltimore that was foreign to him that first embraced him, more familiar territories are also beginning to know who he is.
“My black audience is starting to pick up. I wasn’t really at schools like Morgan giving events. I was working at Coppin , but I wasn’t a known person.”
“We have a tradition of not being in love with writing and reading,” he said. He said that when he first started teaching at Coppin, many of his students just didn’t see the importance of literature. He said he could identify. As a child in East Baltimore, he said, it was hard to get into Mark Twain, when he was seeing people shot and witnessing drug deals every day.
Watkins, who holds a Master’s in Education from Johns Hopkins University and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Baltimore, believes that if black people as a whole don’t love literature as much as they could, it’s because of our history. He said that black slaves were denied books and letters for a long time because white slaveholders knew the power they held. Watkins is also a professor at Coppin State University and runs a creative writing workshop at the Baltimore Free School.
Watkins believes that books are the way forward.
“We need to create readers,” he said. “The major theme is the redemptive power of education and art. Ways to use it as tools.”
“One of my biggest honors is that my black audience is growing. That’s important to me. That means I’m doing something right. I’m doing my small part.”
On the day of his interview with The Afro, the decision to keep the Freddie Gray trial in Baltimore was just a few hours old. Watkins dedicates the book to Gray, so it was fitting that he weighed in.
“I’m happy that it’s going to stay in Baltimore. If I bust somebody over the head in Towson I can’t say ‘move my case to East Baltimore.’ They need to be subject to the same system that we are subject to.”
Watkins said that although he doesn’t really go to protests anymore, he sees himself as an activist. He said that there are many ways to change things, and being on the front line with a picket sign is just one of them.
“My role is to document these stories to young people,” he said. “Activism has many faces.”