AUDIO: Robert Scheer Talks With Professor and Former Drug Dealer D. Watkins About Life in Baltimore
In this week’s “Scheer Intelligence”—the Truthdig editor-in-chief’s podcast on KCRW—author, professor and activist D. Watkins discusses his book about life in Baltimore and why he has chosen to stay in the struggling city.
Read the transcript:
RS: Hello, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence. And of course the intelligence comes from the guests that I’m interviewing. And we’re really fortunate to have D. Watkins, a 34-year-old writer who came to some notoriety and got a big fan base on the internet, writes for Salon. And he’s written a terrific book called “The Beast Side: Living (and Dying) While Black in America.” And I must say, I re-read it today; it’s a fast read, about 150 pages; brilliantly written, and I use that word advisedly. And I’d just like to ask you about the voices that are in this book, because there seem to be at least three or maybe four distinct perspectives, and that’s what makes it so interesting. One is someone who grew up in a very rough part of Baltimore, the Beast Side; and actually, despite being a good student, dropped out of college; despite good SATs, or as you put it, relatively good SATs coming from your neighborhood. And got into your brother, your late brother’s occupation; he had been killed, and you got involved in drug selling and so forth. But then there are these—and that voice is quite prominent in the book, that reality; and you say there are two Baltimores, as there are two parts of every city, black and white. And you say the two will not really ever meet. Then there are these other voices. There’s the voice of someone who goes on to get a master’s in education at Johns Hopkins, a very famous school. And you also get a master’s in creative writing at the University of Baltimore, where you teach creative writing. And the strength of this book is you’ve got, you’ve got it all. Was it difficult, writing it, to keep those voices separate? Or are they all part of one? Why don’t you just sort of tell me where you’re coming from in this book?
DW: I think that we are all multilayered. A lot of times, we get forced into these boxes where people want us to be one thing. Is he a black academic? Is he an activist? Is he, you know, an ex-street guy? What is he? And I’m all of these things, and I think we all have these layers, and we could do a better job at embracing them. And I tried my best to represent the many different ways I feel and the many different parts of my story in the book.
RS: Well, in that spirit, let me go to the first voice. And you say, “We are all American dream-chasers.” And one thing your book takes on is this sort of idea of throwaway people, of the people who actually live in a ghetto community, who live in black America or lower class, discriminated against, black America. And you present such a vivid image of life in the community, of people working endlessly at something, whether it’s legal or illegal; whether it’s the grandmother cooking for everyone and working at different jobs, or it’s the kid hustling drugs on the street corner. And it’s a very interesting view of a kind of vitality, often a thwarted vitality; but it challenges the basic myth that there’s somehow, these people have just sort of lost the lust for life. And the thing that drives the book is that these are complex, interesting, highly motivated people, maybe more so than any other group of people. And you hold to that, and then by the end of the book one feels this great sense of loss; that this is a community that’s not being heard, that’s being oppressed. And that’s when the educator and the, you know, writer comes out so forcefully in what’s failed and what you call pipeline schools, from school to prison. Is that sort of the overwhelming theme of the book?
DW: Yeah, and I think that one of the things in America that we fail to do is talk about that shared culture. One thing that we as black people don’t really get is the chance to show that we buy into this whole American idea of the hero story. Right? There’s a hero story; one of the reasons why many of the things that exist within this country—and I’m talking about, like, slavery and, you know, the genocide with Native Americans, and all of these different things that are left out of the narrative when we’re teaching history to our young people, is that it doesn’t fit well into the hero story. So, you know, regardless, if you’re African-American, if you’re a white person, if you’re Asian-American, Latino, whatever, but you are, you’re being brung up in American culture; you’re going to have, like, all of the things that represent the best of your culture and you’re buying into that same narrative of the hero story, whatever that hero looks like based on whatever community you come from.
RS: But one of your reminders in the book is that it is not a common heritage. And you use the example of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” singing the national anthem at sporting events. And leaving out a key part. Can you tell us that story again? Because we’ve all had that experience, being at a ball game and hearing one version of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which seems to be unifying; but you point out there’s a key part of it that is excluded in the current telling.
