Can Reading and Writing Overcome 'The Beast Side?'

D. Watkins's The Beast Side has a lot in common with Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me. Both grew up in Baltimore during the 1980s crack and gang years. Neither were violent people although both share the story of their one violent act. Unlike Coates, Watkins became a drug dealer. Both were saved by reading and writing, as well as the resilience they learned in their communities.

Both have stories so extreme as to seem surreal, but I saw the same things when crack and gangs took over my neighborhood, even though I viewed the tumult through the eyes of a thirty-something, white mentor. My young neighbors, like Watkins and Coates, did not have the buffer of white privilege or the experience born of already surviving their teens and twenties. My young friends were thrown into violence and oppression that most Americans would find inconceivable.

As much as I'd like to play basketball with Watkins and Coates, and see if I could match their trash talk, I'd never try to compete with their brilliant prose styles. Coates synthesizes the language of social science and journalism with the best of African-American writers such as James Baldwin and Langston Hughes. Watkins's humorous prose is infused with the wit and poetry of the street.

Coates goes in depth into the police shooting of his friend, Prince Jones, in order to explain how and why, "Prince was not killed by a single officer so much as he was murdered by his country and all of the fears that marked it from birth." Watkins focuses on the growing casualty count of African-American young men recently killed by police and his much longer list of deceased friends.

Coates celebrates "black strivers" and describes a Howard University reunion as "a moment, a joyous moment, beyond the Dream -- a moment imbued by a power more gorgeous than any voting rights bill... this black power, originates in a view of the American galaxy taken from a dark and essential planet." His stirring conclusion is, "They made us into a race. We made ourselves into a people."

Watkins's dialogue comes from the stoop, then and now, in the city known as "Baldmore," "Harm City," "Bodymore," and "Murderland." He still socializes with the "pit bulls, red cups," and "blue flashing lights." As in the essay that boosted his career, "Too Poor for Pop Culture," Watkins's friends might not know what a "selfie" is, but when President Obama takes one during the funeral of Nelson Mandela, they are quick to riff on it, "A yo, Michelle, was gonna beat on Barack for taking that selfie with dat chick at the Mandela's wake!"

Coates described the 1980s classrooms in a way that previews the "No Excuses!" pedagogy currently imposed on poor children of color. School meant "always picking an extra number 2 pencil and working quietly. Educated children walked in single file on the right side of the hallway, raised their hands to use the lavatory and carried the lavatory pass when en route."

Coates recalled walking to school, and how "the streets shackled my right leg, the schools shackled my left." He "was made for the library, not the classroom. The classroom was a jail of other people's interests." But, he is empowered by the study of history and then "journalism gave me another tool of exploration, another way of unveiling the laws that bound my body."

In an effort to mediate between educators and a kid who has never been in trouble outside of school, Watkins and his sister visited the school attended by his harmless and jolly nephew, Butta. Watkins discovers:

This school seemed like a jail, and level two -- Butta's floor -- was the psych ward. Students bolting up and down the hallways, desks taking flight, a trail of graded and ungraded papers scattered everywhere, fight videos being recorded on cell phones, Rich Homie Queen blasting at highest decibel, crap games and card games going down with children named Bitch and Fuckyou...

Watkins and his sister had sought to get Butta out of an in-house suspension class of sorts, covered by a sub who texted through the class, and back to his "real teacher." But, "she was gone that day anyway -- stomped down and beat up, we later learned, by eight-grade girls mad she had confiscated their cell phones."

Watkins wasn't surprised. In contrast to reformers who don't understand his world, Watkins understands how hard it would be for a good teacher to be effective in such an environment.

Watkins then grounded this horrific incident in the history of segregation, as well as the prison pipeline. He noted the ways that school closures create even worse school climates, explaining that Butta still only has access to a "semi-education." Watkins addressed the similarity between the privatization of today's prisons and schools. He did not downplay the challenge of getting kids burdened by these interconnected oppressions to read at grade level. But, Watkins still concluded with "A given":

African Americans want to learn and be inspired like anyone else. Scholars can help bridge the achievement gap, but only if they take the time to see what these students are up against. My own way of tackling the problem is through literacy. I want to get more people in low-income neighborhoods to develop a love for reading by creating literature that speaks directly to poverty-stricken people and encourages them to write.

Watkins eschews quick and cheap, simplistic shortcuts, while borrowing an Ethiopian proverb to explain why his dream can be achieved: "When spiders unite, they can tie down a lion."

We should join Watkins, as well as Coates and others such as Jorja Leap and Project Fatherhood, and reject the normative approach of focusing on pathologies and remediating students' weaknesses. We must recognize the strengths of communities and build on them. Then we can celebrate the schools and neighborhoods that can bring a real American Dream to all.