D. Watkins speaks for himself: "I think we can have tough conversations, make each other upset"

Salon's Watkins on claiming his space in the publishing world, why direct service is his activism, and his new book

Published April 25, 2019 3:00PM (EDT)

D. Watkins (Peter Cooper)
D. Watkins (Peter Cooper)

To know Salon editor at large D. Watkins, whose third book, "We Speak for Ourselves: A Word from Forgotten Black America," came out earlier this week, is to know how deeply he cares about his community. This unconditional love serves as the foundation for all of his writing, in his books as well as in his columns here at Salon and elsewhere. His East Baltimore upbringing is the lens through which he sees the world and no matter how many books he publishes, how many followers on social media he acquires, it is this perspective that anchors him and makes Watkins a critical voice in media and publishing. But as he writes in "We Speak for Ourselves," it is a perspective that he sees as far too frequently overlooked.

In "We Speak for Ourselves," Watkins is making a clear intervention on representations of race and the black experience in America, charging readers to shed monolithic framings of the black community, and most importantly, to remember who remains the most vulnerable.

"We Speak for Ourselves" meshes the personal with political in the form of short essays connected to broad topics like race, culture, class, and social movements, but Watkins also takes a deep dive into how these issues are presented on the national stage. Who isn't given the platform or space to speak about their experiences is as critical to Watkins' thesis as those who are granted the authority to write the mainstream narrative. But this isn't purely or even predominantly a question of representation. It's the belief that those who are most marginalized should have a say in the framing of their own stories, as well as in the strategies for their own liberation and the means to get there.

Watkins expertly uses individual stories, often his own, to dissect patriotism, systematic racism, economic inequality, access to education, mass incarceration and police brutality, letting both history and experience guide him through his storytelling — a form of collective storytelling.

The frequent "Salon Talks" host switched roles so I could interview him this week. In our conversation he explains his resistance to the "activist" label, how he stays accessible and invested in his community, and the books that changed him.

How are you feeling right now? You're a three-time published author.

It's exciting, but at the same time you get nervous because you put these ideas out and you want the ideas to inspire and you want them to spark conversation, but then you also want them to piss people off, and I think this book is going to do a whole lot of all of those things. So I'm excited to see what happens.

And what does this book mean to you? Because you have a memoir, you have an essay book. This feels to me in the middle of that, merging these two sides of yourself. 

I didn't grow up in a community where a lot of activists were present. I didn't know. So, when I got into writing, I just published a couple of essays and then all of a sudden I popped up on some shows and they're like, "Oh, you're an activist," and I'm like, "I am?" Which was false because I'm not. I help people, I show love to my community, I care about people, but just because I'm a black person that knows how to put together a Word doc, it doesn't mean that's my title. So, journeying through that world and knowing that I have so many activist friends that I love and there's so many people who I care about, how can I occupy this space and not be phony? And the realist thing for me has been, OK, well you don't have to walk around with activist language.

You don't have to walk around with organizations all over your shirt and tattooed on your arm, but you can be of service to your community. You can look out for people, you can show love and you can do it in an authentic way.

I want to go back to the beginning, because not too long ago you had your five year anniversary of this essay "Too Poor For Pop Culture," which you published in Salon, and I want to start there because that was such a pivotal moment in the book and your life. And it feels very full circle. We're sitting here now five years later and I'm wondering if you can talk about the journey and how the themes from that first essay set the tone for this book?

So, when I published the essay, I didn't use words like "viral." It wasn't part of my lexicon at the time. But one day I'm in front of Old Town Mall, which is a little shopping center in Baltimore. It's abandoned. And you're talking trash and smoking cigarettes and we're making fun of each other and trading ideas and then the next day people from news places and agencies and agents and publishing places and all of these people are hitting me up and it was overwhelming because I'm like, "Yo, what just happened?"

This is after you posted the essay?

