It’s hard to not root for D. Watkins. A self-made scholar whose story started in the projects until he hustled his way to pay for college tuition, earning a Masters in education from Hopkins and an MFA in creative writing from the University of Baltimore. His aim is simple: to tell concrete truths about the conditions that hold back the black community in Baltimore, all in language that anyone can understand.
His first collection of these essays, The Beast Side: Living and Dying while Black in America (Hot Books / Skyhorse, September 2015) is the book equivalent to the banger rap tracks that Watkins references and is inspired by. Covering everything from the availability of nutritional foods within the projects (there aren’t any), to the time-suck that is Instagram, Watkins rallies against misconceptions and often ignored social conditions with the hard-won perspective of someone who has really been there. At less than 180 pages it’s an easy weekend burn-through that leaves you wanting more when you’ve finished. Don’t be surprised if you pour through it again.
Watkins artfully straddles the line between real and grotesque in essays like “Too Poor for Pop Culture” where he talks about cleaning to ward off the roaches, bottom-rail vodka card games, and using the oven to heat the house.
This essay points out the obvious economic disparity that must exist in a country where the president takes a ‘selfie’ when a whole section of the population is ignorant to what a “selfie” is due to the limitations of poverty. Watkins himself recalls living both sides of life, the luxury and wealth of drug dealing—”I used to live at Whole foods, I used to only buy top shelf”—to the scrape existence of teaching as an adjunct at three different universities, substituting, writing, and freelancing just to make ends meet.
Articulating the need for a serious attitude adjustment and cultural reform in his essay “My Neighborhood Revolution,” in which Watkins’ friend Dub asking him to read him a letter sent from his estranged daughter because Dub himself cannot read. The moment makes Watkins’ wonder how a forty-five year old can make it this far without reading, ultimately influencing Watkins’ to dedicate himself to changing the illiteracy figures in his community. Pushing himself to produce more content for people who think “reading is boring,” when reading is one of the last skills that challenge you to change your thinking. Watkins himself reflects how reading changed him in a matter of months from being hot-headed to rational; able to settle disputes without broken bottles or gun play.
Individually, Watkins’ essays come off as singular gems; content you come across on the internet and file under not to be missed. But, placed into one collection, Watkins’ essays pull off illustrating the unceasing nature of challenges from every direction that face black Americans—from food choices, traffic stops, and the occasional drive by shooting—with the dark humor and unflinching perspective of someone who lived it.
The Beast Side is worth your time, for what’s inside, and the need you’re going to feel to throw it in front of everyone you know.
Cover illustration credit: Aaron Maybin.