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Commenters question honesty of D. Watkins’ Salon story, author responds

February 6, 2014

salonOn Tuesday evening, Salon published a piece by Baltimore writer D. Watkins in which the author details poverty emblematic of East Baltimore, setting a scene where he and three of his friends eke out a living and can only afford simple pleasures like cheap vodka and cards instead of iPhones for taking selfies and keeping up with the latest pop culture headlines. The story quickly went viral, especially locally, with many people sharing it on Facebook as an eye-opening look at a part of Baltimore many rub up against but few are familiar with.

While feedback was mostly positive, two commenters who said they knew Watkins, whose first name is Dwight, called into question the author’s portrayal of his own financial situation. In the piece, Watkins says: “I have a little more than my friends but still feel their pain. My equation for survival is teaching at three colleges, substituting, freelance Web designing, freelance graphic designing, rap video director, wedding photographer and tutor —  the proceeds from all of these are swallowed by my mortgage, cigarettes, rail vodka and Ramen noodles. I used to eat only free-range organic shit, I used to live in Whole Foods, I used to drink top shelf — I used to be able to afford pop culture.” He also defines a selfie as, “[w]hen a stupid person with a smartphone flicks themselves and looks at it.”

Both commenters referred to Watkins’ Lexuses and penchant for Grey Goose gimlets at Mount Vernon bars. One of the commenters said they knew someone who unfollowed Watkins on Instagram because of all the selfies he took. Both posts have since been deleted, but we copied and pasted one from “Sean C. Wilson” while it was still up:

In this story, he is disingenuously including himself among an apparent group of actually disenfranchised black people. As he has used aliases for the people in this story, I do not know if they are people he has told me about before. I do know, however, Dwight does not need to “scrape” for rail-vodka money–not when he sits in Turp’s and XS talking about his month-long trips to Europe and Africa.

I remember sitting in XS with Dwight in 2013. He had two iPhones at the time. I do not know how many he has now. I can tell you, however, that he is a frequent participator in the “selfie” phenomenon. I have a great friend who had to unfollow him on Instagram because she was annoyed with how many pictures of himself he took. Yet, in this story, he has defined a “selfie” as something “a stupid person with a smartphone [does],” right.

Comments on articles, even ones with names attached, are not typically something that should be taken at face value. But a scan of Watkins’ Instagram account revealed pictures of a swanky hotel room, a Rolex watch, trips overseas, an event with boxer Mike Tyson, and yes, several selfies.

Reached for comment on how the pictures square with how he presented himself in the Salon piece, Watkins, who grew up in East Baltimore but now lives in Ednor Gardens, said: “I don’t want handouts, and I don’t want people to feel sorry for me. I’m just talking about the area where I’m from and where I frequent and what we’re thinking about. I’m not eating out of a trash can, but at the same time it’s not pretty. But I’m here and I’m happy, so it’s all good.”

He says the trips came as part of book events for his friend and mentor MK Asante, a professor at Morgan State University whose 2013 memoir, Buck, has drawn national acclaim (CP‘s review), including a nomination for an NAACP Image Award. He says the hotel room in Miami, the shots with ancient ruins, and the like all stem from that.

In an email, Asante confirmed he brought Watkins along for video and photography work, adding, “I think Dwight is a super talented artist and writer with a unique, raw, and important perspective that the world needs to hear. His writing brims with a sense of urgency and undeniable relevance. He’s an example of the power of education to transform and empower. His new article about America’s underclass is giving voice to the voiceless … akin to WEB DuBois’ Philadelphia Negro or a more recent example, Michelle Alexander’s New Jim Crow.”

As for the cars, Watkins says he used to have Lexuses years ago — though never two at the same time — from his days as a crack dealer in East Baltimore, which are referenced in the piece, but he’s “been driving a Honda with a dent in the front for the last three years.”

Watkins admits he knows the commenter Wilson. “I had a class with him before, I know he’s a writer,” he says. “I would love to sit down and show him my bank statements and my W-2’s and have him live with me for a week to see some of the bullshit that I go through.”

The Rolex? Given to him years ago by a dead friend, he says. Tyson? A chance meeting set up by the father of Nathan Corbett, an actor from season four of The Wire and Watkins’ protégé, who was working an event in New York. The drinks? He has friends at those bars who will hook him up.

“Who gets around a crowd of people and brags about not having anything?” he asks. “You just wanna drink that shit away.”

Though he has left the East Side, Watkins says he scrambles to make a living between working adjunct professor jobs for less than $2,000 per class per semester, freelance writing, web and video work, and taking whatever is leftover from the student loan money he is using to finish his MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Baltimore.

After the prodding of teachers and writers like Asante, whom he met playing basketball around the city, and years working on graduate degrees, writing seems to be paying off. In addition to the Salon piece, Watkins signed a deal with the Irene Goodman Agency to sell his memoir, which he says will focus on how writing and the arts inspired him to leave the drug game.

Of his days as a drug dealer, he now says: “It’s the worst thing I’ve ever done in my life. I wish I could erase it. There’s no valuable lessons. I was a terrible person with no redeeming qualities and I hate what I did and I hate what I was around. And during that course in my life, I wished I was dead every day.”

As for pop culture, though his situation is marginally better than his friends in the Douglass Homes, Watkins says, “It’s entertaining, but I don’t care. I care about having $300-$400 and not getting paid, or not having anything to make money, for the next week and a half or so. I can’t embrace it and listen to the lyrics and understand the art and dance to it on a regular basis. I mean, not me anyway. Maybe someone else in my situation can, but I can’t.”

  • Ann Marie

    While I appreciate a follow-up to Dwight’s Salon piece, I find it frustrating that someone (especially a fellow writer) would call him out on taking Instagram selfies, or anything else mentioned in the above post. I understand and appreciate demanding integrity with regard to writing memoir, but Dwight does work hard. He puts in the time and effort and deserves to write Salon articles, get his work published, etc.

