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Dancing with Strangers: A Memoir.

Mel Watkins. Dancing with Strangers: A Memoir. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998. 320 pp. $24.00.

Laid up in the college infirmary with a basketball injury for several weeks of his senior year, Mel Watkins ruminates on the news that a missed fraternity party had erupted into a small riot, shattering the calm that normally characterized life at Colgate University. The incident revolved around a group of drunken students, an aggressive pass at a sexy singer, a beer poured into the bell of a saxophone, and the Five Screaming Niggers, a neo-minstrel, all-black band that was a perennial favorite with the mostly white student body. Watkins's first impulse, upon hearing that the usually congenial band had dropped its minstrel facade and turned on the students in anger, is to laugh at the irony of the situation: "What's wrong with our niggers? Have they gone crazy?" Beneath the irony of the students' shock when the band drops its pretense, Watkins later recognizes, lies a more sobering reality: "It was, I thought, the price of the ticket--the inevitable result when, for small immediate gains, you take on a role t hat was little more than someone else's illusion. Sooner or later it boomerangs and, like a bad joke, comes back to haunt and ridicule you."

Watkins's realization that pretense and masking may backfire and merely reaffirm racist stereotypes--"for many of [the white students], the Screaming Niggers remained caricatures, confirmed members of an alien class who, however talented, encouraged and happily acceded to the role of amusing, one-dimensional exotics"--is deferred until the end of Dancing with Strangers, a remarkable memoir of the former New York Times Book Review editor's experiences as a boy struggling to navigate the labyrinth of race relations in the mid-twentieth-century American Midwest and later as a student at an elite eastern university attempting to come to terms with his identity as an African American. Like Ralph Ellison's famous protagonist, however, who recognizes in the prologue to Invisible Man that "the end is in the beginning and lies far ahead," Watkins locates the genesis of his awareness of America's minstrel nightmare at a point when, as a boy, his grandmother offers the following cryptic advice: "'Don't be no fool, son. Go round here mistakin' fact for truth. It ain't always so.'"

Miss Aggie's mysterious proverbs notwithstanding, the young Watkins is not always successful at sifting the truth from the facts, though part of this memoir's charm lies in Watkins's ability to recapture in realistic terms the unsettling of childhood innocence by experience. Lulled by Youngstown, Ohio's "surface tranquillity that insistently suggested all was right with the world," Watkins, as a boy, was more interested in listening to favorite radio shows like The Lone Ranger and The Green Hornet and spying on oddball neighbors than in attempting to locate the chinks in the facade of Youngstown's race relations. Unlike his parents, brothers, and sisters--participants in the Great Migration of African Americans in search of better opportunities and a less oppressive environment--Watkins did not come of age amidst the Jim Crow laws and racial violence of the American South. Before he began school, his youthful joys and sorrows were not attendant upon racial uplift or outrages committed against African America ns. Rather, small victories, such as escaping punishment after accidentally setting an abandoned house on fire, and intensely personal defeats, such as coming to terms with the death of his grandmother, influenced young Watkins's emotional life. Rendered in a conversational voice that captures the wide-eyed innocence of childhood without succumbing to overt sentimentality, such episodes, though sometimes painful, temporarily deferred Watkins's awareness of how profoundly racial distinctions mattered in the American society of his youth.

Reminiscent of W. E. B. Du Bois's recollection in The Souls of Black Folk of a childhood incident that made Du Bois painfully aware of the veil of racial difference that shut him out from the white world, Watkins did not consider his identity in racial terms until a three-year-old white child unsettled his innocent sense of self and his place within the Youngstown community. Walking home from baseball practice through an all-white neighborhood, Watkins spies the smiling, Shirley Temple look-alike and flashes what he imagines to be his best Bojangles grin. Rather than affirm his cheerfulness, however, the child shouts "Nigger! Nigger! Nigger!" and cries for her mother, leading Watkins to the ambivalent conclusion that "being a Negro was a powerful, if not necessarily advantageous, attribute." If this incident made it glaringly clear to Watkins that racial distinctions were a determinant in how others perceived him, it also provided an important building block in a conceptual framework with which to negotiate the increasingly complex racial codes and conflicts he would face in Youngstown and beyond.

Years later, this incident of childish racism would lead Watkins to some startling insights about himself and the white world that insisted he conform to its assumptions about what a black man ought to be. Recollecting the incident in his fraternity dorm room after reading James Baldwin's assertion in Notes of a Native Son that "one may say that the Negro in America does not really exist except in the darkness of our minds," Watkins resolves to circumvent America's longstanding dependence on the color line--at least on an individual level--by rejecting outright the fundamental element by which the line is drawn: the concept of racial essentialism. "The change would primarily affect me," he writes. "It would reverse the game--eliminate my complicity and put the onus on whoever was determined to sustain the pretense." While Watkins admits in this memoir that there was little hope of his strategy's gaining nationwide credence, it nevertheless served him well. Dancing with Strangers is an eloquent testimony of o ne man's ability to draw from his spirit and intellect those materials that would allow him to rise far above a social order that often conspired to keep him down.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:De Santis, Christopher C.
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2000
Words:985
Previous Article:Conjure Blues.
Next Article:"Looking at One's Self Through the Eyes of Others": W. E. B. Du Bois's Photographs for the 1900 Paris Exposition.
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