Baltimore, MD – Much like the saying, “there are always two sides to a story,” there are also two sides to a city. I know this first hand as a native New Yorker who grew up watching Sex and the City fantasies of swanky lunch dates in Soho and guilt-free shopping sprees on 5th Avenue from the bedroom I once shared with my mother and sister in our small home in the Bronx. Even now, as I revel in the endless drama of some real housewife of NYC, I still find it foreign to the New York I call home. Author D. Watkins puts into words the reality of so many folks who live in America’s forgotten urban cities with his latest work. In his debut essay collection, The Beast Side, Watkins offers a clear view on the rougher East side of Baltimore. The author, activist and Coppin State University professor has become the voice of black Baltimore. Through his appearances and bylines at The Salon, Huff Post Live, NPR, Baltimore Sun, New York Times, MSNBC, and many others, Watkins amplifies the often ignored black narrative of the harsh realities living in the inner cities of America. The Beast Side, subtitled Living and Dying While Black in America, is truly a gift to the growing curriculum of understanding racism.
The book begins with “Stoop Stories,” an essay in which Watkins compares storytelling with familiar faces on his neighborhood stoop, to storytelling to an audience alien to his experience. The Beast Side is essentially a collection of stoop stories, presumably targeted to an audience alien to black poverty, black survival, and living while black (specifically in Baltimore) overall. Watkins’ way of breaking down the foundation of racism is undeniably comprehensible, even for the “reverse-racism” believer (I hope). It’s not simply a book of black woes. Watkins explains his real life experiences in each essay, unveiling the ugliness that perpetuates the vicious cycle of racism. The classroom-to-prison pipeline, underdeveloped neighborhoods, limited access to technology, and gentrification are just some of the many factors that keep the poor poor, the crime rates up, and black lives endangered.
“There are so many hardworking people like us who are forced to create our own industries as a direct result of being isolated by society. To me that poses a bigger question. Why is employment inequality for African-Americans always identified as laziness? Hire us (pg. 22).” – The Beast Side:Living and Dying While Black in America; Side One: “Lessons of a Former Dope Dealer”
Each page was a turner. Watkins really knows how to captivate a reader with his blunt tone and engaging accounts, both tragic and victorious. It is impossible to select just one favorite part of the book because each essay literally had me snapping my fingers as if I was listening to the realest dopest poem at a slam downtown. However, I have to mention two particular essays that touched me, not only due to its masterful delivery and truth, but because they are sub-topics not many take time to explore — especially in the fight of convincing America that black lives DO matter.
The first essay to mention concerns technology and pop culture. We never really discuss the effects of limited technology access. There are people who are truly too poor to apply to jobs online, too poor to be up-to-date with the latest meme, and too poor to keep up with any Kardashian (not that this is of any importance, but you get the picture). In his essay, “Too Poor for Pop Culture,” Watkins tells the endearing yet eye-opening story about his hometown friends not knowing what a “selfie” is, simply because they can’t afford a smartphone. Talk about a humbling read! While I’m worried about my slow wi-fi, there’s a family in my hood without a bed to sleep on.
The second essay to mention concerns black women. I have to admit, at first I was a bit skeptical when I saw the title “Black Women.” The topic of black women is quite sensitive within the black community as it seems like the conversation is usually: blame, chastise or ridicule black women — especially if it’s coming from a male’s perspective. From his work, I knew Watkins would not ridicule, but I worried if he would be overly critical — because usually that’s the main attitude of most people in any space. I was relieved to discover the essay was about street harassment and the oppression of black women. The essay was relatable, honest, and even had a dash of humor. Watkins gets it!
The entire book is a thrilling, intense, and emotional journey to understanding both the author and America’s race issue. Reading The Beast Side was like listening to a friend tell a story. Watkins addresses everything from Obama, to education, to Freddie Gray, to social media, to music, to the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Both unapologetic and unfiltered, each essay sparks a series of emotions. You will you cringe, smile, nod in agreement, and revisit a previous essay with a newer perspective.
The Beast Side, though a great guide for folks who don’t understand race and racism, is a wonderful source of inspiration for people, particularly young people, to see how far their minds can take them. In a recent interview Watkins said, “I believe that anybody can be an activist as long as you find a skill, achieve mastery, and then share it with as many people as you can. Activism is more than marching and protesting, that’s an important part, but not the whole picture.” Not only because of this book, his other works, and his bold style of writing, Watkins is an activist by simply existing as a guy from Baltimore who has survived the hardships and lived to tell about it and help others to do the same.