Arresting prose and a provocative conclusion - challenging the idea that our destinies are fundamentally linked to race - distinguish this memoir of growing up black in the American Midwest in the turbulent 1930s and 1960s. Set in an Ohio steel town and an exclusive, upstate New York private university, Dancing with Strangers is an evocative remembrance of an American's coming of age during the decade preceding the sixties' revolutionary transformation of American society. A dramatic, novelistically rendered ...
Arresting prose and a provocative conclusion - challenging the idea that our destinies are fundamentally linked to race - distinguish this memoir of growing up black in the American Midwest in the turbulent 1930s and 1960s. Set in an Ohio steel town and an exclusive, upstate New York private university, Dancing with Strangers is an evocative remembrance of an American's coming of age during the decade preceding the sixties' revolutionary transformation of American society. A dramatic, novelistically rendered account, it is the story of an individual's triumphant struggle for personal identity during an era when conformity, class, race, and political xenophobia dominated the American landscape. Watkins's family fled Tennessee for Ohio before he was born, when his father pistol-whipped a white neighbor who attacked one of his sons. In Dancing with Strangers, Watkins looks back upon his own life in the midst of the nation's roiling social currents during the tumultuous times when Brown v. the Board of Education and the civil rights movement took hold. Whether Watkins is writing about his combative father's furious, if sometimes misguided, struggles to exert his manhood; his parents' continuous, sometimes violent, feuding; his much-admired brother, in and out of jail and drug addiction his entire life; his touching relationship with his grandmother whose stories inspired and transported him; or his own quest for identity through achievement within the sports and intellectual worlds, his prose soars. Throughout this memoir, Watkins gives eloquent expression to the belief, shared by many Americans who have themselves overcome difficult circumstances, that an individual's destiny and identity are shaped as much by his responses to personal challenges as by racial matters that too often are merely smoke screens.
Watkins, a former editor at the New York Times Book Review and author of The Real Side, a capacious history of African-American humor, confines himself here to his childhood and youth. Unfortunately, his story lacks sufficient drama or style to achieve full momentum. Watkins grew up in the 1940s and 1950s, the child of black Southerners who landed up north in Youngstown, Ohio, with a promise of "opportunity." Though his parents brawled and his brother went to prison, young Mel was mentored by his fierce and proud father and embraced playing basketball and baseball and reading. Amid overly dense detail, his memoir retains a consistently interesting thread concerning race. Raised unencumbered by "rigid social conventions," Watkins eventually encountered white racism, but his experience in an integrated high school was mostly positive. A scholarship student at Colgate in upstate New York in the early 1960s, he had to adapt to an overwhelmingly white world but found solace in reading Sartre and James Baldwin, and discovered he had no trouble dating both black and white women. Before he graduated, a summer living in Harlem while working as a newspaper copyboy furthered his embrace of black culture, the product, Watkins concluded, not of "primal racial identity... but the externally imposed experience of repression." Further fueled by classroom disparagement of black culture when he returned to Colgate, Watkins resolved to celebrate that culture in his future life. The story leaves the reader wanting to learn more about Watkins's quest, but the book ends a few pages later.
Watkins (On the Real Side, LJ 2/1/94), a former New York Times editor, shares here what his life was like growing up in Youngstown, Ohio, in the Fifties and Sixties in the midst of segregation and racism. He begins his story as the youngest member of a dysfunctional family, with an abusive, out-of-control father. Leaving no stone unturned, Watkins speaks of his brother's drug addiction; his grandparents' interracial relationship, which couldn't result in marriage; his passion for basketball; and his college years. Telling of his attachment to his grandmother and how he benefited from her wisdom, he reveals how devastated he was when she died. He gives an extended view of his college life: his friends, sexual escapades, extracurricular activities, and studies, and then he graduates, thereby ending his tale. Is there life after college? If so, Watkins doesn't fill in that missing piece of the puzzle. Considering that he is nearly 60 years old, it would have been more interesting to learn of his career moves and midlife crises. Without these components, this story is incomplete and less than appealing. Not a necessary purchase.Ann Burns, "Library Journal"
NY Times Book Review
Coming-of-age recollections by a former editor at the Book Review, a black man of independent mind and little patience with those of any race who too easily arrive at conclusions.