DW: Yeah. When most people think of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” they think of it as one song, one verse written by Francis Scott Key. But it actually was a poem, and it has four stanzas. And in the third stanza, he has a line that says no hireling or slave should be free from the gloom of the grave. And he said that, you know, if I can loosely translate it—he was, at the time there was a lot of slaves escaping the fight with the Brits, because they were promised freedom if the Brits won the war. And Francis Scott Key was disgusted by this; he thought that these slaves were ungrateful and they deserved to die because they were traitors on their country, when they didn’t really get a chance to experience the country in the same way as him. And that became so popular that Andrew Jackson actually rounded up a huge amount of slaves in Louisiana and he said, look, if you guys protect Louisiana, you can be free after the war. And those slaves, you know, many of them lost their lives protecting Louisiana, and they weren’t able to go free; he reneged on the deal and changed his mind. So I just feel like that song wasn’t really meant for the black people in this country, and you know, I don’t really salute or sing or, like, cry when the anthem comes on.
RS: Well, what’s incredible about your book is you’re able to weave these different themes. You know, you’re the educator reminding us of the complexity of our history; you’re the witness to life growing up in a certain neighborhood, a segregated neighborhood of Baltimore, and the variety of life, the lust for life that’s denied. You have—I forget how you put it—Officer Friendly who came to give you the lecture, and then you start to see him later, or his group, as Officer Asshole.
DW: [Laughs] Yeah.
RS: And that kind of pivotal experience. I remember, I think it was 2 Live Crew or something, had a song, wouldn’t it be nice if when the police came they came to help you get the cat down out from the tree; but then there’s the refrain, life ain’t like that. And your book is a constant reminder, life ain’t like that. So even when you’re successful, you’ve got the book contract, you’re teaching at a college in Baltimore—nonetheless, you’re stopped in a car. As you were harassed when you were going with a very famous actor, just walking down an alley—what are you doing in that neighborhood, what are you doing in that house? Well, it turned out you owned the house that you were entering, and you’re still being hassled. So the book is a reminder that even though you have gone on to have these measures of success, you know—two masters degrees, a book contract, being a professor of creative writing now—you’re open to the same thing that happened to all of the people you list in your book who were killed, not because they confronted the police, but because they just were trying to stay out of trouble and were killed. And you have sort of a list running through the book. And Baltimore is very much the backdrop, and what has happened in Baltimore recently, obviously, very much sets the tone for this book.
DW: Yeah, I think America needs to know that if you’re a black person and you look a certain way, and you make a wrong turn, you can easily be added to that list of unarmed people who were murdered by police officers. Or, you know, because of how society works, because of system racism, because of how so many minorities and people of color are locked out of the workforce, you could potentially be killed by a person who looks just like you; all of these things work together. So my job is, as a journalist and an author, is to just raise awareness on all of these issues, because a lot of people just don’t know. There’s a lot of, we have a lot of different people fighting for, you know, who have similar beliefs as me, who are fighting on different fronts. You mentioned 2 Live Crew earlier, but there’s, like, there’s rap artists like Kendrick Lamar, and like J Cole who are talking about these things in their music. And there’s filmmakers who are trying to get these ideas out, too. And you know, the world needs to know, is America a great country? Yes. Are we amazing when it comes to innovation and creation and art and entertainment? Yes. You know, we’re great; but at the same time, we have these dirty, dirty secrets that are attached to history. And if we truly want to be as great as we can be, then we need to solve them. We need better community-police relations; we need more opportunity for everybody; and we need to do any and everything we can to enhance social relations. RS: Well, and it’s an important lesson, educational moment, for white people. As you point out in your book, where you give the examples of white privilege; I mean, one could be a person who killed people in a church, and yet the, you know, white person, [Dylann] Roof, his name, and they brought him dinner, and they were, the police were [concerned about] his well-being. And you have a sentence, which I wrote down; you were saying, you wrote, “Talking about white privilege always makes white people uneasy. Probably because no one wants to feel like they have an unfair advantage over another person solely based on skin color.” And I must say, reading your book—because you have a description of the University of Baltimore, where you once went, an inner-city school; and it reminded me very much of City College, where I studied as a kid, and I grew up in the Bronx, you know, a long time ago. And there’s a part of you as a white person growing up that way who wants to think, hey, you know, we all had it rough; we all had to come up the hard way, or at least many of us do. But what your book is, is just a reminder, not only a reminder, that maybe in some ways the situation is worse now. Because at least earlier you had the Civil Rights Movement, and there was, you know, obvious recognition, or had to be, of the role of prejudice. And at the same time, you had a job market that was expanding, and you know, black people could get those jobs; indeed, were needed for those jobs, beginning with the war effort and so forth. And you know, the subtheme of your book is that poverty, as it particularly plays out for the black community, is the inhibitor, is the grinding, destructive force here. I may be misreading it, but to my mind, that’s the central message of the book.
