Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Monday, March 14, 2022

Monday, March 14, 2022: Maximum Shelf: Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments

Legacy Lit: Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments by D. Watkins

Legacy Lit: Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments by D. Watkins

Legacy Lit: Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments by D. Watkins

Legacy Lit: Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments by D. Watkins

Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments

by D. Watkins

In Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments, D. Watkins moves into new, vulnerable territory. Watkins wrote about growing up in east Baltimore in The Cook Up and The Beast Side. Now, in Black Boy Smile, he dissects what he calls "the lie": codes of Black masculinity that forced him into stoic silence in order to survive his upbringing. In his new memoir, Watkins practices the opposite--he shares traumatic memories of sexual abuse and violence as well as ways in which "the lie" inhibited his growth and happiness. Through it all, his love for the people of east Baltimore shines through, and Watkins's story is ultimately a hopeful, redemptive one. Black Boy Smile feels radical in its openness and in its vision of a Black manhood that does not require bottling up feelings of pain or joy.

The subtitle gives a clue to the structure of the book. Thanks to its short, digestible chapters, it reads like a true collection of memories. In a roughly chronological sequence, Watkins recalls a childhood plagued by violence, the collateral effects of the drug trade, and feelings that he didn't know how to process or share with anyone else. He devotes multiple chapters to his time at a nightmarish camp where the children were forced to fight each other and the tyrannical counselors kept most of the food for themselves. Throughout, Black Boy Smile maintains its focus on Watkins's emotions. While his father drives him to the camp, Watkins lies and tells his father that he's not afraid. He writes: "I was raised in an environment where fear was lied about, even if you're nine years old.... The people I respected taught me that fear was the worst thing a man could be." After camp ends, on the drive home, Watkins sticks to the lie, telling his father: "Camp was alright. It was cool."

To be clear, Black Boy Smile is far from a parade of traumatic memories. One chapter follows a trip with his father to buy shoes that ends with them stuck in a rainstorm; his father urges him to cry so they can finagle a car ride from a "big-haired, extra blonde white woman." Watkins's colorful prose delivers humor and attitude at every turn, particularly in the vivid descriptions--"the stumpy teacher, dressed in three different shades of JC Penney brown"--and in the way Watkins and his friends chat and joke with each other. Some of the most memorable conversations take place between Watkins and Tweety Bird, his friend's girlfriend, whose "heart was bigger than the whole side of east Baltimore." In one tragicomic conversation, Watkins reveals how he used to encourage girls to leave after sex by turning up the air conditioning: "All Black girls from Baltimore are anemic, so the cold works," he says, while Tweety reacts in horror. Their playful, teasing exchanges circle around the deeper truth of Watkins's transactional relationships with women, which in turn hints at the loneliness he tries so hard to bury.

Watkins soon finds himself selling drugs and earning a great deal of money, but cars and piles of shoes can't prevent him from becoming increasingly miserable. The first hint of a brighter future comes through books. Reading Sister Souljah's The Coldest Winter Ever ignites a passion for reading that helps change his path; he goes on to attend college, earn his MFA and pursue a career in writing. According to Watkins, "being Black in an MFA program is kind of like being white in the Black Panther Party," and the resulting culture clash leads to some of the book's funniest, most cutting sentences. But even though his classmates seem to have an easier time relating to Harry Potter than to "a Black boy from Baltimore," Watkins finds that compared to what he'd been through, "dodging the narrow-mindedness of privilege was easy." Writing becomes something he pursues with a single-minded determination, far removed from his lucrative but hollow life dealing drugs.

Black Boy Smile is a powerfully redemptive work because Watkins finds more than a new career; he finds a new way of being, one that requires unlearning "the lie" and so many of the lessons of his past. In its place, he finds love in a relationship markedly different from the cold arrangements that he once preferred. It takes time, and he has to learn to let someone in, but ultimately love succeeds in shattering "the steel wall that housed my emotions." A particularly moving passage describes Watkins's journey to becoming a father, prompting him to consider the unique challenges his daughter will face as a Black woman. At the same time, though, Watkins's story is one of learning and healing, and his determination to pass on the lessons he's learned--to make sure that his daughter is raised in a joyful environment--ensures that the book ends on a profoundly hopeful note. --Hank Stephenson

Legacy Lit, $27, hardcover, 240p., 9780306924002, May 17, 2022

Legacy Lit: Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments by D. Watkins

D. Watkins: 'Writing Rescued Me'

(photo: Schuan Champion)

D. Watkins is editor-at-large for Salon and the author of The Beast Side; The Cook Up; Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised and We Speak for Ourselves. In Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments (Legacy Lit, $27, May 17, 2022), Watkins recalls his coming-of-age in east Baltimore, memories of violence and abuse intermingling with love and appreciation for his hometown. Throughout the book, he critiques the flawed codes of Black masculinity that he was taught, and shows how he found a better path thanks to his passions for reading, writing and family.

