The latest in a series of short books about the peril of the inner city has the literary world talking. D. Watkins’ “The Beast Side: Living and Dying While Black in America” (Skyhorse Publishing, New York, New York, 2016) takes the reader on a brief but informative tour of not only the author’s hometown of East Baltimore, Md., but maintains a “dispatch” style of writing that uncovers both the inflicted and self-inflicted wounds of Black youth.
Watkins has a fiery tone to his writing as he addresses the growing number of unarmed African Americans killed by law enforcement over the past two years. Watkins is undoubtedly a bright young man who, like his friends, was forced to do what was necessary to “make a buck” in the inner city. He began selling crack in his late teens to finance his studies at Loyola University. The immediate shock of day-to-day interaction with White persons—who didn’t wear a badge—left him with a degree of culture shock, he admits, as street life met suburbia. Money was no problem as he had amassed tens of thousands of dollars selling rocks which was used later to obtain a Master of Arts degree in literature from Johns Hopkins University.
Watkins describes his youthful associates as enterprising “businessmen”—not “thugs”—who would easily work eight to 10 hours on the average East Baltimore street corner selling rocks. The early childhood murders made the handgun, he revealed, part of the everyday “uniform” of the street as fear of becoming a murder victim was paramount in the minds of practically all of his friends. The author comments in detail about Black culture without delving into any sociological ramblings about so-called “Black pathology” in terms of how White America may view the inner city. For instance, Watkins is quick to refute the disrespect that Black boys have for Black girls in reference to rap lyrics. He defends the Black mothers, daughters, wives and girlfriends who “…for years have taken care of their [disrespectful] men” without acknowledgment.
The rappers, the “real’ ones and “posers” alike, he suggested, should comment on the real story of pushing crack instead of glorifying the deadly trade. “It’s hell,” he said. The bad neighborhood schools naturally breed bad kids as the “streets” fill the void of a good education. He goes on to subjects ranging from gentrification of the inner city, the “classed based” information age or “digital divide”, and on to disillusion with the Obama Administration which by 2014 had done little, he commented, to improve the lives of inner-city Blacks.
As a middle school English teacher, Watkins chides his students for wasting their time on social media and for living in a fantasy world of escape from the true problems of their daily environment. He takes on fast food as well, noting that obesity and diabetes are prevalent in America’s ghettos because of a lack of healthy nutritional outlets or, more simply, the growing “food desert.”
Part two of his book focuses primarily on police brutality. The 2014 death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., was “the last straw” he wrote. The hypocrisy of Officer Darren Wilson in the Brown case, and that of George Zimmerman in the 2014 Trayvon Martin shooting revealed, he said, that White persons—sworn officers of the law or not—can kill Blacks with impunity. Watkins went as far as Skid Row in Downtown Los Angeles and asked how in 2015 a Black cop with the Los Angeles Police Department can kill an unarmed, mentally ill homeless man nicknamed “Africa” and feel no remorse.
The 2015 death of Freddie Gray while in the custody of Baltimore police is explored in exacting detail. Watkins repeats three times how the officers failed to secure Gray in taking him on what is explained as a “nickel ride” at high speed over rough terrain resulting in the young man’s voice box being crushed and his spine partially severed. “I wonder if I’m next?” he asked. After Gray’s death, the usual assortment of “drive by preachers” came to town to speak, lead marches, pray, and go onto the next incident of Black injustice. His generation, he said, is quite bored by the protest sermons of the famous social justice hawks whose words of passive resistance no longer resonate among the youth.
Watkins sticks to short chapters—29 in all, about four pages each—but what is within these pages is valuable reading if only to get a personal understanding of what is happening not only in the Baltimore eastside (the “Beast Side” as local cops call it), but in a familiar neighborhood so well displayed but too often mischaracterized by the mass media.