On the overnight train to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, last month, I tormented my tired seatmate by keeping the overhead light on and sifting through a stack of printed pages, scrawling illegible notes in the margins and occasionally snorting at something that I found funny, or horrifying, or both.
These were essays written by Baltimorean struggler-turned-literary-supernova, D Watkins, concerning class contradictions, vocational paradoxes, pop culture, drug culture, violent death versus survival versus soaring success. All of them chronicling the author’s native city, where crack dealers rub elbows with Johns Hopkins University scholars. And just for the record: D has been both.
My objective in reading these essays was to prepare myself for the moment I envisioned at Hippocampus Magazine’s upcoming writing conference (“HippoCamp”) when I would successfully ambush D for an interview. I didn’t necessarily feel like the ideal person to do it. Before D, I’d semi-unconsciously stuck to interviewing fellow eccentric white women, whose stories and self-presentation might have fascinated and even frightened me, but who never, just by existing, made me feel like my own suffering and literary depictions thereof were kind of bullshit.
Still, my dream of writing has always been to artfully attack readers with uncomfortable realities that are greater than my own lived experience; to carve those realities into weapons, and plunge them into many a gut. Not to injure readers, but to penetrate their defenses, and to transcend my own. This is my dream of reading, as well—to be simultaneously attacked and edified by the prose. And so when I first read D’s story about a card game in his friend “Miss Sheryl”’s ravaged tenement apartment, juxtaposed with the malignantly narcissistic joke of contemporary “selfie” culture, I felt the knife go right in. This was not only a style that epitomized everything I love about creative nonfiction, but a story that I could, strangely enough, identify with, even though D and I represent such radically different demographics. Here’s a sample:
“I arrived, fifth of Black Watch clenched close to me like a newborn with three red cold-cups covering the top. We play spades over at Miss Sheryl’s place in Douglass Housing Projects every few weeks. (Actually, Miss Sheryl’s name isn’t really Miss Sheryl. But I changed some names here, because I’m not into embarrassing my friends.) Her court is semi-boarded up, third world and looks like an ad for “The Wire.” Even though her complex is disgustingly unfit, it’s still overpopulated with tilting dope fiends, barefoot children, pregnant smokers, grandmas with diabetes, tattoo-faced tenants and a diverse collection of Zimmermans made up of street dudes and housing police, looking itchy to shoot anyone young and black and in Nike.” (“Too Poor for Pop Culture,” Salon, Feb 2014)
When D gave his reading at the conference, from his soon-to-be-released “The Beast Side: Living and Dying While Black in America,” the content was as charged as I expected it to be—more so—although he prefaced it by saying something along the lines of “You can buy the book, or not buy it. Whatever. It’s all good.” Needless to say, though, what followed was a rapid-fire depiction of some of the most frightening aspects of D’s past, delivered in a way that made them seem both epic and incontrovertibly, horribly human.
So I got in D’s face immediately after he descended from the stage. He consented to doing the interview after the conference, but, to my dismay, insisted that we talk on the phone or Skype rather than writing back and forth, which is a far easier method of interviewing since you (the interviewer) get to be your best, most polished self, and because it eliminates the hell of transcription and having to listen to yourself hem and haw and apologize for asking potentially offensive questions but then going ahead and asking them anyway.
A few days later, early in the morning, D and I Skyped for an hour. He was well-rested (for the first time, he said, in several months), whereas I was bleary-eyed, still blasted from the adrenaline the night before, when I’d fought with a gentleman friend about which one of us has less socio-economic privilege than the other, and then nearly got my ass kicked my two nubile, neo-nazi hussies in front of a Seven-Eleven convenience store (I thought of sharing this anecdote with D, but then wondered what the hell I was thinking). I was nervous, he seemed relatively relaxed, but the conversation endured this schism (along with a couple others), and this is, in the end, how things went:
R: For me, the way that you write, and the way that you put yourself out there, invites a certain kind of identification. I have no background in East Baltimore, and my story is my story, and I can’t say, “oh yeah, I can totally relate to the specifics of what’s happening here.” But when I read the work, that sense of coming up from chaos, and coming up from nothing, is very familiar to me. And I’m wondering how often people say that to you, because I’m guessing that they say it pretty often… And how it makes you feel that I’m coming at you on that level now.
