Telesur’s The Global African talks to Baltimore’s D. Watkins about his path from drug dealer to acclaimed writer, and then examines a recent peace deal signed in Mali.
BILL FLETCHER, HOST, THE GLOBAL AFRICAN: Today on The Global African, we’ll look at the recent peace agreement in Mali. We’ll also talk with storyteller D. Watkins about his writing and growing up on the streets of East Baltimore. That’s today on The Global African. I’m your host, Bill Fletcher. Thanks for joining us. And don’t go anywhere.
FLETCHER: The gift for storytelling is a powerful technique that allows people to voice their experiences in a very real and human way. Storytelling at its best can give us insight into a world far removed from our own. D. Watkins recounts his upbringing on the mean streets of East Baltimore in the midst of violence, drug dealing, and poverty in his upcoming memoir, Cook Up. On this segment we will talk to D. and get some reflections on his own personal journey, poverty in black America, and activism. Stay tuned.
FLETCHER: Joining us is D. Watkins, who is a columnist for Salon. He’s also a professor at Coppin State and has been the recipient of numerous awards, including a BMe fellowship, Baltimore Magazine’s Best Original Voice Award for 2014, and Business Journal’s 40 under 40 list. Welcome to The Global African. D. WATKINS: Thank you for having me. FLETCHER: So you have led a very unusual life for a writer. You weren’t born with a silver spoon. WATKINS: Yes and no. FLETCHER: Alright. Tell us about it. WATKINS: So I grew up in drug culture and I was connected to a lot of people who made a lot of money selling drugs, so I didn’t have, like, traditional hardships as a whole lot of the people who lived in my neighborhoods coming up. So it’s weird. It’s like you can grow up in poverty but always have access to cash and money and the ability to do things. FLETCHER: Without getting too personal (but perhaps that’s my job), why and how did you do drugs? Let’s start with the drug industry. WATKINS: Okay. Well, so I never, ever, ever thought about selling drugs as a kid. It was, like, the worst thing in the world you can do, to me, not for moral reasons, because everybody always did it, so it was kind of like learned behavior, but because of the hours. Like, even with some of my close friends who wanted to be–like, my older brother started hustling, you know, they would have to put in, like, 16 hour, 18 hour days, quotas, 250 pills before homeroom. So it was never really nothing I thought about. And I really didn’t get into that business until after I went to college. And coming from East Baltimore, coming from down the hill and the /mɑːɹdɨboʊ/ housing projects I frequent, getting into the college I wanted to, which was Loyola, was super culture shock. And I left and I went into the streets. FLETCHER: How did you experience the war against drugs? When someone talks about the war against drugs, what did that mean? WATKINS: I think it’s disgusting, because we really need to have a war against the lack of opportunity. It’s like so many talented people who I know who could do, who have amazing talents, that can do beautiful things, were just swept up into this whole whirlwind of drugs in our communities. I think that it’s one thing that–and I just saw something the other day that Obama was talking about or making a move or the effort towards moving the nonviolent criminals out of federal prison. And this is something that should have been done a long time ago. And when I was coming up in East Baltimore, there was an unspoken law where if you gave a police a gun, you know, if you get caught with drugs and you gave a police officer a gun, they would let you go. So it was more like a push on murders. So if I got caught with, like, 300 pills, which is a kingpin charge, the cop, they would snatch me up, and they would say, look, bring us a gun and you’ll be good. So you say, okay, cool. Check this out. I need, like, two hours. And then, you know, you’ll go, you’ll find a gun wherever, and you’ll put it in the bushes, and then you’ll catch the cop and say, look, go over there by the Popeyes right there behind the bushes. It’s right there. They’ll pick it up and they’ll let you go. Some cops will even let you keep your drugs. But it was a big push on guns. And I came up around that time. So that’s how I was able to survive, the ability, my ability to communicate and my ability to just understand that this is like a big videogame. These are the good guys, these are the bad guys, this is how you make it from level 1 to level 2, this is how you make it from level 2 to level 3. And then I was fortunate enough to have some older people who made it advising me. And then, you know, I would always get around them and I would just transform into a sponge and I would just listen. FLETCHER: But you left. You left it. WATKINS: Yeah. I was advised by a lot of people to leave, because the industries was changing. You know, I grew up in a time where everybody had a dad who was a crackhead