DW: You know, one thing I never, I never try to do myself is like, I never try to disrespect any person’s struggle. So if you’re a white guy and you grew up in a rough neighborhood and you’re from a single-parent home and you fight your way through college and you make a career for yourself, great. You know, I’m just here to say that a black guy from the same—you know, that’s nothing, no disrespect to that white guy’s resiliency, or the things that he needed to be successful—but a black guy with the same reality might not have some of those opportunities based on policy, along with system racism and how these things work. They did a study in Baltimore, a 35-year study by a doctor named Karl Alexander. He published his findings in a book called “The Long Shadow,” where he followed 800 poor people. And he found that poor blacks have it way, way worse than poor whites. As a black person in Baltimore city, 97 percent of the people born in poverty die in poverty. A black person with no jail and some college has less of a chance at getting a job than a white person with some felonies. And you know, these things are accomplished through networks, through social fabric, through the ability to pass the job on to my buddy’s son, and things that a lot of black people in this country couldn’t establish or didn’t establish or weren’t really able to establish for a number of reasons. We could talk about education, we could talk about gentrification, we could talk about the destruction of a social fabric that gentrification brings. But you know, I think that “The Beast Side” is, it had a number of purposes. Yeah, I definitely agree with what you said; but you know, just to add on to that, it’s a love story to black people who will never, ever, ever get a chance to see themselves in a contemporary book. And it’s also, it’s a guide for white people who are from areas that are far removed. You know, it delivers a glimpse of humanity that sometimes the media—well, that the media does a great job of leaving out. You know, we talk about Trayvon Martin, we talk about Mike Brown, we talk about Freddie Gray; but we never talk about how these guys had families and friends that loved them. We never talked about their ambitions and their goals and their dreams, and the things that they wanted to do, and what they wanted to be. We just talk about the story. The Freddie Gray—the trials of the officers who murdered Freddie Gray are going on in Baltimore right now, and many of them have been postponed. But the funny thing about it is when it’s being reported on the media, all you hear is “Freddie Gray trial, Freddie Gray trial, Freddie Gray trial,” as if he’s the guy on trial. And I’m like, brother, he’s not on trial; he didn’t get his day in court, because they murdered him. So you know, the purpose of “The Beast Side” was to use these tools to enhance social relations. That was my big goal; my big goal was to say, hey, white people, this is another perspective; and, hey, black people, you know, pick a book up and read something; you’re in this book, you should like this one, this should light the fire and lead to you reading a whole, you know, a lot of different books, and develop that appreciation for literature and language and words. Because I tell you, it’s a powerful thing. I was talking to one of my white friends the other day, at how a lot of people take for granted just the whole idea of seeing yourself in a book. Seeing yourself on television, seeing yourself as a statue when you walk down the street—you can see these things, and these people look like you, and you can push towards that. Saint Mary’s College did a study a few years ago that basically said that minority, African-Americans are represented in under three percent of children’s books in the country while making up over 13 percent of the population. And when you see something in print, it becomes a universal rule; it becomes the authority. So if I’m looking at books full of people that don’t look like me, and these people represent ideas of beauty and culture and intelligence and all of these different things, I’m never, ever, ever going to look at myself in the mirror and think I’m beautiful or intelligent or smart or any of these things. So writing a book that has these images and these stories and these people is just, it’s powerful. And you know, just a little insight, since I wrote the book it’s been paying great dividends. I’m getting so many letters from jails; I’m going to, I’m making a lot of visits to high schools and middle schools, and kids are finishing, they’re finishing the book in a day, in two days—like, you know, I wasn’t reading like that in high school. So these kids are already better than me. One of the most amazing things that happened was—and I wasn’t even expecting this, because I’m not, like, a glory-hog type of guy; I’m just, I’m, you know, I’m like a, I’m just, I’m more like a regular kind of just everyday guy—but I went into a high school to address a group of kids, and they loved “The Beast Side” so much that they painted a picture of me that wrapped a whole hallway. It was crazy; like, I never, ever thought anybody, this book would touch, you know, a group of young people so much. And when I saw that, I was frustrated at a lot of different things, but it just made me stop and say, you know what? You’re doing the right work; you’re doing your job. You don’t need to focus on the literary world, you don’t need to focus on fame, or you don’t need to focus on, you know, little cocktail parties or trophies; you’re creating a book that’s getting young people excited about reading. You’re doing the job, pat yourself on the back. And that was the first time I’d actually ever celebrated anything that had anything to do with writing in my whole career.
