My interview with D. Watkins got off to an awkward start. When he arrived for our appointment, I was standing in the street with tears pouring down my face and a copy of The Baltimore Sun in my hand–the cover of the Arts and Entertainment section featured an unflattering story about me under the headline “BURN BOOK” and a large photo captioned with a quote from D himself: “Marion’s not trying to win any popularity awards.” It was an odd choice to pluck that line out of this story about our time working together in the MFA program at the University of Baltimore, but that was just the beginning of the things that made me sad about this article.
Fortunately, my former student was the perfect person to help me get through my rocky morning. On the eve of publication of his third book of essays, “We Speak for Ourselves: A Word from Forgotten Black America” (Atria, 188 pp, $25), he’s learned a lot about dealing with the ups and downs of publicity. So that’s where our talk about his new book began. It was held over brunch at Johnny’s–chosen because we thought it would be quiet on a Sunday morning. We forgot about the Easter Bunny, who was brunching there as well, along with half of Roland Park and their kids.
Marion Winik: (weeping, can’t speak)
D. Watkins: Come on, you know this. When you have a book out, 80 people can say positive things, 80 newspapers can write positive things, but the one negative thing–that’s what you give all the energy to. There was a City Paper article, calling me a liar for writing “Too Poor For Pop Culture” [one of D.’s first viral essays]. The writer talked to a student who had dreams of being coddled by white people, who saw me as some kind of threat. But I was brand new. This could have been the end right there.
MW: You tell that story in the book.
DW: Yeah, and also in the script for a TV pilot I’m working on with Justine Barron [an investigative journalist, television writer and comedian]. There was another article that came out in The Washington Post after “The Beast Side” was published, an op-ed, that was basically saying I wasn’t the right person to be speaking for my people, I wasn’t speaking about the right things. My experience was just more thug life, more guns and drugs and negativity, this guy said. Maybe that’s when I started thinking about who I was speaking for. And to.
MW: That’s a question that occurred to me while reading this book. In your mind, who was the audience?
DW: The main audience is that new wave of activists coming up, people who want to be a part of positive change, because in a way they are getting duped. They’re being sold a false narrative about how change occurs. “If you tweet it then it’s true.” If you don’t use words like microaggression, the black body, intersectionality, if you can’t say those words at least eight times a day on your social media platform, then you’re not part of any movement. But a lot of times people who aren’t part of the movement create the most movement.
MW: OK, that takes me right to where I want to go. You have a whole chapter taking down the notion of being woke. I thought it was good to be woke.
DW: Woke is just channeling the latest trend in PC culture and criticizing other people if they haven’t picked up on it yet. For example, the new message on Twitter is that all black men are trash. This dude just wrote an article saying “Straight black men are the white men of black people.” The article had a few valid points and it started a debate–mostly among people who had only read the title, telling their stories about how horrible and toxic straight black men are.
MW: But where’s the woke part?
DW: Woke is going all in with statements like that, putting whole groups of people in a box. Like, there’s a lot of straight black men who are homophobic, who have been toxic to women, it’s true. But I shouldn’t have to throw myself in that box. It’s kind of like how Aziz Ansari had to go in the same box as Harvey Weinstein.
MW: I thought that woke meant that you understood the historic situation of black people and you applied that understanding to interpreting what’s going on in the world now.
DW: Woke is like the new way to be a fake thug.
MW: What? It must be different for black people and white people.
DW: Oh, white people who are woke are even more annoying. Oh my God. You got people out here using 40 hashtags because they think they’re not an ally if they don’t. I got a white homeboy who ran up to me in the bookstore all turnt up because he let somebody have it about his “white privilege.” And I’m like, You’re probably talking to a Russian bot, you might not even be talking to a real person. He’s like, No, man, I’m with the movement. And I’m like, White privilege is not transferable, so no point in fussin’ with people on Twitter about it, neither one of you can transfer me 87 white privilege points and then we’re all cool. You’re a graphic designer, go work with kids and make some posters.
That’s what woke is–if you know the terminology, “white privilege” or whatever, that’s all you gotta to do to be part of something.
MW: Words have become so important. Saying the wrong words, saying the right words–it seems like that’s more important than what’s in your heart.
DW: But remember a long time ago when you explained to me that I shouldn’t call someone a Jew, that that was offensive?
MW: Right, you call them a Jewish person.
DW: Yeah, well if you’re woke you don’t explain that. You just attack.