and we all came up selling crack. And then by the time we came of age, we were like, no, I don’t want to sell crack. Do you see my father? He has two teeth. Like, I don’t want that. So it was a changing industry. And also, for me, I lost an older brother, I lost pretty much all of my best friends to prison or jail. Like, I’ve lost a lot of people who I cared about a lot. And it was time for me to make that transition and to try to do something else. So I was good at saving money. I saved my money. And I went to a mortgage broker at the time. I didn’t really know what it was. I thought it was a bank. And I got a loan and I bought a liquor store and I went into business. And that was just like a whole different world–just as grimy, just as dirty, but it was legal. FLETCHER: Right. And so where did the writing come in? WATKINS: So the writing came late. So I was supposed to be going to–I was in undergrad. So this is when I get out of the street and I was in undergrad and I took–I needed two electives to graduate. This is, like, my last semester. So I took a poetry class and I took a fiction class. And at the poetry class, my teacher came up to me–well not even me. She addressed the whole room, and she said, there’s two rules. No centering poems and no rhyming. Right? So I never read poetry. I never really read anything but history books around this time of my life. I wasn’t a big reader. But I was really really into Reconstruction Era and I was really into,– FLETCHER: Oh, really? WATKINS: –you know, Civil–yeah, I was really into that era. So that’s what I was studying. That’s what I was into. I never read creative writing, never really thought about it. So the poetry class was fine. So I wrote my poem. And of course I broke both rules. I centered, and my poem had rhymes. And I read it in front of the class, you know, ’cause it was my week to workshop. It was, like, the second week of class. Everybody laughed at me. Like, they laughed at me. And at the heart I’m a pure competitor. Like, you know, I should feel sad to say this, but, you know, if a 90-year-old woman challenged me to game of one on one at basketball, you know, granny’s going down. You know? She’s out of here. Like, you know, it doesn’t matter. So I’m a competitor. So I straight went to the library and read every piece of poetry I had my hands on. I studied. I listened to other students. I took notes. I really went in. So maybe two or three weeks later it was time for me to come back and read again, and I had the best poem in the class. FLETCHER: Who are your role models as a writer? WATKINS: So James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Sherman Alexie, Junot Díaz. But my biggest literary influence is the rapper Nas. That’s my biggest literary influence. This is–the first time–you know, I was a little kid when his first album came out. And I was into hip hop like everybody else in my neighborhood. But the way he told stories was just masterful. FLETCHER: Explain that. WATKINS: So “N.Y. State of Mind” is a trip through /ˈlɒfiə/ housing projects. He’s talking about Queensbridge, where he’s at in New York, but it’s just like a building in the city where I live. And it was the first time I ever connected with a song like that. You know, he’s just so visual. And I never, ever, ever heard a rapper really, really, really put forth images so powerful and so clear and so relatable, from the type of clothes they were wearing to the pain. And I was like, yo, there’s somebody else in the world who feels like this. They celebrate the things we celebrate. They care about the things we care about. They have some of the same fears that we have. As I dig deeper into my craft and I think about these early experiences, my biggest influences came from him and then the people in my neighborhood, because the people in my neighborhood are the best storytellers ever. As you know, we have a tradition of African griots. So it’s in us. And like I was saying, that there are so many talented people who never really get a chance to–like, I know that I’m not the best storyteller from my neighborhood. I’m just a person who’s writing these articles and these essays and getting them out there. But there’s guys from my neighborhood that are, like, 2 million times better. FLETCHER: You recently wrote something about the events in Charleston, the massacre,– WATKINS: Yeah. FLETCHER: –and the issue of white privilege. And I wonder if you could just talk a little bit about that piece, about why you wrote it, who you want to read that piece. WATKINS: So I want everyone to read the piece, because I want people who live in–I want–a lot of black people don’t understand white privilege as much as a lot of white people don’t, and I think it’s a conversation that we need to have. But I feel like white supremacy and white privilege is things that we don’t talk about enough, because, one, a lot of white people get–they feel like you’re attacking them when you say it, and it’s like, no, we’re not. I’m not trying to attack you. I’m