D: I think it’s a conversation that we just need to have. My whole life, I was taught that a person like yourself and a person like me should never have a real conversation about anything because we exist in different realities, when in actuality, we probably have more in common than most people even know.
R: Because I was stunned when I started reading your essays. I wasn’t, like, wanting or expecting to be able to draw parallels between your experiences and my experiences. But some of your experiences, as you’ve recorded them, actually seem… I don’t know, really fucking similar to some of mine.
D: America does a great job at putting people off into little pockets, and having them think that you can only identify with a certain group of people. And it’s just not true. Part of the reason that I write the way I do is… you know, I went to Johns Hopkins University, so I was taught to write in very dense academic language. But the world is not full of people who’ve studied dense academic language. So when I got into writing personal essays and things like that, I wanted to do a number of things: one, I wanted to write in a language that everyone could understand, while still trying to use as many literary devices as I could; two, I wanted to expose those universal truths that connect us all. It’s not even about my story. My story is just a small piece of an American experience that a lot of different Americans can relate to. So I try my best to engage people in a way that’s calm and cool, and with unity as the backdrop, but in a non-corny way.
R: [laughs] No, no…
R: It doesn’t read as corny. But what you just said points to what was supposed to be my final, feel-good question. You’re not only a writer, but a teacher of writing. Say a student comes to you and says that they not only identify with you, but that they want write like you, and they want you to teach them how to do that. And you see they have a story of their own, and you want to help them tell it as effectively as they can in their own voice. What do you do? How do you redirect them?
D: I feel like all of my students, my peers, my mentors, the people I look up to, even people who don’t write—we all have a story. Any student who tells me that they want to be like me, they’re not gonna just get the good side of what I’ve accomplished, they’re gonna get the dirty side. ‘Cause they don’t really see the work that goes into making some of these projects happen. Even right now… last night was probably the first night I’ve had a full night of sleep in two or three months. I have to finish these books, I have to still try to get my articles out, and I have to take care of the business side of things too. So I’m wearing, like, twenty different hats right now.
So if a student tells me they want to be like me, I would tell them, for one, they will have to learn how to develop a love for rejection. You have to learn how to fall in love with rejection. Every time you get a rejection letter, throw yourself a party, and then get back to work. They have to understand the game, and you can’t really understand the game until you go through a certain amount of rejection. So that’s what I would tell them first, if they’re already into writing and they’re thinking about being a professional. If they just want to tell their story, then I would just say, “You have to be patient. Be patient, and work at it, and sit back and tell the best story you can possibly tell.” I mean, I haven’t been a writer my whole life, but I’ve been working on this memoir for thirty-three years. So I gotta get it on a page in a year, and then get it out? No. You gotta take the time to properly identify those universal truths that I was talking about, tell your story, the most important elements of your story that made you who you are, and deliver that emotional thrust that pushes you forward. You have to do those things.
So I would basically center that conversation around patience and understanding and developing that resilience, and using it as a superpower.
R: And the way you are able to write really does come across as a superpower. The prose has this machine-gun-accuracy and force that’s very tempting to try and emulate. I mean, I’m tempted to try and emulate it. But again, how do you really help students find their own voices, and write as powerfully as they can write, as themselves?
D: Always read the greats, always read the greats. And “the greats” don’t have to be people that are called great by everybody, the greats are the people who you consider to be the best. If I’m reading James Baldwin, if I’m reading Sherman Alexie, if I’m reading Junot Diaz, I don’t try to emulate their voices, but at the same time, reading somebody that’s so good inspires me to write. That’s where you start. At the end of the day, we all have a different voice. I think one thing that a lot of students of writing aren’t really taught is that your voice is good enough. Who you are is perfect. The only thing that makes a difference is the amount of work that you put in perfecting the best representation or the best version of you. But the voice is already there. When you’re with your friends, when you’re faced with a problem, when you teach, when you give, when you learn, when you do all of these things, your voice is there. But now [the question] is how you give that voice to the world.
