D Watkins is a writer. He’s an essayist, a screen writer, a columnist, a ghost-writer, a reporter, and a memoirist, but he’s not just any of those. He is all of them together, all of them at once, after the manner of someone like James Baldwin, whose writing spanned the breadth of our cultural forms. Watkins is probably best known for his memoir The Cook Up, which follows his life through the drug game and ultimately his escape from it through his discovery of literature.

Though it is easy to revel in the vividly portrayed details of the streets, the structure of the book is part of what makes it so remarkable. The story is put together through a series of subtle twists that keep the narrative and emotional stakes in a state of flux. His new book Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments is also defined by a structural and literary bravado, but it is also a new departure for Watkins. Addressing masculinity, fatherhood, love, and violence, the moments that make up the narrative are vulnerable and raw.

For full disclosure, we’re friends and I have edited D’s work and we’ve worked together and offered each other criticism and are on the same press. And Marion Winik, the editor of this piece and the series, has long worked with Watkins at the University of Baltimore where they are both professors and where he was once her student. But such connections only go to show how central Watkins is to Baltimore’s literary community.

We sat down at a restaurant near the UB after his class on a recent spring evening and talked. The following account has been edited for length and clarity.

Baltimore Fishbowl: When the book starts, you’re nine years old, and you’re a city kid going to a camp in the woods and to me it’s like one of the great settings and scenes for the revelation of emotional truths that I’ve seen in a book. So, take us there. Where do people come into this story?

D Watkins: My mom wanted me to experience nature. To this day, I don’t f*** with nature at all. I don’t f*** with camps. I don’t f*** with picnics. I don’t f*** with baskets. She wanted me to experience nature. She’s from the streets, and never had shit. My father is from the streets, and never had shit. They didn’t know. So, when this opportunity was presented to her, I’m pretty sure she didn’t know that the target market was adolescents from Murphy Homes housing projects and I’m not from Murphy Homes.

But, one of my mom’s major selling points was that my cousins were coming. I had never been away from home, and I’m with a bunch of kids who are all kind of loosely connected. They had more familiarity than I had. I didn’t know anybody. So, I’m thinking if I go to this older cabin, you know, my cousins are going to come. But, they just never came. It wasn’t their fault, they were older than me. So, they were stronger to be like, “I’m not going,” and they didn’t come. If I would have went into the cabin for people my age, I probably would have been better off.

Going to the older cabin was the worst thing I could have done. Because I was dealing with motherf***ers that were in middle school headed to high school and it was the Hunger Games. It’s very different than dealing with little kids. Little kids would have been cool. Older motherf***ers not so much because they got that puberty shit on their backs and they’re turning into young men. They feel themselves and they want to show it. Like, I’d kissed a girl, but beyond that I didn’t even know what I didn’t know. You know what I mean?

BFB: So you ended up in a situation where you were sexually assaulted by this older girl. What sort of impact did that have on you?

DW: I minimized it so much that I acted like it wasn’t that important. When really, that moment defined 20-plus years of failed relationships. So I could not not talk about it because I had to address the elephant in the room. I told [my wife] about it before I did it and she bust out crying because it’s one thing to not feel protected, but it’s another thing to know that there’s no infrastructure in place. But who do you tell? What do you say? This was the era where if you’re not hypersexual, you’re getting laughed at. If you don’t have stories, you’re getting laughed at, so it’s impossible to tell that story because everybody’s going to look at you like you’re crazy.

BFB: They see it as a conquest.

DW: It’s a conquest. And as a young man at that particular time, I didn’t have the knowledge, infrastructure, or support system, to call it what it was. I just had to be able to step up and be who my block would want me to be in that moment. And that led to me, you know, … I carried every relationship the same, I always thought that people wanted me for what I could do for them.

People were trying to win. I had to figure out what my win was, and I had to make sure that I was committed to that. Not the person, not the feeling, not the emotions, but winning and that’s not even some shit that just stayed in high school. That’s the shit that followed me through my 20s and my 30s. It was always more or less about the dynamics of a situation, how I was perceived and what the individual was getting over my love for that person or their love for me and how we’re going to nurture and water and care for that love.

All of that stemmed from that one incident and taught me that if you allow a person to use you as a thing, then you are a thing. That’s the worst feeling and I never want to feel that.

BFB: Which then makes you treat others that way. So how did you get the courage not only to deal with this situation and all those repercussions, but to put it in a memoir for the whole world to read?

DW: You know what the hardest part is? To stand up and say you were wrong, the way you handled that situation wasn’t right. Even though you were a kid, you were wrong. I’m wrong for not talking to my dad. I’m wrong for subscribing to whatever will make me not tell the people who cared about me. I was wrong. And then, the way I treated people when I got older was wrong.

BFB: How does dealing with all of these emotions affect your writing, if that makes sense? Or maybe how does Black Boy Smile fit with your other work?

DW: I think people think that I’m more ferocious than what I am. I never thought I portrayed a super mean, A-1 gangsta kind of guy. However, I can see how somebody who has a perspective of a life like mine could get that. Right? And I wanted to just erase that. So that’s the first thing. The second thing is that I struggle with emotions, feelings, and talking about being hurt or talking about feeling inadequate, or talking about getting the shit kicked out me. Because where I’m from, we just don’t do that. Like, we might joke about it amongst each other, but….

So Black Boy Smile is like look, you know, sometimes I was able to step up and beat a guy to help get through a situation and then sometimes I ran away in fear. And sometimes, I lied about that fear. I’ve spent a lot of time suppressing that fear and lying about those feelings, but it never contributed to me having a better experience. And I want a good experience. I want a good experience. I just want to have fun. I want to be free. I want to live. I want people to live their dreams. I want artists to be able to fucking do like cool art shit, and I want to support those projects. I want to debate, but ultimately, I want to build. 

D is giving a book talk on Friday, March 13 at 6:00 with Maria Broom as part of Greedy Reads’ Lost Weekend festival, held at the Remington location, 320 W. 29th St.

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Baynard Woods

Baynard Woods is a Baltimore-based writer and journalist. He is the author of Inheritance: An Autobiography of Whiteness, which will be released in June and the co-author of I Got a Monster: The Rise and...