When I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ "Between the World and Me," I felt a supreme sense of pride not only as a black person growing up in America, but also as a black man from Baltimore City. His work serves as a fuel, and as an indicator that I, too, can rise up from the conditions that trap most of the people who look like me and live where I live. There was also a sadness in reading Coates’ book. That sadness came from the book’s constant reminder that, by living in this skin in this country, a routine day could unjustifiably end tragically and there isn’t much I can do to prevent it.
Watkins, another product of my Baltimore, takes a different route in his writing. While Coates, at times, comes across as the super intellectual who can tell you exactly how history relates to our current plight as blacks in America, Watkins’ stories don’t feel like lessons at all. He’s the “old head” in your neighborhood that you hover around and listen to, as he talks about how life was back when he was coming up, and how those trials and triumphs have gotten him to where he is now. You’re learning, but it rarely feels that way. Before I knew Watkins, I felt like I did just from reading his essays.
Earlier this week, Watkins released his first book, "The Beast Side: Living (and Dying) While Black in America" – a collection of original and previously published essays, some of which first appeared in Salon, which helped introduce Watkins to a national audience. In the book, Watkins grapples in a uniquely thoughtful and personal way with race, culture, poverty and his journey to navigate through adjacent, yet opposite Americas.
I recently sat down with Watkins to discuss his book, and the life experiences on Baltimore’s east side (“beast side”) from which his book emerged.
In "The Beast Side’s" first essay, “Stoop Stories,” you mention that you don’t see the two sides of Baltimore ever coming together. Do you still feel that way?
Because of how things are set up politically and economically, I don’t see anything changing for a long time but I will say that the recent Uprising seemed to have planted the seeds for a change to come. Whether it was a group of 50 or a group of eight marching through the city, it was always made up of people from different walks of life. But people have gone back to their safe places.
Speaking of the Uprising, how do you feel about the recent $6.4 million settlement reached with Freddie Gray’s family? These things are always hard to reconcile because no amount can bring Freddie back, so does the settlement mean our injustices can be bought?
It’s hard because it does look like a price can be put on a black life. But we see what his family has been going through. It won’t bring Freddie back, but it can definitely serve as a consolation for family members who are hurting. Hopefully it can go into making their lives better and bring some resources into play too.
When I first read your essay “Too Poor for Pop Culture,” which went viral when it was first published, I was worried that white people would chew you up and spit you out due to their obsession with you as a drug dealer-turned-writer. The Exceptional Negro. I see that so much. But from reading "The Beast Side," I realized you already had experience with those potential pitfalls, through your time at the elite schools Loyola and Johns Hopkins University. Did you feel like you already had that sense of self before all the media attention hit?
One thing I learned from reading Greg Tate’s "Flyboy In the Buttermilk" is that the same people that pump you up and put you on that throne are the same ones that can’t wait to tear you down -- so you have to always be on point and make sure your stuff is together. Even after I wrote that essay, a lot of people tried to come into my life and take advantage of me and what I could do. A lot of places where I was trying to get published – even locally – never even called me back, but after “Too Poor,” they suddenly wanted to be best friends. I’m familiar with being used because of the culture I came up in is a money culture. Even though you’re surrounded in poverty, friends were bought. I knew people who would have people around them all day just because they wanted to and when they wanted them gone, they just cut those ties, they pulled the financial plug. So, from then on I knew people would look at me as a thing and not a person. I just had to be ready. I decided to keep my public life and private life separate, so I could have that treasure when I go home.
I also noticed, you write about your personal life but usually from a reflective angle, looking back at your past. Is it a conscious decision to not write about your life as it is now?
It’s not a lot for me to write about because I’m writing all day (laughs). I’m not big enough yet to write about me writing. A lot of contemporary things that I write are about the community, in general. When I wrote about going to my nephew’s school, it was just a small piece of what I wanted to say about the bigger picture. We look at these big, inner-city schools that’s flawed and forget about the individuals who have to navigate through them. As far as me, the things I do now are still all new to me. This new side of Baltimore where I don’t have to pay $60 and wear dress clothes to get into clubs…really? I just come in the way I am, because I’m recognized? I’m still learning where I fit in with all this and I feel like I will be for a while before I can report on it. But I’m glad I’m on this journey.
As a reader, I feel like a common theme throughout your work is that navigation between separate worlds -- white and black, the comfortable and the dangerous -- and I connect to it because I’ve lived in both Baltimores as well. I don’t meet too many people who have or even want to. Do you want to keep exploring the different Baltimores, or just let that experience come naturally?
There’s a rich part of Baltimore that I probably won’t get into as a writer, but I’m still learning this side. I still consider myself a new writer and I’m learning from artists that I appreciate. My job is to study, not to be pretentious because what I have done. I think focusing on learning this new Baltimore is good for right now because I can open those doors of communication between this one and the one I grew up in. All types of people I know read the City Paper and go to Red Emma’s now because of me and I’m sure you’ve had similar experiences. When I wrote the City Paper article about [the Baltimore rap artist] Young Moose, everybody on Monument Street had a stack of them and stapled them on houses. That’s a paper that they never paid attention to before. So, it’s a lot of work to do, to connect those worlds. But I really believe that we should spend our lives trying to achieve mastery at what we do, and I don’t know what that looks like yet, but I do see progress in my work. I’m trying to see more.
