On Tuesday March 7, a small group gathered at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation to discuss two essays by our fellow-Baltimorean, D. Watkins. Together, we read Stoop Stories and Too Poor for Pop Culture.
Those of us gathered that evening were all relatively privileged--middle to upper-middle class, white skin, cis gendered. We all noted the stark difference between the Baltimore we know and the one that Watkins describes in his essays.
Our group spent a good deal of time talking about Watkins as the quintessential code switcher. Code switching is the term that linguists use to describe what happens when multi-lingual people combine aspects of multiple languages in a single conversation. The term has been expanded by sociologists and those who study race to describe the ways in which individuals navigate the different cultural spaces they inhabit. I believe that most of us code switch to one degree or another, adapting our speech and demeanor to the demands of our context and those we encounter. Black Americans must learn to code switch in order to succeed in the parts of American society in which White culture holds power (which, let's face it, is most parts of American society).
The code switching Watkins relates in these two essays is extreme, self-conscious, and necessary to survival. In Stoop Stories he writes of his introduction to other college students at Loyola:
"The other students looked at me like I was an alien. I’d walk up on a student and clearly say: ‘Excuse me, where is the book store?’ And they’d look back with a twisted face, like: ‘I don’t understand you. What are you saying?’ And I had this dance with multiple students every day until I mastered my ‘Carlton from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’ voice.”
We also spent a good deal of time talking about Watkins’ ability to introduce us to characters with seemingly perfect empathy. His descriptions of the people who inhabit his world paint pictures of fully human individuals. This is remarkable because the humanity of the people he depicts is so consistently denied in most of the media that those of us in the room usually consume. Drug dealers and addicts, prostitutes and felons, all receive their full humanity from D. Watkins’ pen. His empathy for them is contagious.
I related to the group the vitriol that can be found in the comments section on Stoop Stories. I first read the essay online several years ago, and was struck by the comments. People (probably mostly white people) called Watkins a liar in the comments on this essay. His experience was so foreign to their own that people insisted he must be fabricating it. It is a phenomenon that is familiar (to greater and lesser extent) to people of color, and anyone whose experiences are not white, Christian and male.
In this case, in addition to disbelief borne of extreme difference, I believe that Watkins’ tales bred disbelief because Watkins ultimately challenges the simmering White supremacy that many White liberals (myself included) don't even realize we have. Watkins is fully bi-lingual. He is comfortable in the Black Baltimore of his youth, but inhabits the (white) American culture we prize with ease. Indeed, he is a multiply-degreed writer and professor; a sought-after storyteller in Baltimore's Stoop Stories brand (a brand that, as he notes in the essay, is predominantly consumed by White Baltimoreans), and he prefers to stay in the Black Baltimore of his youth.
This preference challenges the narrative that (white) liberals tell ourselves about how, with smarts and perseverance, individuals can "get out of the inner city." When we tell (or hear) a success story of a young person of color, we fall back on tropes of escape. We imagine the hero of our story leaving behind all of the unpleasantness of their youth for the safety of the (white, middle class) environs we call home.