R: It’s funny that you mentioned Junot Diaz, because for a long time I was afraid that I was mimicking him. Something about that way of writing where it doesn’t feel like writing, it feels like someone in a room with you telling you something, even though it’s really polished. If I had students, I’d want to encourage them to write that way. Like, don’t write it to me, tell it to me. So it’s emulating a natural voice, but it’s still emulating, which can feel like stealing.
D: I wouldn’t really consider it stealing. I would say that you use that for inspiration. This is why we’re not on the planet alone. We’re here with other people to be inspired. And that’s a Jaden Smith quote [both laugh]. Seriously, that was a brilliant quote. And he talks about how Toni Morrison has inspired him. So I think that sometimes we dive into these other pieces of writing, and we study these other authors, to be inspired, to tell our own stories, to develop our own voices, to develop our own styles. ‘Cause you might say “Oh, well, that style is cool,” and then from that style you might evolve into a different style, which is cool as well. And then you might change again. And this is how these things work.
R: So I want to shift gears a little bit, because I recently checked out that piece that Bret McCabe did about you for Johns Hopkins Magazine (“Dwight Watkins, Former Drug Dealer, Forges a New Identity: D. Watkins, Author,” Fall 2014). And he describes that moment—it’s kind of dramatic—where you were sitting in the Grand Central publishing office, and you didn’t have an appointment, and it sounded like one of those now-or-possibly-never-type situations…
D: I had an editor who believed in me, but that wasn’t enough. And it’s crazy because when I sat down with Bret and we had that interview, I was on the basement level of Grand Central. I was in their trade paperback division, just lost. And I had a bunch of other projects. But I was happy that, you know, I got a book deal. As the time went on, and as I worked on the project, and as I worked on other projects, and worked really hard to make a name for myself, I moved up from the basement. And now when I go there, I meet with, like, the president. Now I’m in the hardback division, and they’re putting a team together to help market and promote my product.
But yeah, I had an editor who believed in me, and she actually quit Grand Central because she thought that she wouldn’t be able to do what she wanted to do in the publishing world, because she thought it was too hard to sign me. She was like, “Yo, this is ridiculous.” It was a transformative experience for her. She quit, and moved to Atlanta, and now she works from home. She does, like romance novels or something. So she was like, “I can make more money, I can live in a cheaper place, and I can have less stress.” She had never had to work so hard to sign a writer who she thought would be great for the company in her life. And it was only getting worse. ‘Cause, you know, there aren’t a lot of black men in literature.
So [The editor] thought I had something, and she said “Look, when you come to New York, we don’t have a meeting but [the vice-president of the paperback division] has agreed to talk to you. You just have to wait it out for a second.” She was on a phone call, and that phone call was, like, two hours, maybe longer, but it was a great phone call. Because I’m just playing the whole conversation out in my mind, thinking about the whole idea of not going in there to sell myself, but going in there to teach them things that they don’t know. And that moment when I was waiting was when I pretty much learned how this game works. So when I went in there and sat down with [the vice-president], she tried to compare me to—did you ever see “The Wire?”
R: [laughs] Yeah, that was gonna be the theme one of my questions, actually…
D: So Felicia Pearson, who played Snoop, has a memoir. The people at Grand Central—they did that memoir. She went to jail for murder when she was a young woman, and she’s found redemption through acting and art. She transformed herself in prison, and came out when she was pretty young, and was able to turn her life around.
So [the publishers] were like “Yo, she’s from East Baltimore. She’s from the street. This is your story! So everything that we did for her, we’re gonna do for you.” And I’m like, “Yo, no.” And everything in my mind—it clicked. So everything I was thinking about in the lobby made sense. At the end of the day, I know that I don’t know what I’m talking about, but I definitely know that you don’t know what you’re talking about. ‘Cause just by you making that comparison, you’re so disconnected and not cool, and you don’t really understand what’s going on, and you’re just lost in the sauce, and you need help. You need my help. Let me teach you.”
So everything that the publisher said, I turned into a teachable moment for her, where I taught her things about my story, my platform, what I do, and the name I’ve built for myself as a writer in comparison to [Pearson], who… she doesn’t even write. We have two whole different platforms. When people are looking for her, they’re looking for an actress, they’re looking for TV, they’re looking for movies and things like that. When people are looking for me, they’re looking for articles, my writing, what I’m putting down. But then there’s also a certain analysis and a certain intellectual perspective that’s sprinkled on top of these things as well. So it’s like, [Pearson]’s wearing cleats, I’m wearing sneakers. Two whole different fields.
