The View From Baltimore

In his coming-of-age book The Cook Up, D. Watkins writes about drugs, race, and class for audiences living in different Americas.

Mike Morgan / Grand Central / Zachary Bickel / The Atlantic

D. Watkins’s memoir, The Cook Up, begins on a spring day in East Baltimore, in 1998. The author, then a senior in high school, was “rolling a celebratory blunt because College Park, Georgetown … and a couple other schools were letting me in” when a neighbor banged on the door: Watkins’s older brother, Bip, had just been shot dead on the street outside.

I ducked under the yellow warning tape and pushed past the beat cop … The noise and a cold silence blanketed the crowd.
“Bip, get up!” I begged. “Get up. Come on …”
The beat cop gathered himself and slammed me down next to my brother. He flipped me like a pissy mattress, positioning for a chokehold. Fuck fighting back. I wish I had died too.

Bip raised Watkins from the age of 12, keeping him on the straight and narrow with Frederick Douglass quotes and bling for good grades, while Bip hustled home-cooked crack cocaine. After the murder, Watkins has to make his own way. He tries college, which looks and feels like “a Gap commercial,” a place where other black students try on middle-class whiteness, wear pastels, call each other “dude.” Watkins, for his part, wears Gucci sweat suits and $15,000 worth of jewelry. In the athletic center, he plays dice.

The juxtaposition is straight out of the sitcoms Watkins’s generation grew up watching, like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and the Cosby Show spin-off A Different World—stories about black self-sufficiency made safe for curious, comfortable white people. Watkins flips this script twice. He drops out mid-semester and spends the next four years cooking crack in a Pyrex measuring cup in his kitchen, peddling it to neighborhood addicts, hiring friends and relatives to hustle for him, and making “a ridiculous amount of money.” Then, at the peak of his empire, he renounces it all, Siddhartha-like, to read and think. Watkins returns to college in the last pages of his memoir. In the final scene, he’s in an introductory writing class, reading Langston Hughes, Michael Eric Dyson, and Sister Souljah—writers who kindle what he calls “my obtainable superpower.”

A decade separates that scene and The Cook Up’s publication this spring. After Watkins earned his bachelor’s degree, he went back for a master’s in education and an M.F.A. in creative writing. He’s written essays for The New York Times, The Guardian, and Rolling Stone, 23 of which are collected in his first book, The Beast Side: Living (and Dying) While Black in America (2015). After one of those essays (on being “Too Poor for Pop Culture”) went viral in 2014, Watkins was featured on mainstream-media outlets such as NPR, CNN, and NBC.

As high as he’s climbed, Watkins is quick to tell interviewers that he hasn’t “made it out yet.” He still lives in East Baltimore, where he is an adjunct professor and a freelance writer; on the side, he makes commemorative videos for weddings and funerals. Watkins’s native-son appeal is usually part of the reason he’s interviewed. The mainstream has a way of absorbing minority writers by typecasting them as “the voice” of this or that margin. Watkins plays along in order to address fatal disparities in American culture—and in his readership.

When Watkins was pitching his book, one publisher reportedly told him that his target audience was “white people who watch Breaking Bad.” Watkins seems more interested in drawing readers from his own neighborhood, though he splits the difference with his subtitle. A Crack Rock Memoir isn’t hype. Substance is style here. The short sentences are hard and bitter. The chapters are two minutes long, with quick blasts of intensity calibrated to hook anyone.

It’s easy to imagine the memoir being assigned in schools. Accessible and edifying, the book even comes with a list of discussion questions. If life lessons sometimes slow down the action, perhaps that’s to be expected. (I’m thinking of two pages where the word should’ve appears 18 times.) Like the rappers he quotes, Watkins acts out his self-understanding through story or sermon—or story as sermon.

In the tradition of James Baldwin’s “Letter From a Region in My Mind,” The Cook Up is a personal history that complicates racial stereotypes. “To accept one’s past—one’s history—­is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it,” Baldwin wrote. Since then, Baltimore has eclipsed Harlem as a locus of America’s racial anxiety. The image of that anxiety has changed, too, with the mass criminalization of young black men. Watkins’s writing offers answers to a question Baldwin might have asked, had he lived long enough: How can a superpredator’s past be used?

The Cook Up is costumed as a crime drama (the crack rocks stippling the cover, the blurb from David Simon), but its real drama is universal: coming of age. Watkins spends much of the book in a state of hyperadolescence, acting the part of a gangsta but unable to be one. Angsty and confused, he gropes toward fulfillment, spending drug money on random acts of kindness. Eventually he gets his bearings the way everyone must, by mastering what he’s inherited.

During that first semester at college, Watkins discovers the “trust fund” his brother stashed in a red safe—“stacks and bundles of balled up and unseparated cash, receipts, a watch, maybe a brick and a half of Aryan-colored cocaine, about half a brick of heroin, two pistols, a big zip of vials.” The inheritance offers an object lesson that anyone growing up under late capitalism would recognize: Power comes from commercializing a demand and exploiting it.

The mainstream economy has producers and consumers. Watkins’s has “dope boys” and junkies. The transactions between them are toxic, but compensate for opportunities that don’t exist, services that don’t deliver, and authority that doesn’t function. After crooked police raid Watkins’s home to seize his late brother’s jewelry and electronics, two junkies hide Watkins’s safe for him. How’s that for child protective services?

The insight that makes Watkins go clean, launching him into adulthood, is that helping people endure a rigged culture blurs into doing harm. Take Miss Angie, a godmother figure. When gentrification triples her rent, Watkins gives her enough cash to live for a year. She returns the favor, frying up comfort food around the clock for Watkins and his crew. But look again: The gift implicates Miss Angie in the crime that ruined her neighborhood, and in turn she keeps Watkins on a diet of tasty poison. What Watkins learns on the streets of Baltimore is just as true on the Upper West Side: Everyone is compromised by things that hurt so good.

Bill Clinton’s finger-wagging rebuke of Black Lives Matter protesters back in April was a reminder that conversations about race and class are hopeless when people can’t find common ground to stand on. But if presidents can’t create a basis for mutual understanding—a hard-learned lesson of the Obama era—writers can. It isn’t comfortable seeing oneself in the portrait of a crack dealer, and that’s the point. In one of his sharper lines, Watkins sums up his motivation for hustling: “Because only drug dealers and the top 1 percent of Americans can afford to push a cart through Whole Foods.”

Watkins knows his readers live in different Americas. The Cook Up is their invitation to notice one another standing in the same line.