|(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), 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