This past May, writer Dwight Watkins sat in the midtown Manhattan offices of Grand Central Publishing waiting for the chance to make his pitch. He didn't have an appointment. He wasn't sure how much time he was going to get with the vice president of the paperback division—should he even get in to see her. All he knew was that he wanted a book deal for his memoir. And he understood that he would have to convince somebody to gamble on him.
The 34-year-old Watkins, Ed '11 (MEd), had been in discussions with two publishers previously, but each time, no dice. Watkins recognizes that he's an unknown variable. In talking with publishers, he repeatedly hears a number of other books mentioned as comparisons: MK Asante's Buck, Ta-Nehisi Coates' Beautiful Struggle, Wes Moore's The Other Wes Moore. Over the past decade, these highly regarded and emotionally gripping memoirs offered a peek inside what it's like to grow up young and black in contemporary urban America.
These narratives are part of a larger tradition of African-American autobiography that practically stretches back to when representatives from 13 colonies declared themselves the United States of America. In The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, first published in 1789, freedman Equiano chronicles his journey into and out of slavery, and ever since, African-Americans have documented the long economic, psychological, and cultural shadow of being imported like commodities to this country. These works include everything from Booker T. Washington's Up from Slavery to Richard Wright's Black Boy and John Edgar Wideman's Brothers and Keepers, to Barack Obama's Dreams From My Father and the aforementioned books by Asante, Coates, and Moore.
Watkins knows he is and isn't like those recent authors to whom he's compared. "You put me next to those guys, I look like black Scarface," he says, adding that he's "not the type of black guy [publishers] usually work with."
He's joking, but it's a sarcasm rooted in understanding that he's a walking contradiction. He's the young, urban black man who believes in education and who excelled academically, working hard to improve his lot in life. He's also the young, urban black man who sold death to his own people by being a drug dealer. That he's both is one of the main reasons Watkins is even getting into the room with a publisher. As D. Watkins, writing about his journey from drug dealer to aspiring writer has made him Internet infamous.
In February, his "Too Poor for Pop Culture" essay went viral almost immediately after it appeared on the website Salon. It's a vivid meditation about how little pop culture matters to the people who live paycheck to paycheck. Two more essays followed—"How Glamorizing Drugs Is Killing Black Kids" and "Poor Black People Don't Work? Lessons of a Former Dope Dealer"—that people eagerly shared and tweeted. Here was a guy writing about people wagering on junky fights, playing cards in a room with bedsheets for walls, and losing friends to guns and drugs. His voice was lively and witty, his observations detailed, and his bluntness sobering. On entering a friend's house to play cards: "Two taps on the door, it opened and the gang was all there—four disenfranchised African-Americans posted up in a 9 x 11 prison-size tenement, one of those spots where you enter the front door, take a half-step, and land in the yard."
Publishers began to notice that people wanted to read what Watkins had to say. His agent had put his proposal in the hands of a Grand Central editor who liked it, but she didn't get to make the deals. He'd have to sell himself to her boss. So when he and some friends drove to New York for an event in May and the possibility of meeting with the VP was offered, Watkins jumped at it. An hour went by as he waited in the office, then another. His friends buzzed his cell phone wanting to know if he was ready to be scooped up yet. "My friends are like, 'Yo, what's up?'" Watkins recalls. "I'm like, 'Go to Brooklyn. I'll sit here all night if I have to.'"
Eventually he was told he was going to get 15 minutes with the VP. Which story was Watkins going to tell her? He's an aspiring young African-American writer, but he's also a young black guy who used to sell drugs. Trying to put the two together prompted one publisher to tell him he imagined Watkins' potential reading market being white people who watch Breaking Bad. You know, a gritty morality tale. "I didn't break bad," Watkins says. He didn't make a moral compromise to support himself; he simply went to work in one of the few openings he saw around him. "There was a time when I was a kid when I thought selling drugs was legal. It looked legal. I had an extremely flawed mentality, but if that didn't happen I probably wouldn't be doing what I'm doing today."
