reviewed by Alexander Stathes
D. Watkins’ latest book, an account of his experiences as a young man in his late teens and early twenties participating in the drug trade in east Baltimore, is evocative and illuminating. Following Dee from the crushing event of his older brother’s death, through Dee’s rise as a “kingpin” in the East Baltimore drug trade, to his eventual enrollment at the University of Baltimore, readers will be treated to a view of Baltimore City’s recent past that tells us a great deal about our future. And it is the perspective this work provides which makes it so important, especially to readers like me.
Within the course of the narrative, Watkins paints a vivid, and refreshingly human, portrait of Baltimore City. The arc of the story will be familiar to any who have read a coming of age novel, but the relationships forged between the characters are honest and complex enough to genuinely surprise. The challenges faced by Dee and those around him are treated by Watkins with a detail and clarity that stop accounts of drug deals, violence, and injustice from being lurid stereotypes. Watkin’s characters breathe and speak and act in a way that is profoundly approachable, deftly layered, and beautifully realized. But this book is important for another reason.
As a reader who lives and works in east Baltimore, the most striking, and ultimately the most important, aspect of this work is how foreign the Baltimore of Watkins’ experience is. I am not calling into question the veracity of Watkins’ account, or insinuating that his work of memoir is actually a work of fiction. I am saying the Baltimore that Watkins inhabited, and that he has brought to life with considerable skill within the pages of his book, is entirely apart from my own personal experience of Baltimore.
Several years ago, a frustrated young man in my creative writing class attempted to make clear what, in his mind, was the problem with me trying to teach him.
“You just don’t understand, Dr. Stathes, and you can’t.”
“Why can’t I understand?"
“Because you white.”
At the time, the interaction struck me as fundamentally important, but also profoundly frustrating. And as I read The Cook Up, this moment came back to me. Reading Watkins’ words, and following his characters, I was intensely aware that this Baltimore, the Baltimore of Dee and Nick and Bip and Alice and Mac and all the other characters of the memoir, was not the Baltimore that I know. Watkins himself explicitly states this in the piece as he describes Dee’s interactions with Tyler, a white friend who is also selling. Watkins writes:
“Tyler’s sales were all in bars, shops, and restaurants that I’d never been to. Colorful places full of hip patrons with black-framed specs and vintage leathers… Chilling around Tyler showed me a side of Baltimore that I didn’t know existed.
It also showed me how segregated Baltimore really was. I grew up in a neighborhood where everyone was black except for the liberal teachers and housing police. Our city could basically be split up in to two categories –black and white.” (200)
If the city of Baltimore is to move forward and heal after the spring of 2015, then these two categories have to move towards a greater understanding of each other. If we are to attempt to understand the unrest in New York, Ferguson, St. Louis, Dallas, or any of the other American cities in which the stark reality of modern-day racism devolving into violence has transfixed and horrified us, then these two categories must take an honest look at themselves not just in Baltimore, but around the country. It is not that I didn’t know about the drug trade before this book, or that the reality for a young black man in America is different from my reality as a middle-aged white man. It is that this work filled me with a sense of uncanny apprehension, and the ludicrous situation of the city stared up at me from the page in a way that was new. Watkins work was shocking in the same way that my student’s comment was. It lays clear, in no uncertain terms, that I don’t really get it. In this way, reading The Cook Up was a humbling experience for me. And it is because of this that, for me, the book is important, not just as a Baltimore city resident, but as an American.
The reason that D. Watkins’ new book is important isn’t because it’s well written, though it is. It’s not because it adds to the proud American tradition of the coming of age novel, though it does. It’s not even because this book may well sit alongside works like Native Son, Invisible Man, and Black Boy in future years, serving asa record of African American experience in American cities, though it should. The reason for me, a white man living and working in Baltimore, that this book is so important right now is because it lays bare, in the starkest of languages and the clearest of narratives, that white and black Baltimore are two separate cities. And in a larger sense, after the last two years, this piece shows that the realities of separation that exist in my city exist across our country. These worlds exist next to each other, and feel the tremors of each other’s movements, but they are separate. This city of ours, with its historical baggage of pro-confederate demonstrations and race riots and red lining, is searching for a sense of itself after the demonstrations and unrest of April 2015. At this moment of our shared city’s history, when both black and white leaders are seeking to make sense of what has happened and plan for what will happen, it is essential for all parties to realize that we, in this city, in this nation, are inhabiting parallel realities. And works like The Cook Up have the potential to begin changing that.