Yes, after I published this essay, I was scratching my head like, "Wait, did I just escape poverty?" And I actually didn't. But the essay was just basically talking about how information is class-based. You're not going to be a part of some of these big organizations if you don't have a smartphone, if you don't know how to use hashtags, if you don't know what these organizations are. Or some people who don't have phones, they can't even fill out job applications. They have to go to the library and may have to wait in line to use the internet and once they get on that, they only got 30 minutes. So, you've got to have everything ready so you can get that in, since there's no such thing as walking in a store and filling out an application anymore. So, technology is something that it's a privilege, but at the same time is necessary to survive.

I was in D.C. and I was interviewing one of my good friends Tony Lewis about some of the work he does and there were parking meters that only took credit cards. If you don't have a credit card — which a lot of people don't for a number of reasons — or if you don't have a debit card, which a lot of people still don't have, then you better have the $5 to buy one of them prepaid cards or you can't park. So, all of these different things exist and I just spoke about that and I guess people took that voice of me telling a simple story that was impactful and they tried to act like I was this voice of these people and I'm one of these people. I'm not their spokesperson, but I'm one of these people who has these feelings and who shares this space.

Right and that goes into what I want to talk about, the premise of the book. You begin and end the book thinking about this concept of "a seat at the table." Talk to me about the premise and the intervention you're making.

So, the seat at the table thing is simple. When I started the book it's me going to an event as an accessory. As in, you're lucky that you know somebody that knows somebody that knows somebody that can get you into this function.

Maybe you can network. I don't know how to, I still — oh man, I don't want to be embarrassed on camera — I know how to tie a tie, but I have to watch the tutorial and then once I tied my ties, I just leave them tied so that way I can just grab them.

I'm invited to this event as an accessory. So, I don't know anybody in the room. Nobody knows me and I'm in there chilling and meeting people and everything's a status. Everything is who do you know? Who are you connected to? What do you have? What's your family pedigree? And I didn't have those things.

The end of the book is I get invited because I'm a journalist. So, now I'm actually a person of interest, but this is even a higher level. So, this event was even a higher level. It was the correspondent thing and I'm looking around the room and I see all these people on television, but I don't know them personally and a lot of them weren't really familiar with my work, which is cool, but it's still that whole energy of why are you here? What did you do then? How did you earn a seat?

And it felt like the whole seat at the table, for me — and this is beyond functions and dinners and all that, it's who gets to control funding? Who's making policy? Who's doing all of these things? And a lot of people, they want these seats at the table so they can sit down and get fat, when really, you should get a seat at the table so you can flip it over and break it and make it bigger, so that a lot of other people can eat, and we don't see it. We see it sometimes, but we don't see enough of it, and I think a lot of times when people propel, when people get a chance to advance in their careers in what they do, they get caught up in the limelight like a celebrity, or they get caught up in a big paycheck, or they get caught up in all of the experiences they can have, and then the little people who they were trying to get out there and rally with and for, they just get left by the wayside.

Aside from just thinking about access, you're also thinking about narrative, right? Often it feels like you're challenging this monolithic narrative that is in the media and you work in the media and so, you're trying to actively change that. Was there a specific audience that you had in mind while writing this book?

So, I'm a college professor and I'll speak to a lot of groups of young people and they're growing up in this era of paper activism where they're thinking that I don't have to get out here and try to help clean up this neighborhood because I tweeted we need to clean the neighborhoods. I don't need to get out here and try to run for office or be working with someone in these service industries because I can just critique them from home. I can write a little essay about them. I don't have to challenge them. All I have to do is just talk about it or tweet about it or do a Facebook post that's this long and I did my part, and I'm like, "No, bro. These things don't change because we're not active in them. We need to be active. We need to focus on direct service. We need to be directly touching people."

It doesn't mean that Ms. Tweet-tweet-tweet or Mr. Tweet-tweet-tweet doesn't deserve to do that, because people can do what they want to do. I'm saying that there needs to be the element of direct service and if we're doing that then we'll start to see changes and we'll start to see them instantly. We don't have to wait 20 years and then look back and be like, "Wow, everything's the same," because we'll know that I helped these kids with their resumes and now they're helping other people with their resumes or I help these people get connected to a place that can teach them a skill and now they have skills and they're sharing those skills. You can actually see. I haven't been at this work that long and I already see results.