R: Right, and so the thing I wanted to ask you about “The Wire” was whether that connection has been helpful to you–and it sounds like, at least in a logistical sense, it has–or whether it’s been a huge pain in the ass, and has blocked you in certain ways.
D: Yeah, David Simon, he branded Baltimore for life with that show. And he’s actually a brilliant writer. I don’t know if you’ve ever read any of his stuff, but “The Corner”– read the first three pages of “The Corner.” I think those first two paragraphs are two of the best paragraphs I’ve ever read in my life. Like, flat-out, you know, he has it.
So it’s been a good and bad thing. Good because now a lot of people know, sort of, what Baltimore culture is. Bad because, for the rest of my life, I could potentially be in the shadow, I would be introduced as [TV voice] “Hey, this is Baltimore, home of ‘The Wire.’”
But David has been great, too. He wrote an amazing blurb for my book. I’ll read it to you. It won’t make the first edition of the book, it’ll make the second printing, ‘cause he turned his blurb in late. David Simon says… “Firing off dispatches from the part of America we left behind, D Watkins is making a definitive argument for so many men and women ruthlessly marginalized by a society that fails to measure itself on any humane terms. This is a Baltimore voice in angry service of other, unheard Baltimore voices. And the B-Side is, by extension, a blunt, eloquent argument for the forgotten in our cities. He has arrived, and by the sound of things, he is here to hold us all to account.”
So he wrote a cool blurb for the book. He’s been supportive. Pretty much anything I ask him, or if I reach out for advice and insight, he’s there to be, like, a voice. But to answer your question, yeah, I will be directly affiliated with “The Wire” probably forever. And it’s not a bad thing, I think the show was brilliant. Obviously, I would have written it from a different perspective. He has that whole journalist, police reporter type [of voice]. And I report from the opposite side of the spectrum. So we do the same job, we’re just telling [the story] from different sides. I thought “The Wire,” was brilliant, though, I thought it was a brilliant show.
R: It’s interesting that it goes both ways. You were talking about teaching others rather than selling yourself, but also about being in the game. And I think it was in your piece on the work ethic (“Poor Black People Don’t Work?: Lessons of a Former Dope Dealer,” Salon, April 2014) where you’re talking about the similarities between work on the street and the work in the literary world. So do you then see similarities between [selling crack] and selling yourself now?”
D: So I keep my social media, you know… all of these things are business to me. I don’t really have a social media to trade photos with friends. It’s all business. And it’s the only way you can maintain a part of yourself. Most of the people I talk to everyday, they look at me like I’m a product. You know, I’m like a Nike shoe. I’m a part of a brand. So, in my opinion, to be successful, you have to develop that type of mentality. That way, you’re always representing a brand in the right way. You’re never gonna compromise the integrity of the brand, and that’s something that the world will have. Then you can put the brand away when you go home, and just go back to being yourself.
I didn’t get it at first, but, like… when I’m back in Baltimore. In Baltimore, a lot of people know who I am, and sometimes I can’t write in coffee shops because everyone sits at my table. I’ve signed a bunch of autographs and all types of wear and stuff like that. So, it’s like, even if people know who you are and they don’t say anything, they expect that product that they subscribe to online, that product they read in the newspaper, that product they get wherever. So I think that, yeah, you don’t sell your entire self, you don’t compromise your ideas and your integrity, but at the same time, you do allow a certain part of yourself to be out there, for your goals and your dreams and your ideas and the things like that. And you know, [you have] your regular self, which you save for your family and your loved ones, and that makes it livable. You don’t go as crazy.
R: Right, but that split that you’re talking about interests me, because, it’s like, yeah, it’s not your regular self, but it’s also the epitome of you: it’s you’re history, it’s your hopes, it’s your voice at its clearest and hardest-hitting. So what… I mean… where do you draw the line?