At the same time, Watkins is still fighting his way out of where he came from. Yes, he is no longer selling drugs, has moved away from his old neighborhood, and has earned two graduate degrees, but he's still starting his career. And that's what sets him apart: His story is rooted in contemporary class consciousness, coming from the perspective of somebody who didn't just come from little. He's still there. It's what distinguishes him from the authors to whom he's been compared. MK Asante, now a good friend and mentor to Watkins, is a successful writer, filmmaker, and English professor at Morgan State University. Wes Moore is a successful businessman, a military veteran, and a Johns Hopkins trustee. Ta-Nehisi Coates is a senior editor for The Atlantic and one of the most incisive thinkers about race and politics in America. Watkins ekes out a living with freelance writing, adjunct teaching at Coppin State University and Sojourner-Douglass College, substitute teaching, and doing for-hire video work with his friend David Manigault, which can run from making music videos for hip-hop artists to commemorative videos for weddings and funerals.
"My story is different because I didn't make it out yet," Watkins says. "Can I make it? Maybe. Have some good things happened to me based on where I come from and what my family did? Sure. But if David calls me up and says, 'Yo, you want to work this funeral with me?' I'm going to say yes."
Watkins turned his 15 minutes with the VP into an hour, and his debut memoir, Cook Up, is scheduled for release by Grand Central in 2015. In it, he hopes to chronicle how and why he decided to change his life—to leave behind the street economy and try to forge a writing career. He wants to talk about the pointless toil of drug dealing, the power of education to help people find ways out of hardship, the importance of art in young people's lives, and the worth of working toward a life away from the streets.
In short, Watkins is writing a perennial American dream narrative, a Horatio Alger saga of overcoming adversity. Only he's doing it after that dream has long since been demystified, when the American narrative for most people isn't a triumph over adversity but a steady struggle to get by. That focus makes his writing a potent exploration of income inequality, and he's doing it as somebody straddling two worlds. He's writing about the underemployed, the undereducated, the people who only appear in the newspaper in crime blotters or homicide reports, those who don't know what other possibilities might be out there because they've never been out of their neighborhood.
And he's doing it in stories riddled with pride, style, and wit. "When I stopped selling drugs, there were people who couldn't believe that I wasn't in the streets selling drugs," he says. "They didn't believe me. They didn't believe that the money wasn't coming in like it was. Now that I'm writing about it, it's the other way around. 'You were in the streets? How did you go to college? How did you do your homework?' I'm like, 'I'm not a fucking animal. Just because I did one doesn't mean I can't do the other.'
"I want to put enough in my book to explain what life was like for me coming up," Watkins continues, "and try to point out that it's not really how you start life, it's how you finish."
Watkins arrives at an early evening meeting in June looking sharp in denim and a pressed long-sleeved shirt buttoned to the neck. He's a solidly built, six-foot-one or –two man with an introverted confidence. His sleepy eyes calmly drink in everything around him as if he's always taking notes.
"Man, this is going to be a tough month," he says, taking a seat with a sigh. He had just finished the first day of teaching for a monthlong summer class at Coppin State, which meets every day from 8:30 a.m. until 4 p.m. with a lunch break. He'd rather be working on his book, but the money is too good to pass up.
He's written three drafts of his life so far, one of which was his thesis project for the University of Baltimore Master of Fine Arts degree that he completed in June. Right now, what he has is too filled with friends and loved ones getting killed, friends going to jail, and more friends and loved ones getting killed. Elements of that saga are going to be in his memoir, but death isn't the subject of Watkins' life. "I'm trying to figure out how to focus on my own journey without only talking about the impact that these murders were having on me," he says. "My biggest issue with my memoir right now is that the biggest reason I decided to leave the street was all of my friends are just gone. They're just dead. You're on the corner with a group of guys you knew since you're a kid, and a few years later you're out there with a new group of kids. And somehow you're the last one left. That bullet missed you."
He wants to celebrate how he got to this point in his life, what he's learned along the way, and why telling stories like his matters. He feels if he can leave drug dealing behind, others can too. "No one should feel irrelevant or inadequate," he says. "The same things you need to make it in the job world or the school world are some of the things you need to make it on the street, but people get intimidated by that. They think that they don't have any place in that world."