just putting you down with how this country works so that we can acknowledge these–. Like I said, I look at systems and how things work. I always look at systems. So I also wrote an article talking about how everyone in Baltimore’s celebrating six cops being indicted. These cops weren’t even–you know, I know people who really think these cops are in jail. I’m, like, no, they wasn’t in jail. They wasn’t even in jail long enough to get the stink of the jail on them. They went in and out in three hours. And even if they all went to jail, locking up six cops doesn’t change a racist system. Having a black mayor, a black commissioner–I know he just got fired. But having a black mayor, a black commissioner, and a black state’s attorney doesn’t–it doesn’t change a racist system. So we have to figure out how can we go against these bigger systemic issues. And that’s kind of, like, the whole angle I want to–when I wrote the white privilege article. It’s not an attack on white people and it’s not a tool to be divisive. It’s acknowledging the system and how it works and then thinking about solutions to help change that system so that everybody can take part in the American dream. FLETCHER: You know, when your article made me think about–this may sound weird or tangential–it made me think about the My Lai massacre in Vietnam with William Calley, who was jailed as a result of that, but that the larger problem was the war itself. It wasn’t just that he had carried out this atrocity, but the atrocity took place in the context of a war that should never have happened. And so when you’re talking about the Baltimore police also, I mean, that’s, again, same point, that yes, okay, so actions are taken and they need to take place, but it takes place in a larger context of a fundamentally unjust system. WATKINS: It hurt me to be happy to see them indicted, because we’re so used to being railroaded by the justice system that if you dangle a little teeny, itty, itty, itty bitty bit of justice in front of our face, we’re ready to throw block parties, we’ll ride dirt bikes up and down the street and order pizzas for everybody when the system is doing what the system is supposed to be doing. So I know that to see the world that I want to see and the world that I dream about, you know, I do want it, right? I’m in the process of–I have a film in preproduction right now. We’re just–right now we’re raising money, we’re planning, we’re getting the right people together. And then I work with young people. I just started a program to help train up young journalists. So it’s like the work that I’m trying to do or the work that I want to do or the foundation that I’m trying to lay down is something to create a clear path for the people who are younger than me to be able to understand some of these things at an earlier age and start thinking about making changes and for them to be able to pass those tools to the generation after them. So I don’t know. I’ll probably be dead and gone before I see the changes that I want to see, but I’m up to the challenge of just working tirelessly until, like, you know, until some of these things happen. FLETCHER: D. Watkins, thank you very much for joining us on The Global African. WATKINS: Thank you. And thanks for having me. FLETCHER: And good luck with your book. WATKINS: Thank you. FLETCHER: Alright. Take care. FLETCHER: And thank you for joining us for this episode of The Global African. I’m your host, Bill Fletcher. And we’ll see you next time. Take care.
FLETCHER: On June 20 this year, the government of the West African country of Mali and Tuareg rebels in the north part of that country came to a peace agreement, ending some of the violence in the northern region of the country. The peace agreement comes after several years of intensive violence between the government of Mali and Tuareg rebels. The most recent round of violence started back in early 2012, when Tuareg rebels looking to create an independent state took part in an uprising. Due to his ineffective handling of the rebellion, President Amadou Toumani Touré was ousted in a military coup. And this opened up space for Islamist groups to fight embattled Malian forces. Eventually the Malian military were overwhelmed by both the rebels and Islamist forces and lost control in the northern region. In a state of desperation, the government of Mali called on France to intervene in 2013. The French intervention succeeded, and the Malian government was brought back to power in the north. While the violence between Tuaregs and governmental forces has ceased, Islamist forces continue to fight in the north. In the wake of the recent peace agreement, questions arise about its sustainability. A major source of contention for the Tuareg rebels is the lack of opportunity and developmental programs in the north compared to the flourishing southern half of Mali. Will the Malian government make good on its promises to seriously engage Tuaregs struggling in the north? That’s what we will explore in just a moment.