D: You know, my story, it’s just a tool. My story isn’t the worst story. I know people who’ve been through way more stuff. I know dudes with their arms knocked off and pieces of their heads knocked off who are still alive. I know people who never had running water in their homes. I know people with some really fucked up stories. My story is just a tool to shed light on the bigger issues that are going on with this country. Especially if you’re looking into a black experience. So I use my story as a tool to bring together some of these bigger issues, and to bring a certain level of humanity to a segment of people who have been ignored.
I have no problem throwing my story out there. Because it’s just a small, little, teeny, tiny, microscopic piece that fits into this huge puzzle full of bigger issues that we need to be paying attention to. I want people to know, that, from my perspective, I’m a servant, I’m here to serve. I’m not here to be a hotshot superstar, the coolest kid on the campus, or anything. I work for the people who allow me to get into the situation that I’m in right now. I work for them. I work for my neighborhood, I work for the victims of some of these senseless murders, black-on-black crime, police brutality, like, I work for them. I’m not trying to push myself off as some [TV voice] voice of a generation, speaking for the American Negro.
R: [laughs] I’m sorry to laugh, it’s not funny.
D: Being a black writer, since there’s not that many black writers on the scene, every time you open your mouth, you’re speaking for every black person who ever lived. And it’s just… it’s not fair. There’s multiple black experiences like there’s multiple white experiences, like there’s multiple Asian experiences…
R: Multiple female experiences…
D: Multiple male experiences, multiple trans experiences. Like, it’s all these different realities going on. But when you [as a black public figure] open your mouth, you know, you’re Al Sharpton, you’re Jesse Jackson, you’re all of these guys, that I don’t even—I don’t have anything to do with that. So when it comes to my story, I know that my role, here, is to be a servant, and that’s what I do. I work for the people. The people don’t push me, I work for them, and I try to represent them, and I try to help larger parts of America to see the humanity in these small parts that are often forgotten.
R: That makes me think of something that I’d decided not to say to you, but am going to go with anyway, even though it’s kind of horrible. Because, see, I was nervous about doing this interview. Because I was just, like, “Wow, it’s amazing that I’m getting to do this interview” [laughs]. And then I was reading Bret McCabe’s piece, and I saw the line about you identifying yourself as a “black Scarface” in comparison to writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates. And so I was gonna be all arrogant and start things out by saying, “Hey, Scarface,” and then I thought, “No, that’s a stupid idea.” But, like, is that even funny? Do you see humor in that, or is mostly “What the fuck?”
D: You know, I’m from East Baltimore, where the black population is like a hundred and twenty per cent [laughs]. But my favorite comedian of all time is probably… well, my favorite show is “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
R: [laughs] Okay, okay…
D: Some of my favorite comedians are guys like George Carlin. So I get jokes. You know, I get it, it’s all good. And compared to those guys who were mentioned in that article [Ta-Nehisi Coates, Wes Moore, and MK Asante]—they represent worlds that I know nothing about. I don’t know what it’s like to have parents who own literary presses, I don’t know what it’s like to have parents who are doctors, and things like that. I haven’t been fortunate enough to have those experiences. The way their careers are shaped is partially due to their influences. The way my career is shaped is partially due to my influences. My biggest literary influence is the rapper Nas.
R: And actually, I thought of Nas. I think I’d already read that he was one of your major influences, but also I thought of… Well, I thought of “Life’s a Bitch” because of that feeling of just being grateful to have survived. I feel kind of ridiculous being, like “Yeah, I totally get what you’re saying, there,” but… I’m amazed that I’ve lived this long.
D: Everybody has a story. My editor at Salon, she just dropped her memoir called “Blackout.”
R: Sarah Hepola.
D: Sarah Hepola. So, everybody has a story, it’s how you tell it. I can’t wait to read “Blackout,” like, I can’t wait to read it. I’m sure that her reality and her partying experience and the things that led her to write that book have nothing to do with the things that I’ve identified with for most of my life, but I know it’s gonna be a great experience, it’s gonna be a journey, and it’s great for humanity, and it’s the best thing we can do to enhance social relations on multiple levels.
R: I want to back up for a sec, though. Talk more about Nas, please. Because I love him, even though I’m not necessarily supposed to.
