Honesty is the best policy.
That’s what they say, anyhow. The truth will set you free, that’s another one. But then there are those little lies that get you by, social ones to avoid hurt, the-check-is-in-the-mail whoppers that avoid trouble, and you start to wonder about this policy thing. Sometimes, as in the new book “Black Boy Smile” by D. Watkins, lying is surviving.
It might not’ve been the first time D. Watkins lied, but the lie he told when he was about to start school was the first one he remembers: he stood up for a friend whose Game Boy was stolen. When adults asked how D. got hurt, he didn’t tell them that a bigger boy beat him up. Instead, he said he “fell down playing basketball.”
He didn’t want to go away to summer camp when he was 9. He didn’t want to leave his friends in his east Baltimore neighborhood, but his mother lied and said his cousins were going. At camp, he lied to get into the cabin where he thought his cousins would be, and he lied about being experienced with girls. When he left, he was overjoyed to escape, but not before lying about returning the following year.
He lied for his father, when they couldn’t get a “hack” to take them home on a rainy night. He denied that his father was a junkie, knowing that his Dad was shooting up. He said he was “straight” (meaning all good) when his cousin was murdered, but he was devastated inside. He omitted the fact that he was dealing drugs when he spoke with his dad later. He lied to women, he fibbed to friends, he lied to his mother, to a nurse, and to himself.
And then someone left him a book that changed his life. He discovered things about himself that pointed him in a direction he wanted to go. He met a woman who loved him and taught him to love. And though he didn’t totally give up sins of omission, he learned the unpolished truth about telling mistruths.
The title of this book should give you one big clue about its content. That last word, it’s true: “Black Boy Smile” will make you smile, too.
Reading this memoir is like going through a pile of pictures with author D. Watkins. Here’s a snapshot, taken when he was small. Here’s a bunch, taken his summer at camp and boy, that was wild. Here he is as a teen, a friend, a drug dealer. Early tales invite readers to laugh at the typical-kid-ness of it all; later ones make us shake our heads at what might’ve happened and the lies that kept it all going. Each is told in a relaxed manner that lets readers know that not all lies lead to bad things.
Without being a spoiler, that’s something you can count on. Don’t peek ahead, but “Black Boy Smile” has the sweet kind of ending you want in a memoir, and that’s the honest truth.