Watkins used to feel he didn't either. He was born and raised in an East Baltimore neighborhood where the drug activity was so bad in the 1980s and 1990s that the Baltimore police nicknamed it "Little Bronx." He excelled academically at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, well enough to get into college when he graduated in 1998. He wanted to work with kids and thought about becoming a history professor, but school didn't sit right with him at first. He enrolled at Loyola University, but his mind was elsewhere. His stepbrother had been murdered the year before, and he felt out of place at the predominantly white university. He lasted a little less than a year before dropping out to sell cocaine and heroin back in East Baltimore.
He was entering the only family business he'd ever known. In his Salon articles and his "Stoop Stories" piece for the online magazine aeon, Watkins talks about his late older brother, whom he calls Bip in his writings. Bip sold drugs and was murdered before Watkins entered college. A close friend of Watkins who started selling drugs for Bip was also murdered. Feeling depressed and alienated at school, Watkins took the cash and drug stash that his brother kept in a safe and used it as the seed for his own selling. That drug business lasted nearly five years before he decided to go back to college at the University of Baltimore.
During that time, he operated a vehicle registration shop, but he was still trying to figure out what he wanted to do with his life. He considered being a real estate appraiser and even took a class to get certified, but he never pursued it. He thought about becoming a teacher because he wanted to work with kids, and he entered the Johns Hopkins School of Education in 2009 after graduating from UB. While earning his teaching degree, he met MK Asante playing basketball, and when Asante was heading to a 2010 literary conference in London that November, he invited Watkins to come with him.
That experience inspired him to become a writer, and he decided to pursue an MFA immediately after graduating from Johns Hopkins. "It fit everything that I wanted to do," he says. "It combined my interest in history and storytelling and the possibility of working with young people. It seemed like a way to make a difference, a way to express yourself, a way to connect with other people."
He intuitively understood that everything in life is copy, and he didn't shy away from writing about his street life for assignments. In talking about this portion of his life, Watkins is honest and direct about his own activity but demurs from saying much about other people, either close to him or mere acquaintances, who might still be involved in the shadow economy. He has no problem owning up to his actions; he just doesn't want to get anybody else in trouble.
Besides, he has plenty of stories to tell. Watkins' writing is lean and moves fast—he admires the bluntly provocative American writers Sherman Alexie and Chuck Palahniuk for the constant momentum of their sentences—and he's able to be vivid and visceral without overwriting. He opens his "Poor Black People Don't Work?" Salon essay with a simple introduction of a character and then quickly sketches an idea of her in body and mind: "My grandma Famma Gill worked her ass off. Her worn, plump, diabetic hands scrubbed crud off chipped dishes minutes after she finished a 10-hour shift." Two paragraphs after this touching portrait, he's recalling slicing the tips of his fingers off while "shaving marble-size pieces of crack into smaller bits before shoving them into long glass vials." The juxtaposition is intentional—two workers, two sets of damaged hands—and candidly matter-of-fact.
Watkins talks about dealing drugs the way a low-wage employee talks about working at the doughnut shop. It's monotonous, disheartening, and sometimes feels like a dead-end job going nowhere, but it's also marked by the ordinary humor, pathos, and boredom common to any position at the bottom of the service industry. What Watkins says about dealing is probably common sense to anybody familiar with the trade and fascinating to those who aren't. For instance: In Watkins' experience, crack didn't take over Baltimore's drug economy the way it did in New York and Los Angeles in the 1980s, where the drug made some dealers kingpins overnight. Instead, Baltimore's drug trade is dominated by heroin, cocaine, and pills. These are three different highs with three different types of customers. A junky, unlike a crack addict, isn't coming back for more every 45 minutes. Heroin addicts are maintenance users, as brand loyal as people who only buy Apple products.