MW: One thing I’ve noticed is that when people get famous they want to write about getting famous. It’s the subject of 90 percent of rap music, right? This is your book about going from D Watk, street dude, to D. Watkins, American intellectual, on panels, in The New York Times, in rooms with Barack Obama.
DW: Well, I didn’t want that to take over the book, but when you come from where I come from, you are instantly a role model. You are more than just you. And there’s a part of me that thinks of the little kids that are watching me–for most of them, I’m the first writer they ever met. What they think is more important than what anybody else thinks.
MW: It seems like a lot of your message is about doing direct service: get off Twitter, get into the schools. We can only spend so much time yapping about this, let’s spend time with the kids and change some lives.
You are a master of describing what people wear and how they talk–every person who walks into this book is instantly characterized in terms of their nose ring, their sneakers or Birkenstocks, their hair. “He was spiky-haired, thin, wore small frameless eyeglasses, the kind accountants wear.” “The dude was dressed like an Old Navy model, all fleece, and zipped.” Status details, as Tom Wolfe would say. You have it down. There’s another guy you describe who’s a master of codeswitching, going from Mr. Hood Guy to Mr. “Hello Gregory.”
DW: Yeah, I was kinda hard on that guy, because he annoyed me. I should have written a passage about the double consciousness, or quadruple consciousness, that that guy has to face. He has to exist in multiple worlds. Same as me. We talk about different things to different people, and we have to speak in whole different languages. Hey, I don’t know if you noticed–there’s no profanity in the book. The Baltimore schools wouldn’t use “The Beast Side” because of profanity, so I corrected that this time.
MW: If I was in your book, how would you describe me? What kind of white person am I?
DW: Based on your clothes, you are an authentic liberal–you got the glasses, the cardigan, clearly you’re employed, not one of those unemployed Trump supporters. In fact, you’re wearing a sweater over another sweater, that’s double intellect.
MW: One of the moments that really grabbed me in the book was the sentence, “I can honestly say Obama changed my life.” Can you talk about that?
DW: When Obama first hit the news, I was still hustling, deep in a dope hole. Another street dude told me about some Barack Hussein Obama dude at the DNC, and I’m like, What’s the DNC? And anyway somebody named Barack Hussein Obama not gonna be the president, that’s a guy who sells incense and oils.
Then as he continued coming on, I was new in college, and I was feeling like, Hey, I’m sharper than some of these motherfuckers, I’m gonna be the Obama of UB. I’m taking history, I’m studying the presidency, I’m learning stuff, and then Obama does that race speech, and I’m really hearing it, and suddenly I’m obsessed with politics. Every day I would watch Keith Olbermann, “Morning Joe,” Blitzer, CNN. And then I realized that he was going to win because I read this book called “Thirteen Keys to The Presidency.” That’s when I started placing bets. I rode around and picked up about seven to eight thousand dollars election night.
And by this time I had started cleaning up my look, less hoodies, more polo shirts, still Air Jordans, but with cargo pants or khakis, with those sweaters with no sleeves and a V-neck.
MW: What? Did you ever actually wear a sweater vest?
DW: Yeah, when I was teaching.
MW: I’m so happy for you that you found this incredible relationship with your new fiancée. Can we talk about it?
DW: Sure. Caron has forced me to grow so much as a person–I’m more considerate now. Even though I had a chance to be exposed to stuff outside my neighborhood, I still only saw it through my lens. She forced me to see it through another lens. She comes from a two-parent household with two amazing parents, out on the city/county line. She went to Coppin, then to UB Law School and also has a Masters in Public Administration. She worked in communications for Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and was chief of staff for Marilyn Mosby, now she’s a prosecutor. It took us a minute to get together because when I met her I was a little distracted, but the second time she walked through my door, I said, This is it. This is the rest of my life.
MW: Nick and Marilyn, move over, this is the new Baltimore power couple. Last question–talk about the playlist at the end of “We Speak for Ourselves.”
DW: Jay Z, Kendrick Lamar–this is the music I listened to when I was writing the book, and the lyrics are so important to me. Every single song has a message. Like this one, this is “My Moment,” by Tee Grizzly.
MW: We’re watching, D. For sure.
D. Watkins’ Baltimore release of “We Speak for Ourselves” is this Thursday at Union Baptist Church, 1219 Druid Hill Ave., 7 p.m., with book sales by Ivy Bookshop.