YSU officials hope the book will generate debate on race relations.
By JOHN W. GOODWIN JR.
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- Mel Watkins has retold his experiences growing up as a black child in Youngstown, and those experiences will be the topic of discussion in classrooms across the city.
The Freshman Readers Dialogue group at Youngstown State University has chosen Watkins' book "Dancing With Strangers" as its first book in hopes of facilitating dialogue on race relations. The book was given to all incoming freshman and faculty.
Seniors in Youngstown city schools will also read the book.
Watkins said the book takes a personal look at race relations in the Youngstown area and the country during a transition from a pre-civil rights era to a nation greatly changed by the civil rights movement.
Writing the book, he said, gave him the opportunity to chronicle the hardships faced by blacks and show that many persevered in spite of those hardships.
Watkins moved to Youngstown with his parents in 1941 when he was just a year old. His parents took jobs in the area's thriving steel industry and moved to a comfortable neighborhood in the Woodland Avenue area of the South Side.
"Racial encounters were not that frequent and people typically ignored the situation, so it wasn't something that entered into your daily life," he said.
"Race came into play when you started thinking about future aspirations, where you wanted to go to school or eat and where you wanted to live."
Those early years for the most part were spent playing basketball, hanging out in Mill Creek Park and eating fresh fruit from backyard trees in his neighborhood.
There were, however, several experiences with the racist views that gripped the area at the time.
Watkins said his first experiences came while shopping with his father around the city. He said store owners would attempt to cheat his father, who had a limited education. The young Watkins would speak up and correct the shopkeepers, but that only made them angry.
Watkins also recalls an occurrence involving a young white girl he came across while walking in the Glenwood Avenue and Falls Street area. His eyes met the girl's eyes and they both smiled, then she pointed and told her mother -- using a derogatory racial term.
Bill Jenkins, Freshman Readers Dialogue committee chairman and coordinator of general education, said the book should spark discussion of race relations in and out of the classroom. There will be a series of panel discussions throughout the year.
Watkins will return to YSU campus the week of Oct. 7 to participate in a series of activities, including the Readers Symposium Oct. 9. He has just released another book "Who Killed Tiffany Jones."