The day D. Watkins got his admission-letter to college, his big brother Bip was shot.
Bip was an East Baltimore neighborhood celebrity. A big player drug-dealer with a parking-lot full of luxury cars, and a little brother, D., who lived with him and saw him as “a mix of superman and Jesus”. Then, one day, he lay dead on the pavement in front of a Korean take-away, while his teenage brother, who had been called to the scene, was kicking and screaming, a police officer forcing him to the ground.
Today, D. Watkins is 35, a teacher and writer. He has published two books, and writes for The Guardian, The New York Times and Salon. He teaches at the University of Baltimore and at Johns Hopkins University – an extremely unlikely career in America that says a lot about education in America’s poor black neighborhoods.
Baltimore is one of America’s most infamous cities, known for its high crime rate not just since HBO turned its East side into the scene for its popular drug-game series “The Wire” in 2002. Baltimore had the second highest national homicide rate in 2015 after Chicago, with 55 homicides per 100.000 inhabitants. In Berlin, it’s less than four.
Watkins asks me to meet him at the Museum of Visionary Art, a modern building near the inner harbor. D. strolls towards me moving in an elastic, ball-player like way. We shake hands and go outside to sit in the sunny museum courtyard.This is the good side of town. Behind the museum, neatly cut green lawns sprawl up a hill. On the other side of the street, fancy apartment-buildings line the waterfront, heavily gated, private landing included. There’s a plastic name-tag attached to D.s black hoody. He’s at the museum to speak to a group of investors from the health-care-sector, men in suits, who seek his advice.
Watkins went to a broken school, like his older brother Bip and like his father before him and like his little nephew, Butta, now. D. tells me how he went to visit Butta’s school once, a run-down, filthy building with a broken metal detector at the entrance, where children are kept rather than taught. Butta spends six hours a day in a classroom with a substitute teacher who allowed them to play with their phones so he could play with his, says D., a school just like his. How did you get here, D.?
His older brother, Bip, kept him out of the game. He encouraged him to study, and made it clear he wanted him to go to college. He gave D. his first book, a Malcom X biography. D. read dutifully, though it didn’t give him much. “But it was a big thing. I had finished a book and none of my friends ever had.”
After his brother’s death, D. fell into a depression. A friend eventually persuaded him to go to college – because Bip would have wanted it.
On his first day in Loyola College, D. put on Gucci sweat suits, together with his and his brothers jewelry. “Where I come from, people say hi and talk to each other when they meet, but there, when I said hi, they just went like this”, D. says, and fakes a fake smile. There were other black kids. “But they weren’t black like me.” They naturally mastered the whole complicated code of proper English and dressing middle-class. Half a year into college, he drops out, and starts a large crack business.
It’s not just the poor financial situation of inner-city-schools, it’s also the deep cultural divide between the students and their teachers.
In his classes at Johns Hopkins, he tries to convey to inner city teachers how to deal with kids like the one he used to be himself. The teachers’ intentions are good, he says, but they are not really understanding the people they are teaching. “They are not racist, but they are primed by racist ideas.”
“My teachers always expected me to accept their art, their style”, D. recalls. But why shouldn’t hip hop and rap be art. It is this cultural gap, plus the poor funding for inner city schools, that bugs the school-system, according to D. “That way, you’re recreating the neighborhoods over and over again. We need smaller classrooms, and more teachers who actually live in the quarter and understand their students’ culture.”
Kids in East Baltimore get introduced to what’s important in live on the stoops, the concrete steps leading up to the doors of small row-houses. Living on Baltimore’s East side means spending a lot of time on the stoops. According to D., the stoops of the quarter are the relays of information – for drug game stories and neighborhood talk.
One afternoon during my stay in Baltimore, I visit the stoops. At D.s advice, I stroll around the streets just East of Johns Hopkins Hospital, which is sort of the good part of the bad part of town: street after street of tiny brick houses squeezed tightly into blocks, interrupted here and there by paved backyards littered with garbage, smelling of stray cat piss. There’s litter on the streets, but some of the houses have fresh paint.
It’s a Friday afternoon. The stoops in front of the tiny brick houses are humming with chatter. Black women and men hang out in the late summer warmth, separated by gender. The women greet me, smiling; the men fall silent and give me suspicious looks as I walk by. In front of one house on Jefferson Street, a black transgender is cutting her friend’s hair. I feel very white.
About half an hour into my stroll, I run into Mitchell, the chess-player, in front of a small corner shop. He’s in his sixties, a small, wiry man wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses, carrying a bottle of Corona in a black plastic bag. “May I ask what a person of your complexion is doing walking around here”, he asks politely, and then just as politely wishes to see my press ID. He studies it, and then invites me to join him on the stoops opposite the shop, where he intends to smoke a ‘blunt’. “But I don’t share”, he adds and grins.
“I did crack for 13 years”, Mitchell tells me and then we get to our first stoop-story. “Heroin, never did me any good. You know one time, I was sitting at this little round table. I have some cocaine in front of me and my friend has his heroin. Then he accidently spins the table, and I snort his drug. For three days, I could not keep anything in. Puked for three days!” He snickers, takes a piece of rolling paper from his pocket, and an orange plastic pill box and starts rolling a blunt.
Mitch’s family is from Barbados. I understand he’s been around quite a bit, though I have trouble keeping up with the chronology of his account. In the 70s, he lived in Oakland, which is where he got the blurry Black Panther Tattoo on his left lower arm. He served in Vietnam, and later worked as a guard in a maximum security prison in upstate New York, a job he didn’t like very much. “Got tired of being locked up, doing time without being convicted, ‘specially on Christmas and Thanksgiving.”
Mitch licks his blunt, and lights it. “Only good thing about that job was, I got to carry a legal gun. I used to carry it under my armpit. No ankle holster, these are no good. You know why?”
He gets up, feigns bending down to fumble an imaginary gun from an imaginary ankle-holster, and being propelled back by a shot. He snickers again, and sits back down.
When Mitchell has finished his blunt, he asks whether I could maybe spare some dollars, – “I’m pretty broke”. I give him some money, and he escorts me back to the subway station, chatting merrily, greeting everyone we meet with a handshake.
According to D. Watkins, his crack-business was going well. He had a large crew, money was flowing in, he bought big cars and designer clothes, but then he met a girl who would want to be with him, but not with a criminal. He eventually really gave up dealing, and went back to school. It was at the University of Baltimore that he discovered his love for reading. “Reading has freed me”, he writes in the final chapter of “The Cook up”. “I’m at home now.”
In 2014, D. publishes his first essay in “Salon”, a piece called “Too Poor for Pop Culture”. The essay goes viral; and D. ends up with a literary agent, and a publisher, and more interview-requests than he can handle. His voice is heard because he’s an extremely good writer – but also, because he’s a rare inhabitant of both worlds.
D. gets up. Inside the museum, the investors are waiting. He doesn’t seem to enjoy speaking engagements terribly. But books alone don’t pay enough yet for a living. D. says he doesn’t miss the big crack-money. “It didn’t make me happy at all.” What does make you happy, I ask. “Thinking”, he says after a pause. “Sharing ideas. Helping people. Textures. Colors. And words.”
Continue reading Chapter 7: What Norris Henderson felt like when he was released from Angola and how he fights for prisoner’s rights today.