RS: Well, it’s deserving of celebration. And ironically, we’re—I’m recording this interview with D. Watkins, the author of “The Beast Side,” from the Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism at USC. And fortunately, we’re in a sound, I’m in a soundproof studio; D. Watkins is in Baltimore at an NPR studio. But we’re having a conference right now on the other side of this room. Stacy Smith, one of our terrific professors here, has been conducting a study about the underrepresentation—in fact, the last few years, the nonrepresentation—of black people and brown people in the film industry and in television. And the appalling, you know, situation that developed this year of no awards for people who portray black people in any kind of situation of complexity. And so it’s interesting. We have, I can see television cameras finally waking up—oh! Yeah! How come—none. And—[Laughter]
DW: I got a little story about that. I got a quick little story about that for you, too. You know, before Jada Pinkett, before any of this news came out about her boycott on the Oscars or anything, she invited me out to her crib, and I gave her a copy of “The Beast Side.” [Laughs] You know, it might have, might have woke the revolution up in the household a little bit. I dropped a couple copies off to her and her brother last time I was in L.A.
RS: Oh, great. [Laughs] So, anyway, I do want to say something about one of the strengths of this book, is it makes it clear that you can do all the right things that society claims when it says, no mind, a mind is a terrible thing to waste, and we should really try and have magnet schools, and so forth. But you point out that it cuts across class when you’re black. And that, and there’s an interesting study; it’s funny, because on one page in your book you refer, you say here, “I remember asking my friend Ron from West Baltimore about the recession after the market crashed in 2008, and he laughed, quote, ‘Recession? What recession? Everything is the same around here.’” But one of the things about this Great Recession is if you look at the Federal Reserve study—and I’ve mentioned this on other shows that I’ve done—done by the Federal Reserve of St. Louis, that black people lost, the black community that had gone to college, graduated from a four-year college, did everything right—they lost 70 percent of their worth. Not just their income, their worth. And brown people lost 60 percent. Why? Because they were targeted for these lousy home loans; they were targeted to be ripped off; you know, get the liar’s loans, and all those things. And one of the points you raised in your book, speaking as an educator, as somebody who’s gotten his master’s in that field, you raised the question, maybe that’s what we’re educating for. That maybe, you know, we don’t really—the schools are broken by design. I wonder if you could comment on that a bit.DW: It’s, you know, it’s really, really simple if you look at how these schools are tax-based and they’re running off the same system. You know, and we’re not really doing anything to fix it; we’re not really making changes. You can walk in, in the school, you can walk into a school that’s in an affluent neighborhood in the suburbs or something like that, and then you can walk in a school in a black neighborhood, and easily tell the difference. You know, a lot of people called me a conspiracy theorist when I was talking about social reproduction; social reproduction isn’t my idea. This idea has been around for a long time. To sustain capitalism, you must create a permanent underclass; that’s how this country works. You do that through education, you do that through housing, you do that through discriminatory policies. It’s very simple. As far as the housing crisis, I was disgusted, you know, when I found out the amount of African-Americans, black and brown people who lost their homes in comparison to everyone else. But if you even look at, like, a lot of things that are being published today, you know, in this country a white person with a median income of around $40,000 can afford to live in a neighborhood with black people with a median income of around $100,000. And how do these things play out? I don’t know. Is it all a coincidence? I don’t think so. But still, through it all, one of the things that I’m doing, one of the things that I’ve been working on with fellow activists is promoting ownership. Through all of it, ownership. You know, why are we, why are we making it, why are we becoming successful? You know, for those of us who are lucky enough to obtain success, why are we leaving these neighborhoods? Why aren’t we staying in these neighborhoods and buying these houses and recreating that social fabric and being the opportunity creators, versus waiting for the government or some big, large company to create opportunities? Why are we being those people? If we can do that and we can dictate the market, then maybe we can avoid some of those things, like what happened with the housing crisis in this country. Because those people, a lot of those people who identified as being successful, were people who were leaving their neighborhoods to move different places before they actually were losing their homes.
