Editor’s Note: This article features light profanity.
That’s the reason author D. Watkins gave in an essay for not knowing if he still loves the city of Baltimore.
The essay was one of many included in his book The Beast Side: Living (and Dying) While Black in America, a collection of short essays about his experiences in Baltimore, Maryland, and his views on systematic racism in America.
“My city is gone, my history depleted, ruined, and undocumented. I don’t know this new Baltimore. It’s alien to me,” he read.
Baltimore became “a place where black history is bulldozed and replaced with Starbucks, Chipotle, and dog parks,” Watkins continued.
A diverse group of attendees filled nearly every seat in the Colony Ballroom April 20 to listen to Watkins discuss his book.
Kecia Ellick, a family science PhD student who grew up in Chicago, said she recognized the changes Watkins described in his gentrification essay because they also happened in her hometown.
“Knowing that it’s going on the same way in all of these major cities, but it’s still affecting the same population of people—I thought that was interesting,” she said.
Watkins also shared with the audience ways to bring about social change.
In order to create change, “we have to create a culture of doing and sharing,” Watkins said.
Find what it is you’re passionate about, get really good at it and share it with others, he said.
For Watkins, that passion was literature. The most powerful way for him to make a difference was through reading.
His goal was to get young people excited about reading, he said. Most youths in Baltimore don’t have access to books that relate to them.
Required reading in Baltimore high schools often only have black characters that are slaves, like in Huckleberry Finn, said Watkins. They aren’t relevant to students.
Watkins said he hopes to change that. He said The Beast Side is currently being taught in schools all over Washington, D.C. and Baltimore.
Jake Bueno de Mesquita, an environmental health Ph.D. student agreed with Watkins about improving education and called it a main driver of social change.
“Any sort of change that we’re able to accomplish is [achieved by] first educating yourself and the fact is that many of these youths don’t even have that basic element because the education system isn’t there, the books aren’t there,” Mesquita said.
Although the topics Watkins discussed were serious, he interweaved bursts of humor throughout his presentation to keep the tone light.
Attendees appreciated the informal nature of Watkin’s talk.
“I enjoyed how relatable he was. I felt like I was having a casual conversation among friends,” Ellick said.
When Watkins began his presentation, he commented on the diversity among the audience.
“Nothing like a Trump rally,” he joked, making the audience fill the room with laughter.
At one point, he told a story of eating soggy Trader Joe’s cereal while his “homeboy,” a young man whom Watkins mentors, repeatedly called him to join a protest where the protesters were lying down in traffic.
He concluded the mundane yet humorous story by saying activism has many faces. Watkins said protesters are great, but there needs to be more teachers, lawyers, artists and doctors who are activists.
Mimi Verdonk, a junior Arabic and finance major, said Watkins related to everyone in the audience, regardless of their background.
“It was really good that he didn’t target it to one audience or another. He met you where you were [at], and he didn’t expect you to have any background knowledge of anything he was talking about,” Verdonk said. “Even if you weren’t from inner-city Baltimore, you still felt the power in what he was saying.”
Featured Photo Credit: Photo courtesy of D. Watkins’ website.
Rosie Kean is a freshman journalism major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.