I have mentees that are finishing college and young people that I work with who are into film and things like that, and sometimes they do great things and sometimes they mess up and that's the thing about being accessible. When they mess up, you can be the person to give them that tough love if they get locked up or something, or give them a couple of dollars to keep them out of the streets so they can get to or through whatever they're going through. You can be that person, and direct service does that.

I feel like that was one of the most powerful points in the book and you give a lot of these examples of how you can engage in tangible action and not just this outrage or performative outrage at black death or police killings. How do we intervene in the lives of vulnerable people before this violence happens? 

After Freddie Gray died, everybody had Freddie Gray shirts and people were crying and [saying] "poor Freddie" and it was sad. It was sad, but there's so many young kids who have realities similar to his, that are around. A lot of them don't have mentors. A lot of them don't really understand how these systems work. When I was coming up, I wasn't around artists and photographers and professors and people that worked in media. These things weren't options, but if they were, maybe I would've taken school more seriously. Maybe I would have became a reader at an early age. Maybe I would have stepped outside of my neighborhood to try to build some relationships and try some different things, but I know that I didn't have it.

I know a lot of these kids are starting to get it now, but there's opportunity for us to make these relationships before these people become hashtags and I don't think we've taking advantage of it enough, because the people a lot of times and like I said, I'm not the voice, I'm a voice. Not the voice, a voice, but a lot of people who I meet who would go to these protests and we have these conversations, their language and their vibe doesn't always mesh with the person who's name they're trying to keep alive, if that makes any sense.

Right. You talk about these people at these protests, but would you have given Freddie Gray a job? 

Or would have ran across the street when you saw him? You know what I'm saying? That happened to me. I gave a talk and this lady came up to me and talking about how she literally wants to pick my brain and we're going to change the world and we will be best friends.

I went back to the venue to sign some stock a couple of days later and I saw the same lady so I just waved. I'm like, "Hey, how are you doing?" She looks and she takes off running and I'm like, "Wow," and then she turned around and she was like, "Oh, that's D. Watkins," and then she tried to run back and then by that time I was already pulling off real quick. Yeah. So, it's all phony. When you go on a podium, you're just straight God, but when you're walking up the street, you're just another black person I'm trying to stay away from and that's the vibe that's out there. So, this book is anti that vibe and I think direct service and having these conversations and building with these people will make it a little better.

You're a journalist, but also these experiences are very personal. You're writing about some larger things like Freddie Gray, Baltimore more generally, but these are your experiences, you're writing about trauma, about pain that is collective, but also personal. How have you been able to navigate that vulnerability of writing about some of these traumatic experiences for the public? 

American experiences are documented by all of these different groups in this country. Thirteen percent of this country is African American, but under 1% represented in the publishing world. So, if anything, it's not enough. So, if you can generalize us, you can throw us in boxes and that's what happens. That's why it's "We Speak For Ourselves."

So, I think it's my job to highlight and to try to bring stories that get left out of some of these mainstream race books in general. I didn't go to one of those Ivy League schools or one of those top HBCU's. I wasn't a part of a frat. I wasn't [saying] I'm going to do these things because my grandfather did this. I don't even know no grandfather. You know what I'm saying? So, I don't have those things, but it doesn't mean that I don't have positive things to contribute to society and things that could help.

Yeah. I think it also, as you said, it's a perspective that is underrepresented, still. 

And the cool thing about perspective is that sometimes I'm going to get it wrong. Sometimes when I'm right, I'm going to really get it right. I'm going to knock it out the park and when I'm wrong, I'm going to really get it wrong. Until we are able to embrace all of these different ways we view the world and nobody's ever going to be smart or know how to engage whole groups. Everybody is, like you said, monolithic, moving on the same vibe and the same wave. So, for me, I can totally love and care about my people without saying "microaggression" all the time. Not that I'm against that term, but I'm not for it either.