"You have to build a heroin business like you're building a restaurant," Watkins says. "You have to build that clientele up. You have to make sure you have a product that you would put your name on, something that will make them come back for more. I never had patience to build a heroin spot like that because you got to get up at 4 in the morning to sell that shit." He laughs brusquely. "If you let some of the rappers tell it, selling drugs is easy, anybody can do it, and it's a quick way to make money," he says. "I don't know why they call it fast money. It's not fast. That shit takes time."
Such mundane drug-dealing details aren't the common folklore documented in hip-hop, crime movies, and video games. Yes, some popular entertainments explore this aspect of the inner-city life—notably the television drama The Wire, Richard Price's novel Clockers (and Spike Lee's film adaptation), hip-hop artist Nas' Illmatic album—but they're the exceptions. And in Watkins' telling, the drudgery is scarred by the work's psychological toil. In "Too Poor for Pop Culture" he writes: "Working 100-plus hours a week, burying best friends, seeing their moms cry, and feeling their tears spill on you is hell. Being beat on by beat cops is hell. Looking at that shoebox full of cash under your bed and noticing the shoebox full of obituaries next to it is hell."
"It's fascinating for me to read [Watkins'] stuff because I don't know what it feels like," says David Maginault, who has known Watkins since high school. "I wasn't surprised that he got into that. All of us could get into it growing up in East Baltimore. It's like going to the corner store."
Maginault only knows about such activity as a bystander. He hasn't stood on a corner to make money. He hasn't stomped on cocaine to get it ready to sell on the street. "I can't relate to knowing what that's like," Maginault says. "I mean, a lot of his homies got killed—and when I mean 'got killed,' he saw it. And I think his writing is paying homage to friends that he's lost and is a release for him to not have to go back to that world."
Not everybody who grows up in an economically depressed neighborhood knows how its illegal economies operate, and Watkins' essays deliver a different picture of the crime-ridden neighborhood than what appears up in news reports. You can live in a bad neighborhood and not be in the streets selling drugs, Watkins says, pointing out that it's possible to be around drug dealing and not know anything about dealers' lives. "You can live in a neighborhood and see, 'OK, [a drug dealer] has a Lexus,'" he says. "But you don't know the whole story. You don't know how much he paid for the car. You don't know if he got it from a police auction. You don't know if it's leased in somebody else's name."
For more than 40 years, the War on Drugs has focused on a one-dimensional idea of who the young, black, inner-city drug dealer is. It's an image that's been shaped by the usual popular culture suspects, but the ongoing success of that image speaks more to it as a commodity than its accuracy. What makes Watkins' story sting is that it isn't simply a journey of a young black man away from drug dealing; it's the more pressing story of a member of the underclass wanting to be recognized as human.
"A lot of times when people from different places look at us, they put us all in the same box," Watkins says. "Like, 'All these guys from East Baltimore, they all wear big jeans—they wear tight jeans now, but we wore big jeans—all these guys sell drugs and are knuckleheads and none of these guys can read.' And, you know, we love the O's game like anyone else would love an O's game. We cheer for the Ravens. When our family members get hurt, we suffer. We all going through the same human things, but sometimes we're viewed as subhuman. So I want to bring in some of those real life stories, with the purpose of humanizing the whole thing.
On May 17, 40-year-old John Jackson was among a group of people gathered on North Caroline Street in East Baltimore around 11 p.m. when somebody started shooting. Jackson was hit in the head and killed, though he wasn't officially pronounced dead until May 21. (He was an organ donor, and the intervening days allowed for harvesting.) He wasn't involved in the street economy; he was a father of two who worked for the city. And Watkins, like many people in the neighborhood, knew him simply by his nickname, Free.
Watkins had run into him just a few days earlier, and the two sat on a park bench chatting, watching hoops. "I know these dudes with tattoos all over their faces who sit around with gun magazines all day and dudes who do all this treacherous, grimy, disgusting shit, and the dude who gets popped is the fucking organ donor?" he says. "That could happen to anybody. And people would come through with pictures of you on their T-shirt, and people would pour some Hennessy out, but nobody else would care."
