Professor Mel Watkins Talks Past and Present Life at Colgate

Alumnus and current professor at Colgate talks about racism, teaching and advice for current students. 

Alumnus and current professor at Colgate talks about racism, teaching and advice for current students. 

Mel Watkins ’62 is the Colgate NEH Professor of the Humanities in the English Department. When he graduated from Colgate in 1962, he was a member of the basketball team and one of four African American seniors in a class of 317. In 1968, Watkins became the first African American staff editor for the The New York Times Sunday Book Review, where he worked until 1985. Since then he has written and contributed to several books, anthologies and his memoir, Dancing with Strangers

Q: After being scouted and recruited by the Detroit Tigers and finishing your senior year in high school as the city’s scoring leader, an all-city, and an all-state selection, you received several scholarship offers and eventually chose Colgate. In your memoir, Dancing with Strangers, you describe a trip to New York City where you saw Thelonious Monk and Malcolm X, among others. You finish the chapter by saying, “two weeks later, I left for Hamilton, New York, with $75 and a used trunk and suitcase, barely enough to purchase books for my first semester.” In a later passage you recall that “at Colgate I was completely cut off, immersed in a foreign white world.” How would you characterize or briefly describe your experience at Colgate and how did it feel being the first in your family to graduate from high school, go to college and attend a college that was almost an entirely white and all-male school? 

A: Colgate was certainly a much different place than it is now. It was different, more in the sense of the lack of women than race. I had gone to a high school that was 10 percent black. It was a neighborhood where blacks had just moved in so I basically went to a high school that was in a white neighborhood. In that high school, because I was a basketball player, I had gotten some publicity so people knew who I was. At Colgate, it wasn’t too different from high school. I was more integrated than most people in my neighborhood. I was accepted in the way that many African Americans weren’t. So Colgate didn’t shock me; the demographic makeup didn’t shock me. I was bothered to a certain extent by the remnants of racism I saw here. I expected a university environment to be less racist because I thought intelligent people would not suffer as much from bigotry. But I was wrong about that. There was a lot of racism here. People would shout profanities as I was walking on the quad. The complexity of the racism fascinated me but you get over it and I never felt threatened by it. There wasn’t that much of an adjustment. The surprise was finding racism in an intellectual environment. It was a confusing time for me. In school, I was writing about things that my parents couldn’t possibly understand. There was a huge gap that was created between my home environment and my school environment. And it’s not just me; it’s anyone who comes from a family where no one has gone to college. 

Q: You graduated from Colgate in 1962 with a B.A. in Fine Arts History and a minor in Philosophy. What brought you back to Colgate, and what are the the biggest changes you’ve seen on campus between now and then? 

A: Philosophy served me well when I started to write for The New York Times. It influenced the way I think and I utilized some of those concepts in my writing. After I had been writing for the Times, several professors had sent me letters who were pleased to see me writing. I also came back to speak and was a part of Living Writers when it first started. I came to talk about Dancing with Strangers. Then about 12 years ago, I met Rebecca Chopp, the President of Colgate at the time in New York City. She asked me if I had considered teaching at Colgate. A couple of years later, I sent her a letter asking if I could teach. I started teaching a course on fiction from the 70s and 80s because that’s what I had been working on at the Times. And then I started the course on humor. 

Q: When you were a student at Colgate, you were on the basketball team. What other activities were you involved with? 

A: I wrote a few articles for the newspaper and I won the freshman writing award. I wanted to write. I started to keep notes and started reading some pretty esoteric books early on. It had to do with the racial situation at the time and trying to figure out what that was about. It inspired my reading in existentialism and prompted me to write. What I was witnessing was absurd. The unwarranted bigotry, this false sense of superiority I was seeing in people, was all shocking. There was inequity and I came to terms with it through writing. It was a way of exploring it and finding out about the dynamics. 

Q: Can you talk about the existentialists’ influence on you and your work?

A: I had this urge to find out more about this situation with racism. I wanted to find out why this absurdity existed. Existential writers like Kafka, Camus and Sartre seemed to have a more reasonable view of their world. They confronted it in a way that wasn’t as distorted or skewed as many American writers portrayed their world. It maybe had to do with the history of racism and the ‘Southern mythology’ that existed. There was the underlying belief of white superiority that was still persistent. Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew was about prejudice even though he was talking about Jews. It would have read exactly the same if it had been the white supremacist and the negro. The book is a psychological attempt to deal with prejudice and figure out how to react. That book led me to read more Sartre which gave me an intellectual platform to deal with the situation. It was my way out. 

Q: How was working for the NY Times?

A: I started as a copy boy and within a year and a half I had written an article for them on racism in the suburbs. The first piece I wrote was actually a review on Sarte for the Sunday Book Review. After these articles came out, I was promoted to clerk and then editor in the Sunday Book section. There was bigotry at the Times and I was the first black editor at the Sunday section. There was reluctance to hire blacks and women. I started in 1965 and by 1967, they had hired no other blacks except me. There was some discrimination there. It was thought blacks were intellectually inferior. Blacks sued The New York Times while I was there and won. Women did too and also won the lawsuit. But it’s certainly changed. 

Q: Currently, you teach a course called “African American Humor.” What got you interested in comedy and who are your favorite comedians? 

A: I heard Richard Pryor and thought he was revealing more about the reality of the African American situation than even the literary community was. He was more honest than some of the writers at the time. I became fascinated with it and applied for and won a grant from the Alicia Patterson Foundation. I used the grant to do research on African American humor. The depth of Richard Pryor’s humor made me curious of where this all started. I met everyone from writers for “Sanford & Sons” to comedians like Richard Pryor and Stepin Fetchit. My favorite comedians right now are Richard Pryor, Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, Louis C.K. and George Carlin. 

Q: What would you like students to take away from the course?

A: Humor offers a very illuminating path to understanding our society. Humor allows you to see beneath the hypocrisy that dominates society. I’d like students to come away with a better understanding of the society they live in. I’d like them to have a real understanding of what has gone on between various [races]. When you walk away from the class, you’re going to understand something more about the relationship between blacks and whites in this country. It’s not just race. There’s more to it and comedians have always provided the enlightenment for us to see the truth. The course allows students to see that comedy is one of the most illuminating avenues to dealing with society and its problems. They point out the absurdity better than anyone else. They can make you laugh and they don’t make you angry. Comics reveal what’s going on in society. The hypocrisy and absurdity.  

Q: Do you have any advice for Colgate students? 

A: Education is connected to understanding yourself and who you are and what is important to you. You can affirm that with rigorous intellectual discipline. That’s what you should do. Education allows you to see yourself honestly and work towards something that’s important to you. It should broaden who you are. You should be able to use that knowledge in whatever you do. If you personalize it and make it yours, you’re learning about yourself and it contributes to personal development.  

Contact Tristan Niskanen at [email protected].