    I’m glad that Dwight took the time to respond (although he didn’t owe it to the commenters to respond). I’d also look forward to seeing an article about the terrible pay and benefits provided to adjunct professors in Maryland, as well as how difficult it is to become a successful writer making a living wage.

    Obviously, I appreciate reading Dwight’s piece and I hope that, instead of getting defensive, we allow him to show us the world that he lives in, how he sees it.

  • Mia

    It’s important that the point and message of the original article isn’t lost in the comments of people claiming to know the author. The point being made here is when life is really real, you could care less about who was on the Grammys. Considering news is inundated with pop culture news in the midst of economic crisis and war, this is a valuable point to make.

    Beyond that, here we reveal the nuances of poverty, ESP in this country. Someone could have social capital but lack financial capital (how we can call teachers who make 60k a year poor). Ppl could have lots of stuff, but much debt, making them technically poorer than a homeless person with none. Ppl can live in the worst neighborhood, but have the most money saved. It’s not black or white, cut or dry…

  • AlexC

    I’m not so much concerned about ad hominem attacks on the author, but I do think there are real concerns about the ‘honesty’ of his piece.

    The premise that pop culture is a luxury only accessible to those with free time is a non-sense. Pop culture pervades so many aspects of public life that someone who doesn’t own a phone or computer or even a radio still has it seep into their peripheral awareness, regardless of how relevant it may actually be.

    The scene Watkins conjured up is not representative of the life lived by the vast majority of people in East Baltimore, or even the vast majority of poor people in East Baltimore. It is representative of a couple of people he was in the same room with. He could have walked out that door and easily found a teenage girl whose phone was choked full of selfies.

    Pop culture is more than accessible. 91% of the Earth’s population owns a cell phone. Hollywood films on pirated DVDs are available for a few bucks around most markets in the city. Stand on a corner for more than two minutes and you’ll catch a burst of mainstream music blaring out of passing cars.

    So why does Watkins talk about people “too poor to participate in pop culture”? Surely the more honest portrayal is of people for whom pop culture is not relevant.

  • William Bond

    Some of the commenters are confusing political affinity and/or likability of the
    author with journalistic integrity. The only question which matters is
    if he presented the ‘Salon’ piece as fiction or non fiction. If non
    fiction, it appears that the ‘commenters’ who attacked his credibility
    are correct, and that he has done what many frauds do by attempting a
    cover-up, i.e., the ‘instagram’ deletions, etc. Recent journalistic
    history is replete with many Janet Cooke’s, James Frey’s, and Stephen
    Glass’s — all of whom are quite skilled at presenting their journalism
    cloaked in an emotionalism which is very seductive. They also are very
    astute at misleading fact checkers and editors whose job it is to prevent
    such journalistic detours. The mistakes committed by Mr. Watkins, if true, are not minor errors of style, but are the type which both end careers and would raise questions as to his character upon entry unto the next.

  • Larry Waters

    This is why the City Paper is irrelevant. Who writes a article about a deleted comment? I guess it is cool for whites to write about the hood but a black guy can’t.

    Maybe you guys need to hire him instead of pointless gossiping that is helping no one get work and this article about lies even has a lie because if he lives in Ednor which is in east Baltimore than he never left right? But I get it…. “Ednor Gardens” sounds fancy and makes this story look cute. Please. Ednor is not the projects but it is in east Baltimore and really close to the hood.

  • Ed

    He’s just another in long line of marginally talented Black professionals that fetish Black poverty for White liberal consumers. I don’t know him but I’m familiar with his shtick. It’s like Toure on MSNBC who went to a 40K a year private school but goes on and on about the Black poor.

    The Black poor are behind much of the mayhem in Baltimore which causes many to leave. Stop with the romanticizing of them and their culture.

  • William Bond

    Dude, Ednor Gardens is a real nice neighborhood, kind of like a less expensive Guilford, Roland Park, or Homeland. Importantly, it looks zero like the cover PIC in the ‘Salon’ story. Zero.

  • Brad Weiss

    It’s NOT the world he lives in, though. It’s the world some people he knows live in (maybe, unless he made them up, too). You say you appreciate demanding integrity when it comes to writing [nonfiction]. Are you sure you do? There should be no “but” to that assertion.

    Hey, I know some Black people who live in roach-infested apartments, can’t afford i-Phones (and unlike Dwight, I can’t either-not to mention having two), don’t keep up on pop culture, etc. Do I ALSO get to identify as “we,” so I can appropriate “our” problems in order to get published in Salon? While at the same time I’m tearing down the sort of media to which I’m submitting it, tearing down all the pop references that I know about yet we are too poor to know about?

    Do you see what I’m saying? It does not matter how hard he works, or how hard I do. First, we don’t get to claim other people’s stories as our own. There simply IS no integrity in doing that. Second, a structure built on a foundation of ABSOLUTE BULLS**T is bound to tumble under its own weight, regardless of its builder’s intentions. I hope hard-working Dwight discovers that in his Creative Writing MFA, before he teaches very more students his shady practices, or takes home any awards/fellowships/publishing credits with his stolen stories and made-up nonfiction.


    So what’s the beef ? What’s the point here ? Who cares if Dwight is an autobiographical character or a fictional one ? I enjoy the writing and the act of magnifying a little known perspective. I get tired quick of the “heroic” rappers and entertainers getting plastered across our short attention spans.

  • Larry Waters

    So if you live in Ednor then you can’t take a pic in any other neighborhood? I’m lost, you think people in Ednor don’t leave Ednor? The article says he was at a friend’s house and not his own.

  • William Bond

    You speak nonsense.