D: So, you know, I loved hip hop like any other kid growing up. You know, the voice of the people. But Nas brought an element of storytelling and coolness that was just… I never… The first time a song came on, I stopped everything I was doing… I was a little kid, and I replayed it, like, ninety times straight, and it was so clear and it was so well put together, but it was also cinematic. You know what I’m talking about, it’s “New York State of Mind.”
“New York State of Mind” was just this transformative song for me, ‘cause it’s this guy who’s hundreds of miles away [from me], going through some of the same things, painting some of the same images, but he’s cool, funny, smart, witty, and quick. And he just had a hold on the street. And no matter how much music I listened to for years after that album [“Illmatic”] came out, I always found myself going back to that album. Even still, like, driving back from the [HippoCamp] conference, I was playing that album. I go back to it. What I learned from him is… He does what some of the most powerful journalists do, what some of the most powerful pundits do. He has that strong, strong personal experience that he can give you in a raw way, that he can come at with analysis to show you that there’s intellect backing up these claims. So I’m not this boring academic, and I’m not this wild rapper, I’m this person in the middle that has the intellect and the knowledge to school you on things that you could never imagine, and I can do it in a way that’s cool and powerful.
R: And that’s a really good analogy, because it’s like having a groove. You listen, and you nod your head, and it’s also it’s beautiful and it’s sad and it’s triumphant, and all of that is true about your writing.
Something else that I want to ask you about, in terms of, and I hate to keep saying it, but ‘coming up,’ is just… do you feel like there’s a distance at all… I mean, you said a lot of your friends have passed. You know, I’ve buried a few friends, but I have no idea what it’s like to just have everybody on the corner be gone. But for the people you know who have survived, do you feel like, “Well, I’ve gone to this other place, and there’s this difference, and it’s maybe hard to reach back and connect and have them trust me now?” Or have you managed not to have that happen?
D: I can’t really reach back, ‘cause I never really left. So it’s like, I’m there. I do have some obvious remorse sometimes. I know some people who have done way less things than me, and… they’re gone. So I feel bad about that sometimes. But the minute I feel like I’m not connected enough to write some of these stories, I’ll stop. Right now, I’m working with a bunch of young writers who are gonna come up, and they’re gonna tell some of the same stories in a way that’s better than I can even imagine. Because they have me as a resource to point them in the right directions and help them develop those skills and those devices they need to be successful. And that’s what it’s about.
And then I’ll move on, and I’ll do something else. I love teaching… I would like to make a film… There are a whole lot of things that I want to do in the art world that are outside of writing. I’ll always write forever, but the language will shift, and somebody else is gonna come through, or a group of people are gonna come through, and fill those voids. And that’s what we need. In Baltimore, there’s not really a community of writers that are sharing a whole lot of skills and insight on how to navigate the publishing world. So I want to be one of those people who are… you know, like David Simon was a great resource for me… and I want to be a great resource for other people, too.
R: So at the point, though, in the essay “Too Poor for Pop Culture” (Salon, Feb 2014) when you’re playing cards with “Miss Sheryl” and the others, and you’re all sitting around the card table with the fifth of vodka and the general squalor surrounding you… at this point, you’re already a college professor. You’re starting out, but you’re teaching college and doing other legit things. Does it feel at all like there’s a disconnect? Like maybe you’ve moved into this other place that, for the people who’ve stayed put, might be alienating or threatening? Or is it the same for everyone as it’s always been?
D: It was the same. I was an adjunct professor. I was broke, I didn’t have any money. You know, you can have a fancy job… one thing about living in poverty, you know, in America [is that] because of different industries, you’re always surrounded by nice things. You might be in a neighborhood that’s poor, but you might see Louis Vuitton bags… you might see so many different things floating around because of industry. It’s the same thing with the job title. I’m a professor, but it’s just a title. The title didn’t come with any money [laughs]. At the time, I think I was at Concord State University, making seventeen hundred a class. That’s not money. That’s like under a hundred dollars a week.
