An evening with D. Watkins

“I want my stuff back,” says spoken word artist Lady Brion.
“Uh uh, Miley! You ain’t slick, bending over Robin don’t make you thick.”

This was the start of the evening for D. Watkins’ book release, The Cook Up. The evening consisted of poetry, history, comedy, and lessons from East Baltimore life. The reading was in the Learning Commons building on Maryland Avenue. Many guests who attended left with something insightful or something to ponder harder about. The room was brightly lit, with guest pouring in minute after minute.

Lady Brion was one of the three poets introducing the author with vivid descriptions of emotions Black women feel. The evening consisted of this theme: the lives and emotions of Black people. Lady Brion opened with “The Twerk Poem.” She reclaimed culture while defining misappropriation of Black culture and Black bodies. Her poem grew from the connection twerking has to ancestry, being labeled as a “hoe”, and finally the famous quote from rapper Nicki Minaj, “Miley What’s good?” She introduced two other poets, detailing the plight sexual abuse of young Black women while the other contrasted with female sexuality.

She spoke on being abused, saying:

“[This poem] was a way to reclaim my body against my sexual abuser. I shoot the man that made me victim. I shoot the man to make him victim. I shoot the man that told me my womanism is of the devil as if he knew the demons that troubled me.”

The contrast came with the following, “I wear this black ink over my body like henna or hickies.” The final poet used the distance of the metaphor, equating words to sex and the excitement she feels when writing a poem. These poems encompass pleasure and pain- themes discussed in “The Cook Up.”

Nia Johnson moderated the rest of the evening, introducing the person we had been waiting for: Mr. D. Watkins. Watkins has a particular charm found  in Baltimore natives, displayed in his use of humor to break the ice. He describes the walk onto the stage like, “I walked into class late.” It was his choice to start the evening with the female poets and female moderator because, “Males dominate panels. I am tired of the same male voices. Give respect to the women voices.” Watkins explains how the women is his life have been a driving force and a key factor in the Black community. He then begins to describe his newest creations as a book about humanity.

He wants to give a voice to the dead but more importantly, Watkins’ wants to encourage literacy and extracurricular reading for his students. Watkins acknowledges the importance of education and reading comprehension. He made a joke in which he says generations and generations of people do not read could be referred to as Trump supporters. He goes deeper into meanings and ideas in his book like the war on drugs/drug trade, life after being arrested, and the “crabs in the barrel” phrase.

For those unfamiliar with the phrase crabs in a barrel can best be described as: “If I can’t have, you can’t either.” A crab that crawls to the top is pulled down by other crabs. Most often used when describing social situations referring to those in less affluent areas and mostly areas filled with minorities. He hates the phrase, giving audience members this idea to think on- is a barrel a crab’s natural habitat? Are the crabs pulling each other down or trying to save the crab from what is on the other side?

“War on drugs was created to get rid of hippies and Black people. Nixon planted the seed,” Watkins says, “Nixon planted the seed. Reagan and Bushed fertilized and the Clintons harvested it.” He drives the point home about the drug trade that many people are caught in- “We don’t blame the victim. Blame the society that creates these issues.” He neither demonizes nor glorifies the way of life. He then spoke on his writing process.

“I rewrote the book four time, due to legal reasons. Some things you can and can’t talk about. [Initially] the book had 45 secondary characters. Growing up in a city like Baltimore, your life is full of secondary characters.”

This book is a quicker, easier read with short 2-3 page chapters. He reads excerpts from the book, detailing “bullets ripped through adolescent faces,” and the “rules of the game.” While the evening was bigger than the release of his newest book, both furthered the discussions of life in East Baltimore and the importance of understanding the lives that many Baltimore natives have to live.

The City Speaks Through D. Watkins

Students and faculty flooded to the dimly lit Wright Theater on the fifth floor of the student center for another MFA reading. This series has given promising authors who can relate to students of color and students who have experienced hardship. The room crowded with eager participants, awaiting the arrival of a University of Baltimore graduate. The graduate also known as poet and writer but better known as D. Watkins.

D. Watkins had honest beginnings in East Baltimore where he witnessed many tragedies and was shaped by the injustices of life. Aside from University of Baltimore, Watkins received a master’s degree in education from Johns Hopkins University. Currently he is a professor at Goucher University. Those who crowded into the Wright Theater were waiting to hear from about his book, The Beast Side, and listen as he lamented on life in the concrete jungle known as East Baltimore.

His presence emerged. He is charming young man who still holds his recognizable Baltimore accent. Watkins begins the evening with background about himself. One of his opening statements was, “I’ve been shot, I’ve been stabbed, I’ve been beaten down. I’ve beat people down. Statistically, I’m not supposed to be here. I’m blessed.” He followed up with an anecdote on his time at UB in Kendra Kopelke’s graduate course. “She had two rules,” he said, “no centering poems and no rhyming.” Watkins remembers this was the first time he had ever been laughed at by a group of his peers because of a love poem he had written.

Moving along with the evening, he begins to read from his book. The Beast Side: Living and Dying while Black in America is a collection of essays and stories from Watkins’ real life. The topics range from Food, “Black on Black crime,” police brutality to street harassment. The books, he said, “things I wanted to learn from [ages] 5-25 that no one ever told me. Watkins creates stories that are bigger than himself, traveling throughout the nation, creating a voice for African-Americans in Baltimore and in America. This book, as he describes, is not only for people from “rough” neighborhoods who are misrepresented or underrepresented but also for a person from a rich suburb with health food markets around the corner who doesn’t understand life in East or West Baltimore.

This book represents the people who live in urban communities who often misjudged and ignored by media until something involving “Black on Black” crime or robbery happens. Watkins read through the introduction of his book, giving the audience this to think about, “African-Americans are about as safe as a chunk of steak in a den full of starving lions.” Furthermore, Watkins encouraged the audience to do more than protest, although he is certainly not against protesting. He put things into perspective by telling a story of a phone call he received. A friend called him, telling him to wear all black. They would meet on North Avenue to lay down in traffic. Watkins said no, telling his friend to imagine the person who works at Walmart who tells their boss, “I can’t make it to work because of a traffic jam or the street is blocked off.” Watkins delivered one line: Dan- generic manager name- just cancelled their Christmas. Furthermore, he added that any person who didn’t care for the cause could easily run their car over one of the protestors in the street and get away with it. He decided against it.

Watkins presence is what college campuses need at this time because his work is raw and gritty. He is not afraid to be real and say what needs to be said about race relations in America. Aside from telling the stories of the ignored, he wrote this book because as a teacher, his goal is to promote literacy and make a big difference in the lives of children. Children from East Baltimore just like him. Often he asks his students what they are currently reading, outside of school and they say nothing. He wants to change this. Watkins wants people to ask themselves, “what can we do to make a difference?” “How help the community?” After he read passages from his book, there were questions from the audience members. He was asked about the debate between black lives matter and all lives matter to which he responded: “Black lives matter is a key movement in the modern civil rights movement. All lives matter people wanted attention and to be seen. Black lives matter is pushing the Black experience forward in American. I honor and support them. When the police killed a white kid the all live matter people didn’t show up.” The evening was filled with enlightenment and words of wisdom. Although Watkins said the America he wants to see won’t exist in his life time, he will continue to push for a better future.