Baltimore Author D. Watkins Speaks to DC Jail Book Club

On a Thursday afternoon at the DC Jail, a group of men arranged chairs in a circle on the floor of the unit, surrounded on all sides by cell doors. They gathered in the circle to eagerly welcome their guest, author D. Watkins (The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir, The Beast Side: Living and Dying While Black in America). The young men had been reading and discussing Watkins’s memoir, The Cook Up, in preparation for this visit. 

Since 2016, Free Minds has been conducting a biweekly book club and writing workshop with young adults on an educational unit at the DC Jail. This book club on the education unit is in addition to our weekly book club with 16- and 17-year-olds on the juvenile unit at the jail.

D. Watkins is the first author to visit the new book club on the education unit and share his story with Free Minds members. They came prepared with dozens of questions about the author’s memoir, including questions about the writing and publishing process, as well as his remarkable life story.

The Cook Up depicts Watkins’s journey from college student, to drug dealer, and back out again, in the wake of his brother’s murder. Now Watkins is a professor at the University of Maryland, founder of the BMORE Writers Project, author of two books, and Editor at Large for Salon Magazine.

The Free Minds members were excited to meet him because they could relate to Watkins’s story. He shared with them how reading a book he could relate to (The Coldest Winter Ever by Sister Souljah, a perennial favorite among Free Minds members) had opened his mind to new possibilities. Watkins advised them on how to reflect on everything they read. “Read every day, but don’t just read. Reflect on it. Write how you relate to it. When I didn’t read, I had a blindfold on. When I started reading, the blindfold came off.”

He also spoke about his frustration with the way his community was frequently depicted in mainstream media, with articles and stories written by outsiders and newcomers, and how this influenced his decision to begin writing his own story. “If you’re not telling your story,” he said, “you’re giving society the space to kill you. Everyone has a story, and everyone has a right to tell it.”

The Free Minds members wanted to know how Watkins’s knew where to begin telling his story, and he advised them to start with a transformative moment in their life. For him, that was the death of his older brother, Bip. When asked about how he coped with this loss, Watkins said frankly, “I’m still figuring that out.”

The conversation covered a wide range of subjects, from storytelling, to returning to your old community after time away, to the publishing industry, to the importance of African-American authors sharing their stories and dispelling stereotypes.

“The only thing that’s wrong with black people in this country,” Watkins said, “is that people think there’s something wrong with black people.”

Watkins’s was such a hit that the group did not want him to leave, peppering him with questions until time was up. At the end of the session, Free Minds members shared their poetry inspired by The Cook Up.

What I Saw
By BP

I saw, I saw from behind these white walls
A child gets taken from his life as his vessel falls
Mothers cryin’ over their children
It was the worst feeling they ever saw
Wondering how could God let them down
Including the law
The smile and laughter of the good times they shared
The feeling of regret at the time when they weren’t there
That unbearable feeling deep down
That feeling they call fear
Not wanting to feel the pain
Of their child not being here

Comment on BP’s poem on our poetry blog!

Meanwhile, Free Minds members in federal prison are reading The Cook Up by D. Watkins along with their fellow Free Minds members in the DC Jail. They are prepared with discussion questions to think about while reading. Read along with them via our newsletter, the Free Minds Connect! Free Minds members home from prison are reading The Cook Up as well in our Reentry Book Club, which meets every week. His work resonates deeply with the Free Minds community.

Thank you to D. Watkins, PEN/Faulkner Writers in Schools, and the DC Department of Corrections for making this event possible.

6 people stand against a brick wall holding copies of The Cook Up

D. Watkins (third from left) outside the DC Jail with Warden Lennard Johnson (second from left) and Free Minds staff

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