As a teen growing up in the de facto segregated Youngstown, Ohio, Mel Watkins wanted answers
He saw how real estate agents manipulated the housing market creating segregated neighborhoods and residential blocks. He watched as no one challenged the rules relegating blacks to the balcony of movie theaters and barring them from the public swimming pool.
As a star athlete he had it pretty good. Teachers, community leaders, and merchants treated him well. He slid back and forth between white and black worlds, even dated a few white girls from his school. But internally he questioned the system and the limits of opportunities. He saw how other black students with less athletic and academic status were treated. Why, he wondered, was it that he and his black peers didn't have more? After all he was a talented basketball and baseball player, an exceptional student, and yet he was told the most he could be was a teacher. And if he wanted better pay he would be wise to opt for a job in the local steel mill.
Watkins didn't know any black writers at the time but he began to search for answers from the existentialists, including Jean Paul Sartre.
"Existentialism seemed to me to offer an explanation for the misconceptions of racism," Watkins says. "The existentialists believed you are the one who formulates your identity." Not any forces outside of you.
Watkins found sanctuary in this philosophy. He continued to study Sartre while at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y. from 1958-62. When he finished college he had dreams of becoming a fiction writer and even sold books in Harlem for the subscription service Negro Book Club to get close to the publishing world. But pragmatism set in right before he married and had a child. He got a job with the Social Security department. It was a mind-numbing job, and Watkins feared that if he stayed in it he'd lose all hope of writing that book. In 1964 he took a pay cut to work as a copy boy for the New York Times' Sunday sections, which included the Book Review, Arts and Leisure and the Magazine.
Though he didn't work directly for the Book Review (they had their own copy boy), he made friends with people in that section. Many encouraged him to write. Within a year he had his first book review in the paper. The book was by Sartre. The review was a cinch to do. As Watkins recalls, "I knew it cold."
He continued to write reviews occasionally for the Times and wrote a piece for the Magazine. The civil rights and black power movements were gaining momentum and newspapers were starting to feel pressure to integrate their editorial staffs. The Book Review kept asking Watkins if he knew anyone who might want to be an editor in the section. He couldn't come up with anyone, although Times editors thought their pages deserved someone of the stature of James Baldwin.
It was the oddest thing, explains Watkins, because they never would have considered any other white writer of that level to become a Book Review editor.
In a year or so, Watkins got two promotions: the first as head copy boy for the entire Sunday section, and later as a clerk for the Book Review working in the composing room. He was still writing briefs for the Book Review. But he felt the limitations. He'd never rise above a clerk position. No one seemed interested in making him an editor. In addition, the newsroom working culture made it difficult for blacks to rise to such a level. Some whites doubted blacks' ability to be "objective" in criticism of black works and African American writers were then emerging in the publishing world.
In 1968, Watkins got an offer to edit the New American Review, an anthology of works, and told the Times he was going to take it. Management in the Book Review kept saying they wanted a black editor. A Sunday section editor told them, "You're about to lose one."
Only then it occurred to them that Watkins was the man they wanted. They hired him as a book editor and he stayed there until 1986. Two years into his editorship, he got his first book contract to edit an anthology of black political and cultural writings. In the late 70s, he won an Alicia Patterson grant to research the history of black humor. He later wrote a book about it called "On the Real Side."
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