Once quoted saying, “I could give back to the neighborhoods that my friends and I tore apart,” professor and two-time New York Times Bestseller D. Watkins has taken his street appeal to attract “nontraditional” scholars into the classroom.
Watkins spent a number of years hustling on the streets of East Baltimore, simply for survival. A common story among many urban youths, Watkins accounts, “I never set out to be a part of that life, but that never stopped that life from setting out to be a part of me.”
Plagued by the conditions of his reality, Watkins sold crack cocaine to pay the bills, put food on the table, and clothes on his back. When asked why he resorted to street life, he explains, “With poverty comes desperation, drug use, drug sales, drug addiction, and ultimately murder.” It wasn’t until his brother was murdered at 17 that he dove heavily into the streets. However, Watkins soon realized there had to be an escape from the urban war zone he considered home.
His escape? Reading.
Reading took Watkins to a world that he decided to further explore and document; first by journaling and eventually writing columns. Now, he’s an accomplished author, writing two New York Times Bestsellers in under a year. Watkins now inspires others with a mission to redefine what artists, writers, and intellectuals look like while making reading cool in urban areas throughout the country.
Watkins sat down with Black Enterprise to share how he was able to cook up something great, in the business of writing:
BE: How did you get into the writing business?
Watkins: I’ve been a storyteller my whole life. My family, my neighborhood, and my friends alike all love to share wild and crazy experiences—long monologues that are cocktails of depression, gems, and humor. I didn’t really break into writing. I’ve always been a part of that tradition of African griots; I just decided to write it down.
BE: What inspired you to write your first book?
Watkins: There were too many white people telling black stories, and I wanted to put out my own account, from the perspective of a person that proudly wears this skin every day.
BE: How is your writing a form of activism?
Watkins: On the surface, my writing is activism because it authentically documents the struggle from a black, bottom-up perspective. On a deeper level, my writing inspires—it gets young people, who are normally categorized as “nontraditional,” excited about reading, moved by my personal story, and eager to tell their own—becoming critical thinkers in the process. Creating a nation of critical thinkers is the real win.
BE: What made you decide to teach at the collegiate level?
Watkins: My professor at the University of Baltimore, Dr. Singer, changed my life. He made learning cool and fun. His lectures were like movies—he really brought historical figures off of the page, allowing us to feel like we were a part of the story. That teaching style opened up my mind and helped me realize that I could do the same for someone else. I’m simply paying it forward.
BE: What legacy do you want to leave with your writing/work?
Watkins: My body of work includes a rich collection of black stories. It houses amazing narratives of truly dynamic black people. I pray that my legacy inspires, pushing future generations to be proud of their dreams and aggressively work to make them come true.
BE: What unique challenges have you faced as a writer, an activist, and as an African American man in post-secondary education?
Watkins: My biggest challenge comes from people freaking at the idea of black intellectuals. They hear me talk, then look at me in awe, as if I had three eyes or something. Their social context equips them with ideas of the African American mind being inferior; as if our accomplishments in art, literature, athletics, science, and innovation mean nothing. It’s 2016—not 1810.
BE: Who inspires you as a writer and why?
Watkins: Nas inspires me as an artist; his storytelling continues to get better with time. But, the bulk of my inspiration comes from the streets of East Baltimore. Baltimoreans are the toughest and most resilient people in the world. We make something out of nothing every day, and I’m proud to call it home.
Watkins believes we can be inspired by teaching critical thinking skills and empowering the next generation with relatable literature. He reminds us that it’s about “finding out what you’re good at and achieving mastery, then not only excelling in that field but sharing that skill with someone else, so that they can learn how to achieve mastery and share that skill, as well. This is how opportunities are forced into creation.”
Click here to see what inspires D. Watkins.
For more on D. Watkins, check out his bio here.