Kirkus Reviews QR Code
DANCING WITH STRANGERS by Mel Watkins

DANCING WITH STRANGERS

A Memoir

By Mel Watkins

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-684-80864-1
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

 A former editor at the New York Times Book Review and the author of a well-received history of African-American humor (On the Real Side, 1994), Watkins here recalls his 1950s coming-of-age as a black youth in Youngstown, Ohio, and a student at mostly white Colgate University in Hamilton, New York. With measured and painstaking attention, Watkins details his thoughts and feelings, and people he knew, in his early life, examining the choices he made and his dawning consciousness of race. Reading the French existentialists in high school, he found himself ``suddenly immersed in ideas that seemed to support my own nagging suspicions about the absurdity of the social arrangement.'' At fraternity-dominated Colgate, far from home and friends, Watkins, though a basketball standout, was clearly an outsider. His story slows as he recounts weekend visits to Harlem and his interactions with coeds, black and white, at frat-house parties, but the details build to successful effect when Watkins, intrigued by James Baldwin's ``subtle, nuanced analysis'' of America's race problem, finds epiphany in that writer's still radical argument that race is a state of mind. His mother's own mixed background having shown the author that in America black blood is widely mingled with white, he determines to abandon the concept of race-- to ignore others' assumptions about him as a black man and to renounce his own complicity in reinforcing those assumptions. The book's final page telescopes his later career in literary New York. Rich material, one might anticipate, for a subsequent memoir. Watkins sometimes traverses familiar territory about race, but with insight and telling detail--his description, for example, of the exhilaration of hurtling at high speed toward New York City while listening for the first time to Coltrane's newly released version of ``My Favorite Things'' (1960)--he manages to claim the era, and his identity, as his own.