Why did you choose to structure the book around short chapters, or "moments" as the subtitle calls them?

I have worked a lot with young people or with people who don't read often, who may be intimidated by long chapters. So, over the years, I developed the ability of quickly making my points to keep their interest, and that style worked perfectly for this project--short vignettes that will allow readers to go on my journey from boyhood to manhood through meaningful glimpses of my daily reality.

Several chapters feature Tweety criticizing you for how you treated women at the time. How did you start to change your relationships with women for the better?

Tweety made me aware of the lies I was taught about masculinity growing up. I mistakenly thought that anyone close to me wanted something in exchange for their love--cash, clothes, cars, property, etc.--because I was a man and that was how we earned love. Tweety was one of the first people that made me realize everything wasn't transactional. I was enough, and I could simply be me and she'd love me. I was grateful for her love at no cost because I didn't understand that love could work like that.

You write a lot about "the lie" and the destructive impact of toxic masculinity. Are there ways in which some of the behaviors you learned were adaptive as well as damaging, helping you to survive a difficult environment?

Yes. I grew up in a rough neighborhood and showing weakness at times could have been a death sentence for a Black man or boy. That is why it's so important for me to use my story, especially when dealing with others who come from places like east Baltimore, to show how wrong that mentality is. If more of us step up and are unapologetically honest, vulnerable and admit that we too experience pain, heartbreak and even cry, then things will get better for the next generation of Black men.

You write that reading The Coldest Winter Ever singlehandedly turned you into a reader. What did you think about books or reading before that point?

Before The Coldest Winter Ever, I had never come across a book that truly captured my experience. I loved titles like The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Manchild in the Promised Land, but those books were talking about the '60s and '70s. I came up in the '90s, and my environment's landscape and obstacles were a bit different. The Coldest Winter Ever allowed me to see myself. It made me feel like I mattered in literature for the first time, and that feeling left me forever transformed.

Do you have moments where old, harmful patterns of thinking begin to recur? If so, how do you get yourself back on track?

I was invited to do a reading of one of my previous books at a jail. This is the sort of work that I wanted to focus on, but then I found myself in a rough exchange with an inmate about a neighborhood in Baltimore. Suddenly I was thrown back into block wars, things I write about in the book, and I had to calm down before it went too far. The COs were about to throw him out and I didn't want that. He just wanted to be heard. I had to realize the privilege I had, because I got to go home and, also, I was in a position now to be heard, where many incarcerated men and the people I write about in Black Boy Smile are not. So I swallowed my pride and I listened. We worked it out like brothers. That is what healing looks like.

This book in many ways seems like the opposite of the tamped-down stoicism you learned as a child. Was there any lingering difficulty in sharing so much of yourself? Anything that you at first didn't want to share but felt needed to be communicated?

I was terrified to talk about most of the topics in this book, but I had to. They had to be said, analyzed and explained, not just for me, but for people dealing with the same kind of trauma.

The camp story was the most difficult to write. I didn't mention that in the proposal. It probably shocked my editor when she read the first draft. But it was where I needed to begin in understanding my journey, and I hope it will inspire readers to have the courage to dive into better understanding their own story and transformation.

Have you had any responses to the book from people who grew up with you, or also grew up in east Baltimore?

Not yet, but when it comes out, I expect to receive e-mails or social media messages from people in the book. Strangely, they always feel that I should have spent more time focusing on building out their life stories, and I'm always like, "Hey go write your own book!"

Starting out as a writer, you write that "half the journey in the beginning was about trusting white people with my words." Is there any of that feeling that still lingers as you prepare for your book's publication? Any concerns about how people will react to the book?

I'm lucky enough to have an audience now that is made up of all kinds of people, from all different walks of life. I think people are going to love the book, not just for the writing, but for the deep, much-needed conversations it will spark about trauma and finding joy. Although I don't shy away from dealing with some tough subjects, I also make them laugh. I get to be myself on the page and it builds trust with my readers.

After deciding you wanted to be a writer, it seems like you pursued that goal with a great deal of determination. Did you ever waver or rethink pursuing a career as uncertain as that of a writer?

Once being a writer had become my plan A, it also became my plan B, C, D and E. I could not imagine myself doing anything else, and even if I had to write for free, then I would be teaching and driving for Lyft while still writing and trying to get published. Writing rescued me, and I truly love it with all my heart. --Hank Stephenson

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