In 2014, Dwight Watkins, known as D. Watkins, penned an essay titled “Too Poor for Pop Culture” that ran on progressive news website Salon. Fast forward a few years, and he has two New York Times bestselling books, and as of last September, was named Editor-at-Large of the site that arguably launched his career.
“Too Poor for Pop Culture” can be found in Watkins’ collection The Beast Side: Living (and Dying) While Black in America—published by Hot Books, an imprint of Skyhorse which was curated by Salon’s founder David Talbot, and recently released in paperback with several new essays. The Cook Up is a “crack-rock memoir” following Watkins’ transition from Baltimore drug dealer to the writer, activist, and college professor that he is today.
Paste caught up with Watkins to talk about his writing career and the future of Salon.
Paste: I see you often referring to the “new” Salon on social media. Can you tell us what that means and what your role is?
D. Watkins: We’re going to be the premier online magazine. People are going to come to us for culture and politics. We’re going back to investigative journalism and we’re looking to create original programming—shows that are going to give writers an opportunity to speak, show their personalities, and be funny.
My personality is better served as a person who’s interviewing people, writing stories, making jokes, and making videos. I’m not an Editor-in-Chief. I’m focusing on becoming a better writer and covering the Trump presidency as well as I can cover it. I’m proud to be writing with Salon. We have all the fundamentals of a great team.
We’ve seen a lot of discussion around the media’s role in Trump’s election and its role in covering him once he takes office. I’m curious about your thoughts on that and how the new Salon fits in specifically.
I felt like we covered the Trump election in a way that was honest and true. When he did things that were transformative and non-traditional and it worked, we talked about it. When he did things that were wrong, we talked about it. And when he did things that were completely absurd, we poked fun at it. We covered it in a way that—in my opinion—a person from the right, the left, the center, can read what we’ve written and find something funny or informative.
The media always has a role because it has access to these people. All we have is what we see, what we read, what we click. Many of us didn’t expect what happened to actually happen. But it’s here now and we got to deal with it. We owe the people truth, we owe the people information, and we got to work hard to get it to them.
You’ve mentioned wanting to give people people a chance to be funny. Is humor one of the main tenets of Salon’s new approach? I feel like as a culture, especially as it relates to Trump, we used humor (broadly speaking, mostly satire) to the point that I think people would laugh and not realize the seriousness. I’m curious how you strike a balance between using humor to engage people and taking it too far.
I think only people with really good senses of humor get my jokes. I’m pretty sure they’re not universal. [Laughs] It’s funny you say that, because people really don’t get satire anymore. I’ve written articles and said things and it’s pretty obvious they were jokes. But people get so upset; they go crazy. So I’m still learning that balance.
But one of the biggest things that connects us all is sports. People love athletes, they love their teams, and they love to see their hometown win. Right under sports is music. You can hate black people all day and all night, but you don’t hate Michael Jackson. You didn’t hate Prince. You’re gonna dance when Beyoncé comes on. I don’t sing and dance and I don’t play sports anymore, so the next thing under that is comedy. I think we can use humor as a way to bridge some of those gaps. I think [Salon] can bring that to the table in a way that’s funny and cool. And like I said, it’s all brand new; it’s all in the works.
Can you talk a little bit about your activism?
We’ve donated thousands of copies of The Beast Side. And if we’re going to be giving these books away, then I make it a point to go visit the students and do workshops with them. I talk to them about not just my career, but the careers of other people who are doing amazing things that they don’t know about. How do you know what you want to be when you grow up if you don’t even know that a professional photographer that looks like you exists?
I then talk about the other side of that. “Hey kids, you can be whatever you want to be, but you’re not going to be it if critical thinking isn’t a part of your diet.” We’ve graduated generations and generations of students who don’t think critically and think they hate books. [When] my friends and I were coming up, we thought we hated books. We don’t hate books; we just hated the books that were given to us. We just hated Ben Carson’s autobiography. [Laughs] That’s not all books. That’s just one weird guy’s story.
I like the phrase that critical thinking should be a part of your diet. Do you think a lack of critical thinking ties back to the election results?
For sure. Like right now, [Trump]’s already taking credit for the economy and for jobs—you’re taking credit for a job that you didn’t even start yet! It’s like a basketball player who joins a team but he or she isn’t cleared to play for a month. That teams wins five games, and that’s you? That’s crazy.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Alyssa Oursler is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. You can find her on Twitter at @alyssaoursler.