There are two sides of D. Watkins—one, a professor, New York Times bestselling author, editor-at-large of, and devoted husband and father. And the other, a boy raised in poverty during the height of a crack epidemic, who learned to survive on some of the most violent streets in America. It wasn’t until Watkins was thirty that he realized that he wanted more than what money and street life offered—finding himself on the wrong side of pistols, slinging crack on street corners, and burying friend after friend—he wanted to escape, he wanted education, love, and joy.  
BLACK BOY SMILE poignantly illuminates the journey of his transformation. Watkins retraces his tumultuous childhood and his relationship with his dad, uncles, and other boys like him to shine a light on how generational hardship breeds toxic masculinity. In harrowing, searing prose, he recreates defining moments of his past to heal them. He shares candid recollections of being taken advantage of at nine by an older woman at camp—and how he coped through stoic silence disguised as manhood—alongside lively and humorous portrayals of his first days in a college classroom and the quirks of attending an MFA program. We grow up with Watkins as he discovers a love for books, flirts with his future wife—an attorney—and becomes a father, finding joy for the first time.  
Watkins’ pursuit of redemption is a valentine to Black boys. In beautiful, soul-shaking storytelling, he brings to life the contradictions, fears, and hopes of Black boys in urban cities and shows the path toward self-discovery on every page. BLACK BOY SMILE is a testimony that our strengths can often be found in our flaws—that when we acknowledge the fallacies of our past, we can uncover a brighter future. BLACK BOY SMILE is the story of a Black boy who healed.  

What's Inside

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Reader Reviews


"If I had two wishes, it would be that D. Watkins spend an entire book writing through the terrifying wonder of Black boyness in America, and for every human to read and share this book. I am shaken. Black Boy Smile changed my relationship to writing and me."—Kiese Laymon, author of Heavy and winner of the Andrew Carnegie Medal
Black Boy Smile is another important look at growing up. Watkins has shown what courage means despite fear. This is a book all young men should read.”
 —Nikki Giovanni, American poet and NAACP Image Award winner

"In Black Boy Smile, D. Watkins excavates his past and lays bare his present and future, writing with the kind of deep honesty and vulnerability that take you from the pages of a memoir directly into the writer’s tender heart. From the rough early days in his beloved East Baltimore to the abundant life he dreams of for his baby daughter, D’s engrossing story is a powerful, timely meditation on Black masculinity, survival, loss, grief, and love." 

Deesha Philyaw, National Book Award finalist and author of The Secret Lives of Church Ladies
"A staggering account of Black boyhood in its abounding scope, a gift for so many of us who've grown used to consuming misrepresentations about the men we love most.  This is a book that has left nothing out. Each essay is more radically honest than the last, yet painfully obvious, so Black Boy Smile exposes not only the historical and spiritual institutions at the root of those diminished smiles, but the ways in which each of us are complicit in upholding those structures. A compulsive, affecting, beautiful read."
 —Wayétu Moore, author of She Would Be King and The Dragons, the Giant, the Women
On We Speak for Ourselves: "[D. Watkins] is not another elite voice for the voiceless. He is, this book is, an amplifier of low income Black voices who have their own voices and have no problem using them. He dares us to listen.”—Ibram X. Kendi, author of How to Be an Anti-Racist
On We Speak for Ourselves: "Written as a relentless slice of his own life, Watkins avoids pretense as he puts language to his jagged experiences, not to encourage voyeurism, but to instead push people to grapple and wrestle with the real lives so many talking heads attempt to muzzle, then fictionalize. Watkins has come to remind us, everyone deserves the opportunity to speak for themselves. Everyone.—Jason Reynolds, author of Look Both Ways
On We Speak for Ourselves: “Watkins’ latest work shows the black community is not a monolith. Even as we may wear the iconic t-shirts of the struggle yet have different thoughts about the issues faced. We are a diverse and proud community, trying to come to grips with who we are; sometimes wearing a mask within our own brother and sisterhood."—April Ryan, author of Under Fire
On We Speak for Ourselves: "Watkins writes with a type of profound love for the Black forgotten that will compel all who read his timely words to never forget the Black people and places so many cultural critics and thought leaders disremember with ease.”—Darnell L. Moore, author of No Ashes in the Fire
On The Cook Up: “Amazing storytelling that brings us deep into the reality of East Baltimore. A moving and important piece of contemporary memoir.”—Wes Moore, author of The Work and The Other Wes Moore
On The Cook Up: "An unflinching, raw, coming-of-age account of the personal impact of the drug trade. Simply a must-read.”—DeRay Mckesson, author of On the Other Side of Freedom
On D. Watkins: "That Watkins threaded his way from those corners to the page is rare enough. That he is so committed to pulling this world through with him—enough of it to at least rub our noses in it and make us acknowledge some collective responsibility—is precious."—David Simon, author of The Corner and Creator of HBO's The Wire
On We Speak for Ourselves: "D. Watkins proves, once again, why he isn’t just a writer of the people but a people’s literary champ for the here, now, and tomorrow."—Mitchell S. Jackson, author of Survival Math
On D. Watkins: “Watkins’ latest work shows the black community is not a monolith. Even as we may wear the iconic t-shirts of the struggle yet have different thoughts about the issues faced. We are a diverse and proud community, trying to come to grips with who we are; sometimes wearing a mask within our own brother and sisterhood."—Jada Pinkett Smith, American actress
On The Cook Up: "An important story for both Black and white America, as well as this country’s political leadership, to read, if we’re truly going to tackle the challenges that are facing our communities all across the country.”—Chuck Todd, correspondent, NBC's Meet the Press
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