Why I won't stop writing about "trauma" to focus on joy

"Why not highlight the good, the funny?" a respected author and scholar asked me. This is why

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published July 31, 2021 7:30PM (EDT)

Person typing at computer (Getty Images)
Person typing at computer (Getty Images)

"I want to use your work, D," a good friend who teaches high school English — I'll call her Vee — told me at a mixer, in front of a couple of artists we hang out with. "But it is triggering. It's so violent that I can't stand to read it." 

To be a Black artist in an era of trauma, to write honestly about a traumatized world, from inside Trauma Land. The conflicting expectations, needs, and complexities dance slowly inside my skull, up and down, grinding against the walls.

I took a beat before responding to Vee –– a long beat, where I looked at myself, the things I endured, the many clichés that many Black men of my generation have also endured, like shootings, police violence, poor schools, no health insurance, and a string of bad relationships that include ex-lovers who enjoyed hurling aerosol cans and TV remote controls at our heads on the nights we stayed out drinking too late. I think about how I mention these brutal stories in a lot of my work, while making a serious effort to weave them in and around a thoroughly researched historical context to provide a bigger picture of why our people were shooting, why our schools were poor and why those young ladies tested their arm strength against us. And I responded with something light, like, "I feel you. You know I don't want to ruffle feathers. I just want to tell my story." 

But what I really wanted to say was this: "You are in Baltimore. Many of the kids in this city are living these stories. How does it help them if we act like the pain doesn't exist? Using art as a tool to process and explain trauma is the only therapy many of us will be able to access."

I'd tell her that the conversation about promoting joy over pain is cute on the Internet, but it's not a complete story. A lot of us are in constant pain. However, I can't respond like that. It's not in my nature. After all, I don't want to ruffle any feathers.

But then I had my own feathers ruffled during a friendly debate with a colleague I'll call the Doctor. The Doctor is a highly respected, award-winning, bestselling author. We were having a sandwich in D.C. and he was telling me how much he admired my work, both my writing skills and the connection I have with nontraditional readers, especially in the Baltimore region. However, like Vee, he said he often gets lost in the overwhelming amount of darkness in my work. 

Overwhelming, I thought? Because he said it in a laughing manner, I decided to step out of character and push back a little. I pointed out that our backgrounds are significantly different. 

"I didn't have scholarly parents like you. I'm from the bottom — my neighborhood was literally called Down Bottom," I said. "I didn't grow up on acres of land with a big house, full of countless books to thumb through when bored. As a matter of fact, I didn't have any concept of a quality structural education at all. As far as the men in my family go, I'm a first generation high school graduate. All we really had was the block, Doc, and we had to survive that. I guess part of that survival is sharing the stories."

The Doctor raised an eyebrow while pulling at the thin strands of hair on his chin, then challenged me back.

"You are such a funny guy, though," he said. "Why not highlight the good, the funny? I know it wasn't all bad. The 'hood can't be sooooo awful, I mean, come on!"

I explained to him that resiliency is currency where I'm from, so celebrating the triumphs and promoting that is good in a way. But in the end I simply agreed to disagree with him. 

 "You know that 'sooooo awful' is perspective, right?" I laughed. "Your awful isn't necessarily my awful." 

"Go to hell, D. Watkins!" he laughed back. 

Vee is one of my favorite educators and the Doctor is one of my favorite scholars — a very important contemporary voice on race, in my opinion — and I respect both of them enough to take their feelings on literature into consideration.

So I lounged in my office on a recent lazy Saturday and re-examined my body of work, created across different phases of my life. Not just my books — I looked at old essays, interviews, the embarrassing grad school stories I crafted before I found my voice, op-eds for major newspapers like the New York Times and The Guardian. So much freelance work. 