And then some of the conversations… Like, I would rather talk to a pack of survivors, giving them survival stories, giving them war stories, like, “Yo, this is how I made it from Week A to Week B,” than talk to somebody [in academia] about some dense idea that’s never gonna help anybody ever. [Pompous, academia voice] “Well, did you know… actually…” No, I don’t know. And this is not to disrespect academia, but I’m more comfortable in that element than I am in the setting of academia.
R: And academia can seem really impenetrable. I mean, I have my own history with it, where I blew my major opportunity and then spent years trying to make my way back in. And during that time, I had all these shitty jobs, and I would hear about how hard it is to be an adjunct… and I’d get into these arguments [with adjuncts] because I’d be like, “Yeah, it’s hard, but how hard is it really compared to making nine seventy-five an hour in retail for nine hours a day?”
D: Nine seventy-five an hour? You can get overtime. [As an] adjunct, you get nothing. So at the time, I’m an adjunct professor at two different colleges, so I really have a full load. I’m teaching four classes at one school, two at another school, I’m not really getting paid like that, I also taught myself how to build websites to make a little extra money, I’m also doing freelancing, shooting, like, rap videos, and whatever. So I’m doing all of these different things to try to find my way out through this writing world. And it’s a grind. You know, adjuncts die at homeless shelters and stuff like that.
It’s an issue that America needs to fix, because some of these universities are gettin’ over. And they’re wondering why so many kids aren’t finishing school, or why so many kids aren’t valuing their college experiences, and it’s because they’re not investing in good professors, they’re treating them like trash, and they’re ruining the system. Some schools, they’ll have two or three full-time professors in the English Department with, like, twenty adjuncts. And I’m, like, “Yo, what’re you doing? This is crazy.”
R: And yet academia can still seem so idyllic, so up on the high tower, that it’s sort of hard to imagine if you’re outside of that—and I’m back inside of it after a long time—how miserable it can be to work as an adjunct.
D: Being an adjunct is cool if you have a day job, but if you don’t have a day job then you’re fucked. Or if you have some projects out where you can make some money, then you’re good, but if you don’t have those projects it’s a rough situation. It’s a tough reality.
R: So may I ask you just to run down the stuff that you’re doing now? I know you have these two books coming out, you’re teaching… Give me a rundown.
D: Right now, I’m learning the business side, and I’m learning how to build relationships with producers so I can get TV slots and be able to push my product to a different level. Every time I write something and I get invited to be on a television show, I try to make the most of that opportunity. And [the appearances] have been adding up, so we’ve been blessed with that. I’m doing “Press Pass” with Chuck Todd… I’m doing “The Turning Point” on BET, I’ve got some Fox News stuff, I did Katie Couric last week…
D: Yeah [laughs].
R: Was that okay?
D: It was cool. She’s a technician. She knows what she’s doing, and this is a person I can learn from, it’s a language that I don’t know. And it’s a language that I would like to learn, because if I have that platform, I can take my ideas to a different level, and I can reach a larger amount of people. And it’s a transition ‘cause I went from that cynical place of laughing at some of these media personalities to realiz[ing] that if I had my opportunity to do what they do, how [could] I use it to be a better servant? To serve more people, to reach more people. It’s a weird transition… but I’m trying to understand how to fully operate and function in this TV world as far as being a person to step out and speak about some of these issues. But I’m still learning, I’m taking media training courses, I’m learning how to alter my message in a way that would make it less… you know, sometimes I say things that can be really divisive—
R: Can you give me an example?
D: Like, “All police officers are gang members.” You know, I’m taking pretty much every police officer away from my platform by making a statement like that. [These] statements, they come from passion and rage. But I have to play on a higher level. Because the people who already believe in some of the things I say and the things I write about are gonna be there, but I need to get some of those cops to subscribe and buy in too, and I’m not gonna do that if I trash them.
R: Is that ever a hindrance though? I mean, now it’s like, “People are listening to me, people are watching me, people are coming up and interrupting me at the coffee shop, so now I have this whole audience…” Do you ever feel like it detracts from the force of the writing?