When would you say you started being a serious student of the craft of writing?
When I decided that I was going to be a writer, I had this stretch of reading, discovering and being around people who were supposed to speak for me. I have this thing about there not being one black voice and these people who were speaking for the ‘hood had never been to the ‘hood before. It’s the same as us getting mad at CNN or Fox or MSNBC about them not knowing about West and East Baltimore, and the dude on camera they dress up to look like you doesn’t even know what he’s talking about. When I decided that I was gonna be the guy to tell that story, I enrolled in grad school because I didn’t have the skill set to be a professional writer. Grad school didn’t teach me to be one but it had me writing every day, it’s a competitive arena and I was on a strict reading diet. All those things had me focused on craft and what my place was in this world. I may have been writing for a world where nobody was reading or just for myself, but I tried my best to make it as tight as possible. That’s when I made my best stuff. Now, with deadlines and working on multiple projects at once, that’s difficult. Hopefully I can get back to that.
How do you feel about race relations being used as a political pawn right now? It’s like every presidential candidate is being clocked for when they speak on the black plight. How genuine can it really be?
I’m super proud of the Black Lives Matter movement and how they’re trying to implement it into policy and not just being something viral. That seems to be the right goal for this movement. Occupy Wall Street felt powerful but didn’t seem to have a real end game in mind. I think Donald Trump is ridiculous and could potentially be the worst thing to happen to America, because like my old head told me, Ronald Reagan was the same in the ’80s; people thought he was a joke and he ended up being a two-term president and the father of the crack era and the War on Drugs. He planted the seeds for the prison industrial complex that we are experiencing now. Nothing Trump says ever makes sense to me, but people like him. I guess because he has the best TV show.
You’ve said that you don’t want to leave Baltimore, even as your life changes. Do you stand true to that?
I don’t want to leave, but I think I deserve a tenured position at one of these colleges teaching creative writing, fiction, creative non-fiction. The work I did as an adjunct professor at (Baltimore’s) Coppin State University, I should have earned a position there. Not only was I the teacher you could see on television or whose work you could read in a magazine, I was the teacher on campus at midnight grading papers, putting 15 pounds of ink on them-- not just tearing you apart, but giving criticism with love and praise and advice to get you to the next level. Nobody took being an adjunct professor as serious as me. You know that rent-a-cop that walks around thinking he’s a real cop, wearing a starched shirt? That was me at Coppin. I took adjunct more serious than anybody on the planet. I was there on my off days. I still have students coming to me today. They thought I was a department director. That’s how hard I worked. So for them to tell me to come back just for one semester, if I respect myself and my students, I can’t allow them to see me getting taken advantage of. So I want to stay in Baltimore but if a teaching position comes elsewhere, I’ll have to take it because I have to live. If I freelance for the next 10 years, I might kill myself because I don’t sleep. I still have stuff to write.
Did that experience at Coppin make you feel used, or do you think your passion intimidated people?
A lot of opportunities I had with writing came from me doing free work, so I’m not afraid to do anything for free because of what I can learn. I’m from the school of, if I put my name on something, it should be good so I won’t attach myself to anything sloppy. If my work offended someone, that’s cool, but it would be crazy because I don’t wanna be a director, an administrator. I don’t wanna deal with personalities or make schedules. I just wanna teach, write and live. I was the only black male in the English department at Coppin -- a college that’s 100 years old. That goes to show you how they feel about us teaching language. They don’t think there’s value in that, but obviously there is because students are still reaching out to me.
You’ve mentioned to me before how you’re going to be taking the independent route when it comes to teaching Baltimore City kids how to become storytellers and journalists. Can you speak on that?
Right now I have three kids as students and we’re gonna preserve the history of Baltimore through narrative storytelling. We have two cameras and they’re gonna go around and shoot interviews. These are high school students who are training to be journalists. We’ll edit the stories on Final Cut and upload them to our site. It’ll be an archive of Baltimore before gentrification sets all the way in and starts looking like Brooklyn. I want them to develop their own narratives. So, if they feel like a local musical artist is relevant, then we’ll try to make that happen. They’ll be getting paid too: 10 stories for $100 per piece. We’ll also have people uploading their own Baltimore stories to the site.
Where have you been drawing your inspiration from, outside of other authors?
I’ve been listening to a lot of Jay Electronica lately. I really think he was sent here to teach us a lesson about conformity. It’s like what Jay Z said on “Trouble”: “I try to pretend that I’m different but in the end, we’re all the same.” Everybody is a conformist even when they think they aren’t. Why does Jay Electronica have to put out an album? He doesn’t have to. He gave us a great mixtape and great loose songs throughout his career. He has his place in rap history. That’s how I feel about myself as a writer. I might not want to put out six books. I might do these two and go off somewhere, teach kids and be happy.
Even though they were completed in opposite order, how is "The Beast Side" a build-up to your next book, "The Cook Up," which is due out early next year?
"Beast Side" is what people know me for: narrative storytelling, race, culture, class. Some things are insightful. Some are funny. I think people will read this book and wonder how I got to this point of my life and "The Cook Up" will do a great job of showing that you can come up in a messed up school system, you can start on the bottom and not have an idea of what your place in this society is, but you can develop the skills to create your own lane. There is a lot of wisdom to be learned from the streets. The American government and the urban street operate exactly the same: we have bosses, we kill for land and resources, we sell product. It’s the same thing.