RS: Yeah. But you know, in the book, you have a poignant description of your feelings about the victory of Barack Obama. And you say you were quite thrilled by it, but at the same time, somewhat disappointed. And we’re now in the middle of an election season. And we’re told, you know, oh, Hillary Clinton’s got the black vote, sew it up; and then you got the Black Caucus Political Action Committee saying this is the way to go, and so forth. And you raise some questions in the book about where is leadership; you have a dig at the minister’s group that shows up every time, including Jesse Jackson, you know, showing up every time there’s a killing, and you know, but nothing changes. And I was really quite thrilled to get, read in your book your tribute to Sister Souljah. I don’t know if people remember Sister Souljah much; I actually interviewed her for Playboy magazine and for the L.A. Times when Bill Clinton maligned her. And you say in your book—and he used her in the election; he used her to, you know, put distance between himself and Jesse Jackson, and to appeal to people who wanted a distance. And you say in your book, “I wasn’t hooked on books until I read Sister Souljah’s ‘The Coldest Winter Ever,’” and then you go on to mention other people. Could you just say a word about her? Because she’s—you know, she’s gone on to write a number of important books, but she’s somebody who was demonized at a critical point by the very people in our political system who claim to have a great interest in helping black people.
DW: The other day I tweeted, I tweeted that black people who vote for the Clintons are crazy. The Clinton, Clinton policies jailed my whole family and all of my friends. [Laughs] It got like 500 likes and another 450 retweets; a lot of black people felt the same way. When I first saw Sister Souljah speak, I was, it was way back in the day, back when she was still running with, she was, like, locked in with Public Enemy. And I remember her not—I remember her looking like women from my neighborhood, but when she opened her mouth up, she was just, she was just so political and intelligent and sharp. And I always remembered her. So a couple years later, when I first discovered the book, you know, I remembered, I remembered her; I remembered that name, and how she spelled “Souljah,” and I remembered all of that. And someone recommended it to me, and I had read a book called “Fire in a Canebrake” that was maybe like one of the first books I completed as an adult. And you know, it kind of, like, woke me up a little bit. But “The Coldest Winter Ever,” I didn’t know you could write like that. Like, I didn’t know that a person who had a reality different from mine, but kind of similar—because of the content of the book, and then the knowledge and the jewels and the gems that she was dropping in that book, and then it was a page-turner, and then I finished it in like two days. And it was just, it blew my mind. And I just, like, you know, from that point on, I, you know, I was woke; I was like, yo, I did not know you could write like that. My whole life—so you’re telling me books like “The Coldest Winter Ever,” and even if we want to take it old school and go back to, like, the Beat poets and all that—these types of books exist, but you give us Mark Twain? You give us Ben Carson and “Gifted Hands”? We don’t want to read no “Gifted Hands,” you know what I’m sayin’? We don’t want to read that. We’re—and this is no disrespect to Mark Twain and the genius that Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer was, but you got, you know, we project kids, we surrounded by automatic weapons and dirt bikes and lead paint poison and all types of pain and being overexposed to everything. So it’s like, you have to meet us on our level. Sister Souljah’s book hit me, and it hit me hard. And I read it, and then I read it again. And I was, you know, I was—she helped me become a reader; her art helped me become a reader. And I’m proud of that, and that book went on to do really well; it’s like over million copies in print.
RS: You know, but it’s interesting. Your book has none of the—it’s not an easy book to attack. It’s full of a great life force; it’s a book the pope would praise. [omission] You know, but that’s true of Sister Souljah. As I was saying, your book is an opening to people. It’s really accessible to anyone who reads it, without prejudice; it’s, what it’s done is what, you know, Jesus does in Luke, the tale of the Good Samaritan. It reminds people that everyone out there has a soul, every life is important, and everyone cares about their—I forget the way you put it, but everyone wants to be recognized and function and survive and succeed and everything else. That there’s this common humanity. And that was, you know, unfortunately denied in our own Constitution, whether, you know, black people were fully human. And it’s been denied at different times in our history. But your book exudes this great sense of common humanity. And I think that one incident for me, when Bill Clinton attacked Sister Souljah, I felt—wait a minute. Wait a minute. Are they going to destroy anyone who stands up, anyone who brings up a troubling reality, reminds us that we do have real problems? Are they just going to all be demonized? And I think, you know, right now in this election I think it’s sort of interesting that once again, we have this kind of, oh, you have to fall in line and accept; and yet what you’re falling in line to accept is really not a good thing, you know? Goldman Sachs, the banks, everything; I don’t know, I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but it struck me when I got to that page in your book. You know, I thought, wow.