The Doctor and Vee were both right, in a way. I'm a pretty dark guy. Or at least I have a history of publishing some dark nonfiction material: kill, kill, kill, and murder, more killing and more murder. A lot of my writing, especially my older work, feels extra dark right now, and rightfully so. I've been in the streets for most of my life. I wrote three books and most of my articles while living in one of the worse neighborhoods in America. I've since relocated to a different part of Baltimore and have already seen slight changes in my writing after the move. My life also includes marriage and fatherhood now. But all of this is a part of my story. So that leaves me with a question: Should I downplay my background and my formative experiences when I write to make other people feel comfortable? To further our current cultures new obsession with joy? What I even be able to appreciate that joy or explain its relevance if I didn't have those dark experiences to compare it to? 

I thought about those question for days, even asking myself if I had the right to tell the stories of the people who struggled with me but never escaped our turbulent origins as I did. Some are dead, some incarcerated. My incarcerated friends love when I write about our street days; they print them out and tack them to the tattered walls of their cells. I assume that guys like the Doctor don't know about the connections many incarcerated people have and feel with my work, or he would have considered their feelings before making his case. Obviously I can't ask my friends who have passed how they fell about the way I write about us, but I have a collection of notes and personal letters from their surviving family members: Thank you so much, D, for keeping my brother alive. I write for them. Without them, there would be no me. 

The elephant that must be acknowledged is that Baltimore is overflowing with pain. It's hard to write here and not engage with that pain unless you are completely disconnected from reality. I still do my community work; however, a lot of it is becoming more and more remote, and not all by choice. I get invited to speak in different states, and I travel to different countries. And when I'm home, I'm spending time with my wife and daughter, my mentees, my close-knit artist community and my family, not at large functions, or on the basketball courts Down Bottom, or by the projects where I was raised. My perspective has changed over the past few years, along with my value system. But I still feel the weight of the pain I survived and I believe that journey is important. So even as I moved away from it, I decided to keep telling my story, doubling down on exposing the ills of the system and how they affected me and others like me. 

Keep in mind the audience I built was mostly high school students, college freshman, youth offenders, and incarcerated men and women who love Baltimore and the way I write the city. I used to pull up to the events wearing a hoodie or T-shirt and whatever type of Nikes, and always had a great time. I did receive invites to the more stuffy, literary types of events, and those talks went well, but I was lucky enough to have my people as my core audience. The events kept coming in, and my work kept building on itself, and my profile grew, without me making any significant changes in how I wrote.  I found myself on bigger and bigger stages, presenting the same types of work. But it wasn't until I was asked to be a guest on a popular radio show that I started wondering how the people who run those bigger stages see me through my writing.  

The producers loved my book and were happy to have me on for a prerecorded segment. Even though it wasn't live, they asked me to be at the station early, around 7 a.m. So I pulled up around 6:30, extra tired and even more hungry. When they let me in a studio, I was met with an enthusiastic, "Yo, D, what's up, bro! Let's get it!" from one of the hosts. I felt their energy and instantly woke up, ready to start the show. Then bottle girls came out.

Remember, this was 7 o'clock in the morning­­. I hadn't even had a cup of coffee yet. Two women with buckets of Grey Goose and Belvedere on ice sashayed into the room. One of the young ladies said, "We did our homework and we know all of your favorites!" Another producer joined the party: "Hell yeah, dawg! Turn up!" 

I tried my best not to look confused. "I appreciate y'all so much and thank you for thinking of me," I said. "But it's too early for alcohol. I'm not on vacation, I'm trying to sell books. Do you have any coffee or tea?" 

Everyone in the room was laughing except for me. Yes, I have written about the phase in my life when my friends and I loved top shelf vodka early in the morning. But I was in my early twenties then. Nowadays I'm perfectly fine with the mid-tier stuff, if I'm drinking at all. And I normally don't even drink with strangers. I don't like the way hard liquor makes me feel anymore. And — once more — it was early in the morning. What had I written or said that would make them think that was a reception I would welcome? Maybe they figured the amount of trauma I have written about has earned me extended drinking hours? Maybe my books depress them so much that they needed a drink. 

