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.”