On July 13 Salon published Watkins' "Gunplay Is All I Know," an angry, passionate, and moving essay that was in part an obituary for Free and in part a disarmingly vulnerable confession that being a bystander to murder never gets easy:
I'm naive to be surprised by Free's murder. Or my cousin Damon who was 36, my friend Nard who was 24, or Dev at 20, or DI at 17, or Bip at 18, or Man Man at 16, or Bryant at 12, or Don Don at 22, or LA at 35 or the countless other people I could name.
I'm still in East Baltimore, and even though I signed a book deal, I'm nowhere near rich and my essays can't block bullets.
"I don't believe in any of that desensitized-to-violence shit," Watkins says. "I think that we just have different coping mechanisms. I think it looks tough to say, 'Oh, I've seen so many murders, that shit don't mean nothing.' But that shit is not true. I still get nightmares about murders I saw. And we don't talk about it or open up about it."
It wasn't until he started writing that Watkins was able to open up about it himself—"Writing keeps me human to the point where I can feel," he says—but that doesn't mean he's made sense of everything he's experienced. Like the time he took a gun to the prom. It was a matter of protection, he explains casually, since young guys in his neighborhood were being jumped by guys from another neighborhood. But it's still hard for him to fathom how he was able to get a gun in the first place. "As a teenager, it was easier for me to get a gun than it was to get a job," he says. "I'm not talking about little cap guns. I'm talking serious shit, Desert Eagle, Mack 10, HKs, stuff with straps and belts and all types of clips and AR-15s. You know who to go to and they've got inventory, scopes, lasers, shit you've got to plug in walls. And not just a little bit. You can shop. Where does this shit come from?"
Lester Spence, a Johns Hopkins associate professor of political science (who knew Watkins on the basketball court before learning he was a writer), says that storytelling like his is filling a void that mainstream journalism has left behind. Watkins writes about inner-city life from the point of view of someone living it, and Spence sees Watkins' work as a complement to his own research exploring the impact a shift from industrial to postindustrial economies in American cities over the past 40 years has had on black politics and urban life.
For one thing, deindustrialization has coincided with media consolidation and the constriction of newspaper staffs and budgets. Many daily newspapers don't have the editorial luxury to support investigative journalism that might examine the lives of its residents in depth. As a result, the stories that do get reported are reactionary, less time-intensive items that rely on available information, such as who got shot where and when.
The absence of journalistic storytelling allows entertainment to acquire the veneer of realism and be consumed as reportage. "Gangster rap purported to be telling the truth, and people hear it and tend to think that's the way it really is," Spence says. "So let's say [early rap artists] were reporting. N.W.A.'s 'Dope Man' came out in 1987. Even if they were telling the truth, [that was] almost 30 years ago." Watkins' writing fills this narrative void. "The people who are qualified to tell these stories, most of them aren't writers like D.," Spence says. "The game itself, the political economy, is decimating that population. So the people who can actually tell the story effectively, they're not around to tell it."
That's one reason why Watkins thinks he's a good publishing gamble: There's a market for the stories he's telling because nobody else is doing them. "I think that my side of the story is never really told at all, it usually comes from the perspective of a cop, or the perspective of a bystander just looking out the window," he says. "I'm not saying I have a monopoly on the experiences of Baltimore, this is just the shit I've been through. And I think the right book about the street experience could be a cult classic. It could be branded like a hot sneaker—I mean, who thought people would pay $300 for Dr. Dre headphones? There are nontraditional readers out there that [publishers] aren't thinking about, and I want to reach them."
If the white person who watches Breaking Bad is curious, that's cool. But Watkins is more interested in reaching somebody who grew up like him, like the young guy who emailed him saying he saw his article on Facebook and now wants to be a writer. "Right now, it's hard enough to find a kid that reads, let alone one that wants to write for a living," he says. He just wants to let other young people know that their stories matter, and they can be the one to tell them. "I want them to be, like, my neighborhood has a drug dealer. It has a single mom and a grandma who gets a check. The neighborhood has a guy who works for the city but he's not supposed to be living there because he makes too much to get that project rent. So all this is going on in the neighborhood and in the midst of it all, this guy, he writes stories. That's what I want. I want it to be an option."