You have to say certain things or you'll get buried. You'll get buried for it and I don't think that's a good way to grow. I think we can have tough conversations, make each other upset, and then we learn and then we really understand how to engage people. Not in a phony way, but in a real way, because I can't help you if I'm phony.

It goes back to access too, right? Even what we were speaking on before. Who has access to these books growing up or these ideas or these theories? Someone had to create them and someone had to have access to them.

Yeah and then, so one thing I try to do with this book, and it's what I try to do with a lot of my other writing, is just writing in a language that's simple and engaging so that people don't feel intimidated by it. Because I think men should be feminist, but I think that they should understand why. They shouldn't be it because it's popular on the Internet. They shouldn't be it because they want to date a girl who says I only date men who are feminists. They should be it because they believe in equality amongst the sexes. They believe in the rhetoric that has been put out and they believe that the struggles that women have, that they shouldn't have in this country. You should believe it, but we have a whole bunch of people just saying it because it's the right thing to say. It's "politically correct." No, I don't want that type of love. I want the type that's real. Something that's real. Something that I can believe in and be so passionate about it that I want to share it with one of my friends who are doing the wrong things. I want that and I think our current culture allows you to not have to do that. All you have to do is just pull up.

Thinking about books and you talk about it in the book, you came to reading later on in life, but that it really changed you. Do you remember that one book that sparked that for you?

Oh, no doubt, Sister Souljah "The Coldest Winter Ever." Reading about Winter, Midnight and Santiago, I didn't know you could write a book like that. Don't get me wrong, I've read three books when I was a young guy. "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," "Manchild of the Promised Land" and "Narrative and Life of Frederick Douglass" and I got through those books and I definitely feel like they gave me some ammunition and some little things, some little one liners I could just throw at my friends. So, they made me like feel like I was a little more sharp, but again, they weren't contemporary. So, it was like, okay, these people are ancient to me. You know what I'm saying? They're dinosaurs and I'm a young person. So, I connected more with Nas and Jay Z. What I learned about the Black Panther Party, that stuff came from Public Enemy, in the music and all that.

So, I try to write things that are contemporary that young people can just grab and pick up and read and it makes them understand that their stories matter. Not only that they should be seen in books, but they should be sharing them with people who don't know the experiences. They should be writing them down and they should be proud. Your grandmother has been holding your family down. You have a real life hero.  If you parents figured out a way to help you get to college, even if they didn't go, you have real heroes. If your mom or dad is a coach and they're making sure kids in the neighborhood are doing positive things through playing sports, you have real heroes in your life. You should be proud of those people. They mean something and those people never get highlighted, but they do in here.

You start the book talking about this awkward event and then you close the book on a different event, but you're in a different place in your life and it's about this sense or a lack of belonging. You're not polished enough for the media elite and the drunk house parties don't quite feel right either. I was wondering if you felt like writing this book has made you come any closer to figuring out where and how you fit in and how you think about your identity from where you came from and also where you want to go?

Yeah, I think my space is just that of a servant. I'm here to serve. I'm just here to work. Obviously I'll do all of the things that I want to do in my personal life, like start a family and take care of my family and things like that, but outside of family stuff, a part of my family culture is going to be that of service. We work for people, we work for the people and sometimes it's really pretty and sometimes it's not and that's my job. I'm a servant. So, I joke with my friends because they be like, "Hey, what's up king?" And I'd be like, "I don't have a throne." You know what I'm saying? I don't have a little red hat with gold trims. I'm was just a regular guy.

But I tell them I don't want to be that. I want to work for people. I like to help people. I like to connect people. I like to do my job. That's my role. My role is to make sure these kids get books. My role is to make sure that content is being created. My role is to make sure that there's diversity in publishing and media and I still have free time. I still have free time to live in my life, but I think my role is to be... I work in service.

And to put Baltimore on the map.

I try to.

By Rachel Leah

MORE FROM Rachel Leah

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Activism All Salon Baltimore Book Community Culture D. Watkins Diversity Media Patriotism Publishing Race Representation