DW: You know, that same hero story is going on. You know, even Bernie’s your hero, or Hillary’s your hero, or Trump’s your hero. You know. You know, it’s the same, it’s that same hero story in a country that’s so divided. It’s so divided. It makes a lot of people, millennials especially, become disenchanted with party politics. You know, there’s no middle ground; there’s no shared culture. Either you love these people or you hate these people. And that’s a huge problem, and that’s something that, you know, I wish we had a unifying candidate that could bring people together. But right now, either you’re red or you’re blue. And I don’t know how to get there, but with the limited amount of power I have, and what I do locally, is kind of like the only thing I can do to make a difference on that front. When I have speaking engagements and book events around Baltimore city, they tend to be mixed. You get black dudes who are professionals, and black dudes from the street; and you get white hipsters and rock-band guys and white guys who are like, you know, yuppies. And there’s some Asians and Mexicans, and you get a nice little mix of people. And some of my other friends who are in our community in Baltimore, when we collaborate on things we’re bringing people together and we’re trying our best to enhance social relations through art and communication. But we still live in a super-divided country. I don’t even know if black people go to Trump rallies. It’s like, it’s crazy. And then some of the language used—make America America again? Like, I mean, we can read between the lines; we’re not crazy. And I don’t even know how to get, like a Hillary or a Bernie supporter to acknowledge some of the frustrations that exist within Trump supporters. And I don’t even know if they know what their frustrations are; they’re just happy and mad. Like [laughs] they’re happy for him and they’re mad at everything else. So you know, I just think that as individuals we’re great; and we’re great and we’re responsible for being able to try to have a positive impact on the people that we can have a positive impact on, whether it be ten people or 20 or 30 or whatever. But we just have to keep doing the work.RS: You know, I could end on that positive note; but I do want to push it just one step further, because—
DW: Hey, take it, yeah, as long as you want, man.
RS: OK. Because the organizing theme of this podcast series that I’m doing for KCRW and for NPR is the notion of American originals. That this country, because of its, you know, crazy-quilt of cultures and different, you know, how people got here, some as slaves and some finding freedom, and all the different backgrounds and all the madness that went into this country, and people not melting, and so forth—but it’s produced truly original people. So you mention the Beatniks, and you know, one coming up in this series is Lawrence Ferlinghetti, one of the original Beat poets. And he was a naval commander in World War II, and then he saw the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; he was one of the first to visit, and he became a pacifist. Or I have Ron Kovic, who was a Vietnam vet and wounded and paraplegic, and then he responds by being a peace activist. And so the question I put to all these different folks is, how did you survive the adversity, or were you made by the adversity—and yet you come out being a kind of person that maybe only this culture could have produced? I’m not singing, you know, singing American uniqueness here; but in your own case, how do you go from this stark background that you describe in this book, to having this open, pro-life, in the best sense of pro-life, attitude? And actually, the book is, I recommend to everyone, read the book; it’s extremely well written, but it’s also very positive, oddly enough. How did you survive—how did your positive attitude survive and actually get nurtured by this horrible experience of seeing so many of your friends killed, and you know, such a harsh reality?
DW: So, you know, for one, I didn’t make it out of anything. At the core, I’m the same person. I have the same friends, I’m in the same places, I do pretty much the same thing. The only difference is I’ve discovered a few places outside of my neighborhood from Baltimore where I like to go eat at, and write and kick it sometimes. But other than that, like, I’m the same person, and I’ve always been the same person at the core. You know, I don’t subscribe to this idea of obtain some success and move out to the suburbs and get a little picket fence and never go back. Like, I’m not into that; I love being in the city, it’s a part of me and my character, and the hugest part of my writing. And more importantly, I’m from the, I honestly, truly think that I’m from the tradition of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, whereas these are people who obtained freedom, but they still went back to try to help their friends and family members get the same thing. So I got to go back into these high schools, I got to be in these communities, I have to be in these places where people are going through the same struggles or even, you know, more, like rougher situations at times. Because I have to use my resources and what I know as a writer, and what I know as an educator, to get people excited about reading and to have love for their own stories and get them excited about telling their stories. And I have to partner with my friends who do the same thing in financial literacy, and my other friends who do the same thing in fitness, and my other friends who do the same thing with sports, right? We all have these different skills that we’re good at, and I think it’s our responsibility to work really, really hard to try to obtain mastery and then take that mastery and share that skill with somebody who was never exposed to it. Because when I was growing up, I never knew a writer or a filmmaker or a photographer or, basically, anybody that didn’t sell drugs or work for the city or was, you know, like a homeless guy or something. I didn’t really know people that really dreamt of being professional artists and professors and things like that. So I have to be in these places so a little kid can say, oh yeah, there’s the, dude a college professor; oh, homeboy, you know, he write articles for newspapers and all that. So me being accessible, me being visible, is helping them. And that’s where my positivity comes from: being able to say that I’ve helped other writers in Baltimore get literary agents, black and white. I’ve helped other writers in Baltimore—I helped one who’s on the verge of getting a book, though he didn’t sign it yet, but we’re close; and then I helped a whole bunch of other writers in Baltimore get exposure on radio stations and publish articles with places like [Baltimore] City Paper, Baltimore Sun, Salon, and things like that. So that’s where my positivity comes from. How do I share those skills? How do I continue to be accessible? How do I work hard at becoming better myself while using whatever resources I have to help another person make it? And if I can do that, and continue to do that, then I feel like I’m doing my job. For my city, and not just my people, but for the people, you know, in general.