I completed an awkward interview — no one took a drink — and left the studio thinking about Vee and the Doctor, imagining them telling me that was my fault, that my stories gave those people the license to approach me with shots for breakfast. But is it really my fault? I've written about liquor, but also about how much time I spend writing in coffee shops, and they didn't approach me with a fancy latte. I've written a lot about my love for food, especially West African cuisine, but I wasn't greeted with egusi stew and pounded yam fufu. So is the problem me and my writing, or what people choose to take away from it? I can't control that.

I have enjoyed books like Richard Price's "Clockers," "Random Family" by Adrian LeBlanc and "Ghettoside" by Jill Leovy — all white authors who wrote deeply about a Black experience. The problem is that white authors are celebrated when they project the horrors that exist inside of Black communities, but if I do it I am triggering someone, making the joy-mongers feel bad — I'm the Golden Globe- and Oscar-winning director of all trauma porn. On the success of their work, writers like Price, LeBlanc and Leovy get bigger book deals, major awards, TV and film deals. I get a bunch of lip from my peers for not dwelling in the fantasy world of limitless joy? I've lived the stories I write. I walk with the limp and have the scars and nightmares to prove it. Do I have to die to own the right to tell the stories of the times people tried to kill me?

Justifying why I write what I write has not been difficult for me. But I struggled again about how I am perceived as an artist after being approached by a white woman — I'll call her Beverly — who wanted to co-write a television show with me loosely based on my life in Baltimore. It should have been a red flag that she is not from a Black community and didn't seem to be deeply connected to one, outside of the Internet, and yet she wrote a lot about Black characters, experiences and issues. Blinded by her wit, industry knowledge, organization skills and my desire to break into the TV industry, I ignored my instinct to run as fast as I could in the other direction, and we started working on the project. After a few years of her telling me that I wasn't ready — I wasn't polished enough, I didn't have the skills to pitch to a major network — she told me that if I sent her some pictures of me worn down and shot up in the hospital, pictures that I don't even own, pictures that I know Larry David or Ted Danson wouldn't be required to submit as part of a pitch, then maybe we would have a shot at selling my story. This request came years after I met her, became a New York Times bestselling author, signed a deal to work on two HBO projects as a writer and consultant, and won multiple awards from my writing and teaching. I wasn't a total dud. But in her eyes, I was not enough. I had to be sensationalized, even in my own story.

Maybe this was my fault. Maybe me allowing her to have full access to my ideas, my stories, my triumphs and my downfalls gave her a license to see me as a commodity. Maybe when you put yourself out there as an artist you give everyone who consumes your art the same license. And people can do what they want with that license: reward it, celebrate it, trash it, and yes, call it trauma porn. The only thing that balances me after analyzing the cocktail of all these events is realizing that there is no balance. To be a Black artist in an era of trauma, in a world of trauma, I have to make the art that I want to make. I have to ignore what's going to be appropriate to social media audiences this week, because it probably won't be appropriate for social media next week either. I have to ignore the constantly evolving rhetoric that's sometimes so woke it's woking itself in circles, allowing nothing to be done. 

I don't want to be a part of a movement of fake, forced positivity. But I also don't want to write for people who only want to consume and glorify a poor, downtrodden Black experience. The only solution for me, and the advice I would give to other artists who struggle with this, is this: Tell your truth. Accept your truth, and do not let other people twist, bend or mold it into the version of your truth they want to see.

The ability to call someones life "Trauma Porn" or lust after someone's pain to enhance you art career is a luxury that many of us never had. My colleagues who feel my work is too dark don't truly get me and my struggles or my work, as i I do not fully understand them. And that is OK. Let's normalize agreeing to disagree. There's a whole spectrum of human experience between joy and trauma, too. And we need to be free to tell all of our stories. 

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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