Always on the look out for writing that will get my students excited about reading I picked up a copy of journalist and social commentator extraordinaire, D. Watkins’ We Speak for Ourselves: A Word from Forgotten Black America (2019) for my Kindle.
Part social commentary, part memoir, We Speak for Ourselves continues where several of his essays and articles as well as his other two books, The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir (2017) and The Beast Side: Living (and Dying) While Black in America (2016).
I was hooked from the very first page where Watkins tells a brilliant story of being at a swanky party populated by wealthy and influential African Americans and striking up a conversation with a “scholarly Danny Glover-looking guy laced in tweed.” When in response to the guy’s questioning of Watkin’s lineage, Watkins tells him he is between jobs and his family worked wherever they got hired, the guy, without even as much as an “excuse me,” quickly makes a beeline for someone “more worthy of his time.”
While the way that Watkins relates the story had me laughing until tears rolled down my cheeks, my joy was tinged by the deep injustice that underpins such dehumanizing encounters with people who you think look like you, but who have very different agendas; sadly often based in racial politics and driven by capitalism. Following the story of his encounter with the man Watkins notes that he has seen him on several TV shows following the shootings of unarmed black men spewing the “tired script” that “not-all-cops-are-bad-so-strategic-protest-will-equal-reform.”
We Speak for Ourselves challenges mainstream media’s production and usage of these black talking heads, but perhaps more importantly, African American people allowing themselves to be used in such a way. About the proliferation of African Americans race books that define “the systemic issues that plague the African American experience, while our white counterparts are doing the same—swooping in as super-allies, schooling their lost friends on what it means to be black, and offering step-by-step lessons on acknowledging their own privilege” Watkins asserts that many of these books miss the point. This is because they have no connection to the black people they are fighting for. According to Watkins, “their books and language never include the very people who live the poor black experience every day.” Such people he argues, dibble and dabble in a world from which people from Watkins life cannot escape.
We Speak for Ourselves is filled with death: the close and up-close death of friends and acquaintances like Snaggletooth Rib, who is murdered right in front of Watkins and an unnamed “dude’s” baby after Rib makes a good-natured joke about the guy leaving his baby to gamble in an alley! Watkins remarks “the stories of Rib, Hurk, Wop (two other friends he’s lost to gun violence) and dozens more make up the bulk of my life. I’ve been on the wrong side of a pistol plenty of times.”
We are reminded here of well-known victims of senseless black death in the story of Nipsey Hussle, a beloved young brother who used his success as a rapper to uplift his community through his entrepreneurship and his store, The Marathon Clothing. In honor of his memory, his family has founded the Neighborhood Nip Foundation to provide opportunities for young creatives in music.
Across the water we are reminded of Lucky Dube, a brilliant musician from South Africa who was carjacked and murdered in his own community.
It is critical that we link these deaths across socio-economic status, fame, naming and namelessness, and time and space, because our continued enslavement and death is dependent upon us not making those linkages.
I appreciate Watkins’ work precisely because he connects the stories of pain and the deaths of his friends and family to larger systems of oppression, including the “Black Tax”, slavery, “Black Codes” and Jim Crow laws, sharecropping, and indentured servitude, to the “war on drugs” and the “prison industrial complex;” important connections that way too many of us do not get and which keeps those systems in place and working.
We Speak for Ourselves is not an easy read. It is painful and haunting and downright scary. As such, Watkins is a much-needed brave voice emerging from the trenches. And while I do not look forward to reading his other works—they hurt—I will because I know that I cannot afford to turn away.
Watkins is not only writing about his community, he’s also walking the walk, working tirelessly to get his books into the hands of as many young people as he can, mostly high school students from neighborhoods that are impoverished and affected on a daily basis by the issues that he raises in the text.
Too many young people of color simply do not read beyond hashtags and headlines, but as Watkins points out, it is incumbent upon those of who understand the power of the Word to help them get excited about reading. One way is by writing about things that they care about and in a way that they can relate to.
The only qualm I have with Watkins is the way he’s chosen to sub-title the book: A Word from Forgotten Black America.
I don’t think the poor and disenfranchised African American population of the United States are forgotten by the rich and the powerful. In fact, I think the rich and powerful are very much aware that their position is dependent upon the poor. As I say to my students time and again, there cannot be an upperclass without an underclass. As such, Black America haunts not only the waking hours, but also the dreams of those in power. Why else would they need to hide behind their tall gates and armored cars?
Here’s an article about D. Watkins from The Baltimore Sun.
Here’s his interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!