RS: Let me ask you to tell one last story. My favorite character in your book, “The Beast Side”—clearly not about beasts, but the way it’s described—was a fellow who had a job with the city. And you describe what happened to him, and his kindness, and yet being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
DW: Yeah, he was a, his name was Free; we used to call him Mook…and he just, he got a raw deal. You know, on Friday nights—and we still do this on Friday nights; sometimes we go on Caroline Street and we get, like, takeout. And we sit out front and we eat, and sometimes we drink, and we talk and joke and we tell stories. And I always tell people, because they think I’m joking, but I’m not the best storyteller from my neighborhood; like, I’m just one. Like, there’s so many people that if they picked their pen up, I would be in trouble. [Laughs] You know? They’re great storytellers, and he was one of them. And we would sit out there and we would tell stories and we would laugh and we would joke. And this particular time, there was another guy that was out there with them who had static with another guy. And some people told him to leave, and he was having a good time, and he felt like it wasn’t as urgent. And sometimes it’s like that; sometimes people are too cautious, sometimes they aren’t, you never really know. But in his situation, when the dude came back and shot at them, the bullet hit a wall, ricocheted off the wall, and then went through his head. So it’s like, you know, he was a good guy, he had two daughters; he used to always call himself the mayor of this neighborhood. The neighborhood is really called Deakyland, but you know, it’s East Baltimore; Johns Hopkins calls it Middle East Baltimore. We used to call it Deakyland, he was the mayor of Deakyland; he used to, he wasn’t a street guy; he was – but he always hung around the streets; his family lived around there, he lived around there. You know, he would just always be around there, talking trash and having fun, and joking about, or telling all of us how we need to be organ donors. And he caught a raw deal, he caught a raw deal. I still feel bad about that to this day. Because I…my cousin got killed, he was like 36, and a couple of other guys. And it’s like, I’m used to, I was used to a lot of guys getting murdered when we was like 15 and 17 and all that, but once you’ve been around for a while and you’ve got homeboys that’s in their mid-thirties and forties, and close to 50 years old, getting shot, you’re like man, where in the hell am I living at? Like what is going on? Like these are, like, legit, you know, getting ready for your grandparent years and all that; like, how you catching stray bullets? And it’s just, you know, it’s crazy. Intercommunity crime is crazy, man. It’s just a rough situation.
RS: You know, people listen to this show because we’re going out over NPR, and other places; probably be on the Huffington Post, and Truthdig and other places. The word “gentrification”—I live in downtown L.A., and part of me welcomes gentrification; you know, we didn’t have a supermarket for a long time. [Laughs] And you know, you want these things. And on the other hand, what your book describes is really the destruction of another community. And a way of avoiding thinking about other people. And do you have—maybe that’s a good point on which to conclude this, but you know, what’s happening in places like Baltimore, or Brooklyn, New York, or other places, where we have a model now of saving the city by destroying the home of a lot of people who used to be able to live a good life in the city? A poor life, but a good life.DW: You know, saying yes to something is always saying no to something else. And when I write that article, people are always, or people who don’t really fully understand the article—I guess because they skim it, in the age of attention deficit disorder or whatever—but I’m not anti-gentrification; I’m not, I’m not against it. My issue is, why would you ride past—and this is for a city like Baltimore; this is a different model from Brooklyn, because it’s different everywhere. But in Baltimore, why would you ride past eight blocks of boarded-up homes, to eight blocks of homes where people have been there for generations, and force them to move, without fixing the boarded-up houses that are already there? It doesn’t make any sense. The main thing that makes me upset about gentrification is the destruction of social fabric. And what that basically means is, you know, let’s just say if I live on Durham Street, and across the way from me there’s a guy named Joe, and Joe has a nephew that’s getting in trouble. And Joe comes to me and he says, D, man, my nephew, he’s getting in trouble, man. And I know you a plumber, can you teach him how to be a plumber so he can get a job, and we can keep him out of jail. So I say sure, Joe, no problem. And I bring in Joe’s nephew, I teach him how to be a plumber, he’s making a livable wage, and he works with me for maybe a year or two. And he knows enough to start his own business. So now he has his own business, and he needs new plumbers that he can pull from the neighborhood, the community, and he can bring them in, and grandfather them in, and