“The Beast Side: Living (and Dying) While Black in America” by D. Watkins

Terri Schlichenmeyer | 9/16/2015, 1:21 p.m.
Bang. That’s all it takes to snuff out a life. One bang, though there are usually more before someone is ...
“The Beast Side: Living (and Dying) While Black in America ” by D. Watkins c.2015, Hot Books $21.99 / $27.99 Canada

Bang.

That’s all it takes to snuff out a life. One bang, though there are usually more before someone is dead: Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, Tamar Rice, Jonathan Ferrell, how did we get to this point? Better yet, as D. Watkins ponders in his new book “The Beast Side,” how do we get out of it?

The list of the dead literally grows every day: statistically, an African American citizen is murdered by white cops, black cops, or neighbors every 28 hours. It’s war out there for Black America, says D. Watkins, and he’s tired of it.

His idea for ending violence and injustice is unique, but meaningful.

Watkins says that reading absolutely changed his life by teaching him to think critically, and it saved him. Literacy, he says, opens lines of communication, while sharing individual stories can educate and can make people eager to read. “The Beast Side” is, therefore, a book of stories.

How does it happen, for example, that a black writer from Baltimore – a city that’s sixty percent black – finds himself speaking at a large event where there are few black people? The reason: there are two Baltimores and the split is sharp. Before college, Watkins had little contact with whites. Do white people know what’s happening in east Baltimore? Not many do, he says and when folks learn, they’re usually surprised.

It’s almost hard to grasp how many of Watkins’ friends and family have died by violence. He was only a boy when he witnessed a murder; crime was that common. He watched people on his street do anything to make a buck (they’re the hardest working people in the nation, he says); he sold drugs, hustled, and carried a gun (mandatory, he claims), but his brother wanted him off the streets.

Watkins went to college to become a professor and a teacher. His stories help black men understand why they should respect black women more; they explain why Watkins doesn’t recite the Pledge of Allegiance, how black people are left out of pop culture, why reading is essential, and how eating poorly could be Black America’s worst habit. And they show how, deeply and despite the rift in this country, we really aren’t so different after all.

Is that such a surprise?

At the risk of sounding Pollyanna-ish, no. But can that hope change the way things are, as reported in “The Beast Side”?

That, I think, will depend on your POV: author D. Watkins says things that many people don’t want to hear and his words fairly seethe with anger – yet, pages later, those stories seem almost warm before abruptly turning to outrage and anger again. Hope followed by persistent reality is what you get, then, along with a lingering sense of rightful unease, inability to stop pondering, and a need to become much, much more educated.

Though its subject matter can be harsh, I think “The Beast Side” is appropriate for older-teens-to-adults, particularly if recent news stories disturb you greatly. If that’s the case, then aim to read it.

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