D: In a way, yeah. Eventually, I’m gonna have to get a private studio where I can get away, and just play music and write all day. I’m not the best at writing around the house. But I’ll get a studio where I can just go, and, you know, I’ll be going to work. I’ll go there and work and then I’ll come back out. So yeah, it gets weird and then sometimes weirdos want to come and debate me on stuff when I’m just trying to enjoy a cup of coffee. I don’t really want to debate you on gentrification, it’s my own personal story. You know, a guy came up to me telling me that I was wrong for writing about gentrification… I can’t miss my neighborhood? Is it illegal for a person to miss his own neighborhood? Like, you can buy or do whatever you wanna do, it doesn’t matter, but that’s a projection of your own reality. I just miss my neighborhood, leave me alone. Why do I miss my own neighborhood? ‘Cause if this was still my neighborhood you couldn’t come around here and bother me [both laugh].
R: That’s people getting in your face and debating you, but what about that general sense of, as you were saying, “I don’t want to alienate every single cop. I don’t want to alienate X and Y and Z.” Does that ever mean, like, “Wow, now I have to kind of rein it in.” You know, in a way that might be frustrating?
D: I don’t think it’s frustrating, I think it’s a higher level. You gotta grow to a higher level. And when I say a “higher level,” I mean that… once you develop a core audience… we’re all speaking the same language. So I can alter my message without [alienating] them. The goal is to bring more people in. I want to try to use my platform to connect more people, I want the black person from Compton to be able to understand the white person in Hollywood, and vice-versa. I want them to be able to communicate on multiple levels… I want social relations to enhance, I want community and police relations to enhance. If I’m just throwing blows at the other side, in the midst of a situation where some people out there are really trying, then I’m just as bad as the bad guys who I’m throwing rocks at. ‘Cause some of them might be taking a step towards me, and I’m not taking [a step] towards them, and that’s not right. I gotta grow, I gotta evolve.
R: And that goes back to what you were saying about universal truths, universal connections, which are, I think, what make writing timeless, and not just, “this is something that was hot at such-and-such a time.” And not to be, like, a fawning idiot, but that’s what I see in your writing, that deeper truth.
D: I try. I try to highlight those things because… you know the news stations that are all, like, one-sided, and then there’s also some publishing outlets that are trying to operate in the same way. And I just want to be a voice that can take bits and pieces from both sides and use them as tools for us to understand each other. So I work really hard at that, I’m trying to get better at it. I’m trying to become a better writer every day. I go back and read old sentences and try to make them better. I try anyway [laughs].
R: [laughs] Yeah, I try, too… So, I want to wrap up in a minute, but I want to ask you… Again, this whole idea of coming up, this whole triumph-over-adversity trope… you know, movies like “The Pursuit of Happyness” and things like that… I don’t mean to make it into a big joke, but we, as a culture, have this idea of having arrived, like in the David Simon quote. Do you feel like you’ve arrived, or that you’ll ever get to a point where you will have arrived?
D: I don’t care about money and awards and stuff like that. I care about young people reading, and I know it can sound kind of corny, but I know that you can’t develop those complex skills needed to advance unless you read. You can’t fully understand how to navigate and survive in society unless you are a reader. You can’t do it. That’s why they made it illegal for slaves to read. They didn’t want them to be able to survive outside of the plantation. I don’t think I’ll be able to see the amount of young people fall in love with reading in my lifetime [that I’d like], but I’m just gonna work towards it until I die.
So no, I don’t think that I’ll ever ‘make it,’ I think that maybe four or five generations after mine will be able to see something that they will be happy with. And then even they will be working towards taking it to the next level. I don’t think you can just change the world in a lifetime. It took many, many lifetimes to make the world the way it is, so you can’t just change it in one. I mean, I guess Steve Jobs changed the world with the iPhone. But what I’m trying to do… it’s gonna take a cultural shift, and I’m just one of the servants that’s out here trying to put the work in.
Note: In case I didn’t make it clear, D is a writer and college professor. He has published essays in many highly reputable publications (Salon Magazine, The New York Times, The Guardian, Huffington Post, et. al.), and has made a great many radio and television appearance (NPR, CNN, etc). His first book, “The Beast Side: Living and Dying While Black in America” (Hot Books) is due out on September 8, and is available here. The Cook-Up” will be released by Grand Central May 3, 2016.
Editor’s Note: Two years ago today, in the Sept. 2013 issue, Hippocampus published D’s essay, “Straight Shots of Family.”