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D. Watkins’ Black Boy Smile: A Reconciliation with Fatherhood

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Author D. Watkins’ world is rocked when he finds out he will become the father of a little girl. In an attempt to clean the slate for the next chapter of his life—fatherhood—he reaches back to his childhood to address the unhealed trauma that spiraled into a laundry list of wrongs. In Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments, Watkins becomes his own therapist, confessing his deepest secrets on the page and then talking himself through the process of healing. In this series of vignettes, the New York Times-bestselling author and writer at HBO confronts the darkest parts of himself before finally seeing and eventually becoming the light.

The book begins with a brief love letter to his daughter, in which he describes the upcoming tale as “the beginning of you.” Then the new father begins telling an origin story that will never leave his daughter searching for answers about who her father is or what he’s been through in his life. Not only does he lay out the truth about their family, but he also reveals the reality about the city that raised him, and how he finally won over her mom.

However, it is Watkins’ relationship with his father that takes center stage. His deep admiration is often marred with disappointment as his hero struggles with drug use. “When blood fathers fall short or aren’t around, the streets compensate,” he writes. When things get too difficult with his family, he creates his own family in the streets.

Going to jail, being shot, and letting down our families is always worth the reward of living like a f*cking star—like roses, so beautiful to have them, we endure the pricks from their thorns.
D. Watkins

With his usual skill for detail and humor, Watkins paints scenes that place us right in the heart of East Baltimore. A master storyteller, he authentically brings the voices of the hood to the page–something that many lesser writers fail to do when writing about Baltimore. We tiptoe through the trenches with him as he relives the scenes that shaped his youth and left him with permanent scars, like “the battles that had knocked the teeth out of my mouth, chunks out of my flesh, and left me limping.”

Whether it’s intentional or not, Black Boy Smile provides a time stamp for Baltimore’s drug game as it viciously snatches young men into its helms. Watkins is no exemption. He too becomes seduced by the streets and he’ll go to any length to protect his territory.

“Going to jail, being shot, and letting down our families is always worth the reward of living like a f*cking star—like roses, so beautiful to have them, we endure the pricks from their thorns,” he writes. When there’s a shortage of love at home, the streets are always waiting to reel you in with shiny things that temporarily soothe and comfort you. Watkins reminds us how easily young Black men get pulled into the drug trade without an exit strategy. Over the course of the book, it becomes difficult to keep up with the body count of friends that are lost to gun violence.

As his pain pours from the page, you don’t know whether to feel sorry for him or to cheer him on. Many of the chapters feel like you are eavesdropping on the therapy session of a young man who has relied on pain as the prescription for his disappointment. As many of the adults in his life repeatedly let him down, Watkins finally becomes the authority in his own life. In the end, it’s ultimately love that saves and redeems the new father. Watkins finally trades in his pistol for a wedding band. We rarely find a redemption story where Black love leads, but this memoir leaves you believing in love and second chances.

Black Boy Smile is a subtle reminder that very few leave Baltimore unscathed. Rarely do young Black men escape the perils of the city without being impacted by drugs and violence, which often shapes generations. Most of D’s friends don’t live long enough to tell their stories or find a lasting love, and his story is representative of young Black boys in East and West Baltimore who are mishandled by adults, let down by parents, and often left to find care temporarily in the streets.

Not only is this book a compelling story of familial love and redemption, it should also serve as a case study for educators in urban environments. It highlights all the ways that unaddressed trauma in Baltimore shows up in the form of violence. While this trauma can lead some young people down the wrong path, this book is also a testament of who you can become if you are determined enough to divorce the streets and begin life again.

***

Don’t Miss Writers Live! D. Watkins on Wednesday, August 3! Join Pratt Library CEO Heidi Daniel as she interviews the first author in her new book club series, Baltimore’s own D. Watkins. In his latest book, Black Boy Smile, Watkins recounts his childhood and formative years in East Baltimore as well as his thoughts on identity, toxic masculinity, and the emotional lives of Black men. D. Watkins is the author of four prior books, editor-at-large for Salon, and a University of Baltimore lecturer.

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