D Watkins knew life was cheap growing up in East Baltimore, but he couldn’t believe his drug-dealing older brother had been murdered until he saw him lying in the street outside the housing project where they lived.
Watkins — the D is short for Dwight — recalled the 1999 death in a Thursday speech before some 200 Oberlin High School students.
The author of “The Beast Side: Living and Dying While Black in America” recounted how he escaped the same fate as his brother, Devin Watkins, 20.
Now 35, D Watkins said drug dealing was a family tradition and he sold crack cocaine and was twice shot as a young man.
He recalled growing up in Lafayette Courts, an 800-unit housing project packed with thousands of people. He said dirt bikes were ridden through the complex lobby, people were dangled out of windows, the housing police regularly beat residents, and people were occasionally shot.
Watkins took refuge in reading but said he couldn’t relate to most of the books he was assigned in school such as “Huckleberry Finn.” The exceptions were “Manchild in the Promised Land” by Claude Brown, “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” and “Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass.” They were the only books Watkins said he read until his early 20s.
Watkins said his brother urged him to avoid selling drugs and attend college. After the murder, Watkins attended Loyola University Maryland, but said the culture shock of a street kid attending a Jesuit university led him to drop out and deal drugs.
He said selling drugs was “the worst job in the world.”
Besides 16-hour work days, competition was ruthless. He said dealers he thought were his friends often informed on one another to police to eliminate competition. “Everything was cutthroat and everything was evil (but) I made some money and I saved some money,” Watkins said.
Watkins used some of his drug dealing profits to buy a liquor store but felt he had just traded selling illegal drugs for a legal one that was equally destructive. He also used some of the cash to travel to Egypt, London, and Paris, gaining perspective on the world outside his highly segregated neighborhood that he said few residents enjoyed.
“I learned success is not about how much money you make,” he said. “When I was coming up, I thought the whole purpose of life was to be rich. And that’s not really the key.”
Watkins returned to college, earning a history degree from the University of Baltimore and a masters in education from John Hopkins University. He lectures at the University of Baltimore and is an adjunct professor at John Hopkins.
Today he writes for The Baltimore City Paper, is a columnist for Salon magazine, and has been published in the New York Times.
His life experience and resentment that media often falsely portrayed what it’s like to be black and poor in inner-city America inspired him to write. Watkins said coverage of unrest after last year’s death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old Baltimore resident who died of a spinal cord injury while in police custody, is an example of media exaggeration.
“They tried to make it look like our city was crazy,” he said. “We weren’t crazy. We were just tired of being harassed by police officers.”
Police brutality, gun violence, and white privilege are among the topics Watkins has written about for Salon. “The Beast Side,” a play on words about the east side of Baltimore, is a compilation of 24 essays Watkins wrote in the past two years. A memoir, “Cook Up,” is due out May 3.
Watkins, who also spoke at Oberlin College, was invited by three Oberlin High sophomores inspired by him.
“His story is amazing,” said sophomore Justin Smith, who wrote an application to the Nord Family Foundation for $6,000 to get Watkins to come.
English teacher David Reese said after the speech that he was struggling to connect with Smith and the other two boys in September, but thought they might relate to Watkins after hearing him interviewed on National Public Radio. Reese had them listen to the interview and bought them the book.
He encouraged Smith to invite Watkins to Oberlin. “Justin has enough leadership skills to be able to make this thing happen,” Reese said, adding that college officials provided assistance.
Besides speaking, Watkins took part in writing workshops at the high school on Thursday and Friday. He said he wants to inspire young people to read and write about their lives.
Watkins said literacy is particularly important for black people to become empowered, noting slaves were forbidden to learn how to read.
He said empowerment and social justice come from the bottom up through hard work, self-reliance, and willingness to help others.
“I don’t think we’re going to fix the system by electing some politician,” Watkins said. “But if we all recognize our individual strengths and do what we can do and share our skills to help other people, we can change it like that.”
Evan Goodenow can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @GoodenowNews on Twitter.
Photos by Evan Goodenow | Oberlin News-Tribune Baltimore author/activist D Mitchell speaks at Oberlin High School on his experiences growing up in Baltimore, selling drugs, and changing his life.