Arts & Culture

D. Watkins Talks New Book ‘We Speak for Ourselves’

The New York Times best-selling author is back with another fresh take of life in East Baltimore.
D Watkins Ourselves
D. Watkins

What got you interested in writing? Were you a writer growing up?
Reading got me into it. I wasn’t a writer. I never thought about it, really. It didn’t really come across my radar. Mainly because the books I was given as a child didn’t really pique my interest or speak of my experience. When we’re little kids, everybody love Curious George and the Cat in the Hat. But when you get to middle school and they’re talking about Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer and the only black person in the book is a slave that’s following around these kids, it’s almost disrespectful—especially when you’re coming from a place where you’re seeing all types of black people in power. It might be street power, but it’s still power. It’s just something that you can’t really connect with. So me and a lot of my friends didn’t really take to reading. And we ended up going down the wrong path for the most part, because if you don’t read, you don’t learn how to think critically; if you don’t learn how to think critically, you make bad decisions; if you make bad decisions, you can easily end up on the wrong side of a gun.

The book that really did it for me was The Coldest Winter Ever, by Sister Souljah. I tore it apart. And then I started reading books like Clockers, by Richard Price, and then I found out that different writers I was reading were inspired by some of the Beat poets, so I started reading like, On the Road and Naked Lunch. And then I found out they were inspired by Dostoevsky, so—I just kept going and going and going. In the process, I started reading articles and I felt like a lot of articles being written by local newspapers wasn’t really giving justice to the people where I come from. I’d be reading quotes and be like, “Nah, we don’t talk like this.” I’d read how they were characterizing a black person and be like, “Nah, we don’t look like this. Y’all gotta do better. Y’all showing your biases through your writing, and if somebody digs up Baltimore 300 years from now and the only stories are some of these articles, then we won’t be portrayed the right way.” So I wanted to be a person to add to that.

Did anything trigger you to write this book?
Yeah, people kept calling me “the voice of the black people.” I did some pundit work, so I see other pundits jumping at the opportunity, poking their chest out, like, “Yes, actually, I am the voice of the black people.” And it’s like, “You’re really not. I see y’all at functions, and y’all don’t even really be around nobody black. I know people who reached out to y’all for help and y’all don’t even email them back.” So it’s like, how are you the voice of these people if you’re not even talking to them? It’s not fair.

And you make the point in your book that you’re only one voice that’s helping to round out the picture of black culture.
Yeah, and while elevating other voices. I’m not about monopolizing the platform and acting like I’m the only person who can do something when there are women who know these things better than me, there’s younger people who know these things better than me, there’s people out here who have different experiences to add to this whole collection of stories. All of us can help all of us win. There’s enough space for all of us.

Who are the authors we should be reading?
I think Kondwani Fidel, for sure. I think people should be reading Sheri Booker, Jason Reynolds, Lisa Jesse Peterson, Tony Lewis [Jr.]. They’re all different. Sheri’s a great poet and memoirist and journalist. She’s from East Baltimore. Jason Reynolds writes YA novels that should be respected across the board. They’re really, really good. He’s killin’ it. Mitchell Jackson is another one. He writes fiction, and his new book is nonfiction. These are people who love the craft. They write, and they’re good.

As a kid growing up in East Baltimore, did you have no positive role models at all?
Yeah, there were some—coaches, some people that owned barbershops and liquor stores, and some other people from the neighborhood. They had some things to offer young kids like me. But the art world—I didn’t really have that, even as an adult. I try my best to be accessible to a lot of younger writers in the city, because a lot of writers who have had some success didn’t open that door up to me, so I try to make that my job. I gotta be that person that I didn’t have. I owe up. If I don’t help and connect, then I’m not what I say I’m about, and where I’m from, that’s the worst thing you can be—a person who pretends to be one thing and is not that.

This poor black thing is like a bank debt—politicians and artists and affluent people can withdraw from it and they never gotta make a deposit into it. They can pull from it all the time. When it’s time to run for office: “I’m here for the people of Penn North.” That’s been a favorite since Freddie Gray died—the “people of Penn North.” But when it comes time for you to invest in the people, it’s like, “I’ll see you later.”

Do you think East Baltimore is more self-contained than West Baltimore?
They both have their problems. Serious problems. But West Baltimore just got a whole lot of national attention, so it’s kind of different. Like, I’ve literally interviewed with people, and they jump and just put “West Baltimore native.” [Laughs.] Not on purpose but just assuming, because West Baltimore has gotten all that attention for what happened to Freddie. A lot of people from East Baltimore have really good relationships with people in West Baltimore, and I think those relationships aren’t always talked about or promoted. The big thing is public transportation. To get from East Baltimore to West Baltimore could take a month. It’s one of the worst public transportation systems in the country.

In We Speak for Ourselves, you talk about getting your books out to high schoolers in the city and making visits. What do you do while you’re there?
I’ve been making regular visits to Baltimore City Public Schools for four years. We’ve donated thousands of books—to Baltimore and D.C. and to jails. My thing is, create the content that high schoolers can relate to and see themselves in. Make the books accessible, and make the visit, and allow them to keep the books. They need books at home. The more words you know, the better you do at life. I read a study that said kids who grow up with books in their homes tend to do better, even if no one reads them.

From Barnes and Noble, Red Emma’s, and Baltimore City Public School teachers, the one thing they always have in common is they say they gotta put my books up ‘cause people steal them. I don’t want people stealing, but the fact that they like it so much that they willing to risk their freedom for it, it says something. People should be able to have them. I like making money just like anyone else, but part of what I do is mission based. Let’s get the books in the hands of the kids.

Do you still feel like there’s a divide between D. Watk and D. Watkins, like you live somewhere between two worlds?
I think it’s gonna be better for the people that’s like, teenagers and early 20s. I don’t think it’s really gonna change for me. I don’t know if it’s an elite thing, but at certain places, I know what it’s like to be treated like a regular guy, and then I know how quick that regular turns off if they find out about my work. When people know about my work, they change instantly.

What was it like being at your reading at the Trump town in Florida?
Even experiences like that are transformative for me, because if I just watch the news, I would think these people are gonna be ready to square up as soon as I see them. But when I see them and talk to them, it’s like, “Damn, this dude’s a racist and he don’t even know it.” When I told him some things and tell some jokes, a lot of his perspectives will instantly change—because they’re not really talking to black people like that, they’re not being around black people like that. We have all these ideas of people that we’ve never had contact with, and social relations just suffer.

Was it important for you to include a call to action at the end of your book?
Yeah, because every time I go somewhere on these tours, somebody askin’ me what to do. I’m like, “Yo, you thinking too much.” The person with the biggest platform who’s giving speeches in front of a thousand people—you don’t gotta aim to be that person. You can just be a person that’s mentoring or helping one or two people, and you doing great work, and that’s enough. Sometimes you’re not gonna reach thousands of people. I’m fortunate to reach thousands of people, but at the same time, the most valuable work to me has been the stuff that I’ve been able to do for people from my block and local artists. That’s been my most powerful contribution to me.

If they need to borrow a coupla dollars, I can pull up and give it to them. If they need work or a résumé, I can help with that. If they need to understand how to get into college, I know some of these people at the admission office—I can walk them to these people. That’s what people need. People don’t need you to try to tell their stories for them. People don’t need you to walk around trying to understand their life. People need you to pull up on them and try to help the best way you can. If we all did that, everybody would be helping everybody, and that shit stretches far beyond color. Let’s help cure this shit. That’s the play. That’s the move.

D. Watkins will give a reading to launch his new book at 7 p.m. April 25 at Union Baptist Church on Druid Hill Avenue.