teach them the system, and we’re sharing those skills. And people are working, and that’s what social fabric does; it gives you a group of people to watch your kids when you go on a job interview or on a date, or whatever you try to do; it gives you some people you can borrow money from, some people you can go in business with. All of these different things exist within these communities, and it doesn’t matter if it’s homeowners or not; you know, social fabric exists within communities. And outside people who buy up and bulldoze and demolish these neighborhoods don’t really understand that. And in Baltimore city, it’s happened in mostly black neighborhoods. Now, the flip side of that is—well, it has happened in some white neighborhoods, but it mostly happened in black neighborhoods. And the flip side of that is in a place like Baltimore city, let’s just say, you know, that social fabric is destroyed—it’s not like New York City. I can’t take a train—you know, if they move me to one side of town, I can’t take a 15, 20-minute train to go see my friend. Our subway has three stops. To get from East Baltimore to West Baltimore by bus, it takes a month. [Laughter] It’s the worst public transportation in the country, I guarantee it. Worst public transportation in the country. I went to a project, a housing project reunion party—we have those—a housing project reunion party, and I saw two people talk; they didn’t see each other in like ten, 15 years just because the public transportation is so bad and they don’t have cars. So gentrification is great for bringing businesses to areas, to fixing up deplorable and messed-up homes and all of these different things, but when you’re ripping apart established communities while driving right past communities that aren’t, that are vacant, then you’re letting us know that you’re just trying to displace black people and black neighborhoods and create an infrastructure to do what you want to do. And that’s not the right way to do it. There’s a right way to do it and a wrong way to do it, and I think our city has been doing it the wrong way. And this one guy, it’s funny because I was like a 33-year-old kid—well, not even a kid, a 33-year-old guy from East Baltimore. And it was like me being like a close to 70-something-year-old guy, white guy from Germany who gets money from Johns Hopkins hospital—he gets, first of all, Germany pays him to live in America, and then he’s an architect, and his clients are like Johns Hopkins hospital, and…all these places that buy up these neighborhoods. And he told me, he wrote an article attacking me, saying that I’m a cranky old man. He said I’m a cranky old man who doesn’t like change, and he wants to debate me, and so I met him on the radio station for like a friendly debate, and he ended up agreeing with me, because he didn’t understand how social fabric works. And of course he would have that stance, because he’s making money off of it both ways.
RS: Well, he should know, because one of the things that’s kept Germany going is the sense of the village, a kind of line that Hillary Clinton robbed, you know, it takes a village. And I just must say, you know, one—I think the most important reason to read this book—let me ask you about, I’m going to get to why it’s most important, but “The Beast Side.” That’s the, is that the name that’s used for the community that you grew up in?
DW: Not as much as it was back when I was a kid. You know, as a young guy; they call me a dinosaur now, but back when I was a kid, it was always this thing about what was more rough, East Baltimore or West Baltimore. And dudes from East Baltimore, talking like my uncles and older brothers and them, yeah, we’re from the beast side…beast side. And always, that word “beast side” just always stuck, like it just stuck with me. I used to scribble it on my notebook, and scribble it writing on the desk and the wall and all that, and playing around and whatever. But I never thought it would be on the front of a book that I would actually write.
RS: Well, but it’s an important reminder that whatever label we have for a community, there’s people living there who have vibrant lives and the same aspirations that everyone else has. And I think this book is coming at a really important time, because in the United States now, the question is, are we going to take care of people? Are we going to give them the opportunity, or are we going to outsource them? You know, that’s really what you’re talking about. And are you going to—you have some really, we’ve had a nice chat here, but you have some very depressing images in this book about how we treat people, the militarization of the police, the constant harassment, the killing of innocent young people, the hostility, and this image of the pipeline school. I wanted to end on a positive note, but your book is really a powerful reminder of how we have failed as a culture, and why with any sense of humanity, we should reverse course. So this is Robert Scheer for Scheer Intelligence. I’ve been talking to D. Watkins, the author of “The Beast Side: Living (and Dying) While Black in America.” Thanks for joining us.
DW: Thank you.Your support matters…
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