FLETCHER: Joining us is Kamissa Camara, who is a Sahel political analyst based in Washington, D.C. Thank you very much for joining us on The Global African. KAMISSA CAMARA, SAHEL POLITICAL ANALYST: Thank you for having me. FLETCHER: So, in discussing Mali, I want to start with what you see as the basic grievances of the Tuareg, to what extent you think that they’re going to be addressed. But the other thing I’d like to get into is that when the Tuareg uprising first started, there was a very peculiar exchange I had with someone who was claiming that the Tuareg were actually privileged over the people in the southern part of the country, which was the first time that I’d heard that allegation. So I was wondering sort of if you could just set the stage for us, so that the viewers can better understand Mali. CAMARA: Okay. So I think that the Tuareg problem is very complex in Malian history. Since Mali’s independence from the French in 1960, Mali has had four Tuareg rebellions in northern Mali. The latest was based on the fact that the tribes wanted independence from the Malian government. So they wanted the northern half of Mali for themselves. So the problem there was that Mali’s North is not only composed of Tuaregs; it’s composed of other ethnic groups. So the Tuaregs numerically are a minority within a minority. So that’s the basic problem why the Malian government could not give independence to the Tuareg in northern Mali. Now, the grievances of the Tuaregs, as you have seen in the newspapers, range from limited economic investment of the Malian government in northern Mali, not enough schools, not enough hospitals. So I think that this is what is commonly known as the Tuareg grievances. However, since before Mali’s independence, the Tuaregs have asked for independence. And really, formally, what the difference with this rebellion in 2012 was that they officially and very openly asked for independence. They wanted to break off from the southern half of the country. FLETCHER: And the Tuareg are not just in Mali, though. They’re in several other countries in the Sahel. CAMARA: They are in northern Burkina. You can find them in southern Algeria. You can find them in Niger, in Libya, in Mauritania. So it’s not only in Mali that you can find Tuaregs. FLETCHER: Do they have similar such grievances in those countries? CAMARA: Well, they do have, I would say, requests of their governments, but really the Tuareg problem in Mali is different from the Tuareg problem in Niger, is different from the Tuareg problem in Mauritania. And the history that they’ve had with their central governments are totally different from one country to the other. FLETCHER: I see. Now, when the uprising started, it was fairly quickly eclipsed by the activities of jihadists. How did that happen? CAMARA: So I don’t know if you remember. When Gaddafi disappeared in Libya in 2012, some of his fighters were from northern Mali and they were Tuaregs. So what happened is that after Gaddafi’s demise, they had nowhere to go. So they ran back to Mali heavily armed. President ATT, Amadou Toumani Touré, at the time welcomed them back home as, well, Malians who had been lost for a long time and who have returned to Mali. So he welcomed them as Malians. They went back to northern Mali to join their family. What the Malian government forgot to do was disarm them. So they were in a position to fight the Malian army because they had arms, and they were heavily armed, and they were more trained than the Malian army itself. So when the Tuareg rebellion started in January 2012, the Malian Army was quickly defeated because they just didn’t have the same ammunition is the Tuareg fighters who came from Libya. They didn’t have the same tactics. They were not as well trained. So this is how the Malian army was defeated. But a few months later, Islamists just came in and decided to sideline the Tuareg fighters who had regrouped under what was called the MNLA, which is the National Liberation Movement for Azawad–Azawad is really what they called northern Mali. And so, yes, so they did sideline the Tuaregs and took over, and they passed sharia law in northern Mali. FLETCHER: How were they able to do that? That’s what I was perplexed by. I mean, it seemed like the Tuareg were fairly well-organized. Obviously they were very well armed. What was it about the jihadists that was able to give them an advantage? CAMARA: So these groups were very fluid. What this means is that you could have fighters from the MNLA joining some Islamist groups who were offering more money, for example. So it wasn’t clear-cut as to who belonged to what group. They shared ethnic commonalities. They were sharing cultural backgrounds. They were basically the same people that you would find from one group to another. Then you would find, for example, MUJAO, who had more of an Arab presence, and you would have Ansar Dine, who was different. But it wasn’t really clear-cut as to who belonged to what group. So the Ansar Dine and AQIM, which was the–which is the al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, had more money, and it is alleged that they were supported by other governments in the Middle East and they had just more money to offer. So you had fighters from the MNLA, the liberation of the Azawad, joining some of these Islamist groups. So it was really easy for them to just take over. But when people saw that they wanted to impose sharia law, they were cutting hands and cutting feet, that’s when the international community and the Malian government really started to worry. FLETCHER: Alright. So the agreement that was signed recently, what’s the central thrust of the agreement? And are you optimistic? CAMARA: So I think that symbolically the agreement is a positive step forward. I think that the international community has invested a lot of time and a lot of money in making sure that elections happen peacefully in Mali, that Mali’s on the right track, that reconciliation starts between the government in the South and the Tuaregs in the North. So I think that it’s–even if the agreement had nothing in it, I think that symbolically it was a good thing. Now, there are a few challenges that the government will have to think hard about. And, for example, I would say that the DDI efforts, the demobilization, demilitarization, and integration of former rebels, will need to be taken very, very seriously. And I think that will probably guarantee the success of the agreement. You have to make sure that these rebels who have taken up arms against the government are disarmed and reintegrated within either the Malian Army or the civil service, the same way Niger did it with its Tuareg rebels. FLETCHER: Well, Kamissa Camara, thank you very, very much. Very informative. We very much appreciate you joining us on The Global African. CAMARA: Thank you for having me. FLETCHER: And thank you for joining us for this episode of The Global African. I’m your host, Bill Fletcher. And we’ll see you next time. Take care.
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