The Colgate Scene ON-LINE

The Colgate Scene invites responsible letters, addressed to the editor, regarding any subject that may be considered of interest to the Colgate community. We reserve the right to edit for length and clarity.

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Powerful voice

. . . Walt Shepperd’s Scene review (March 1998) of Mel Watkins’ Dancing With Strangers rightly calls our attention to the memoirs of a strong and powerful critical voice in American letters. For years we have all benefited from his insightful commentaries on the sometimes creative, frequently destructive, tension arising from the social, political and aesthetic forces which shape our public and personal lives in a world divided by color. The review gives me pause to try to share how Watkins shaped my life long before his more public voice came to prominence. Not surprisingly, the effect had had little to do with his incredible grace and power on the basketball court.

As I imagine was true with most team buses, Colgate’s was a junkyard of loud noises, less than politically correct commentary on our dating lives, a basin for junk food wrappers and, assigned course reading notwithstanding, a portable newsstand of the latest National Inquirer, the Daily News, Playboy, cheap novels, and others of less than literary quality. Road trips were in fact a vacation from the rigorous demands of our fine institution. For everyone, or so it seems, except Mel, that is.

Amidst the noise and confusion, there would be Mel, hunched over, coat collar pulled up against the cold, his perpetually sleepy eyes focused on the pages of works of substance. As a freshman, eager to fit in, I could not help but notice this solitary figure who was always reading and who absolutely never raised his voice. And though he may have joined in the communal brushes with the risqué and licentious, the authors I remember were Sartre, Huxley, Baldwin, Fromm, Faulkner, Harrington and I suppose even Marx; the titles were equally esoteric, echoing Colgate’s long history of philosophical and religious studies. Though I doubt that there was one specific moment when I did so, at some point I know I asked him how and why he did not join in the circus-like atmosphere. No doubt resisting the temptation to speak critically of the more than adolescent behavior of the varsity and freshman squads, Mel explained that such long trips could in fact provide an extended and uninterrupted opportunity to explore books and ideas. Then he noted that even visiting other campuses could become intellectual opportunities; observing, for example, that our trip to West Point that weekend coincided with a lecture by William Faulkner. How he knew Faulkner was reading I’ll never know, but I know that I somehow found myself at the gathering and my life began to change. Athletics, ironically, began to open my mind; team trips began to be opportunities to hear visiting authors, scholars and political figures. Williams, Cornell, Bucknell and scores of other colleges and universities we played became opportunities to lose myself in reading and to serve as extensions of Colgate’s lecture circuit.

Perhaps all this would have happened without his brief interaction with me, but it’s a story I’ve told my own students, especially the athletes, over the years and has become too much a part of my own memoirs to disavow. Besides, I wouldn’t want to.

Greg Auleta ’64
Oswego, NY

Prescient voice

. . . Mel Watkins’s book, Dancing with Strangers: A Memoir (March 1998 Scene) is not only wonderful literature but reveals that he was prescient. His ideas about race, arrived at while a student at Colgate in the early 1960s, are now generally supported by human biologists, physical anthropologists and others. They argue that traditional racial categories (Negroid, Caucasian, Mongoloid, Capoid and Australoid) are largely specious. Unlike other animals, human beings are not now, nor ever have been, distinct enough to be considered subspecies; they have always been able to interbreed. Physical traits, therefore, are preserved in populations only because humans tend to choose mates from similar social groups.

Fewer than ten genes account for variation in human skin color. All human beings, in fact, have the potential to be anywhere on the skin color spectrum. That is because skin shade (along with other physical traits) corresponds largely to latitude, which determines the action or inaction of the darkening enzyme tyrosinase. Europeans who settled in Australia, for example, would become, over a very long time, as dark as aborigines. (See Johanson and Edgar, From Lucy to Language, 1996). As Mel had surmised by 1962, the real units of human diversity are the less arbitrary groupings created by culture or geography.

And Mel received a grade of C in his senior year in a course titled "The Negro in America!"

Robert MacCameron ’63
Clarence, NY

Swinging day

. . . On March 27, my local elementary school was treated to a special program thanks to the talents and efforts of Colgate’s Swinging ’Gates. They devoted half a day to the fourth graders at South School in Andover, MA, and it was a day that these students won’t soon forget.

These Colgate women orchestrated a workshop on a cappella music dedicated to the belief that music is accessible to everyone. They taught these fourth graders what a cappella music is, how it is constructed and, most importantly, how they can create it themselves. The wonderful finale came when these children each learned a part in a simple 4-part song and, most memorably, performed it together.

The reviews of the morning’s event couldn’t have been finer. Teachers were raving and already hoping for next year’s program. Administrators were offering the women summer jobs. The students were commenting that they were so lucky to go to this school and planning their thank-you notes to the Swinging ’Gates.

Ellen Rosen Keller ’84
Andover, MA

Clarification and adjustment

. . . I write in response to the March 1998 Scene article titled "Widening Horizons" by John Hubbard. In my estimation, Hubbard has represented a history that calls for some clarification and adjustment. Omitted from his narration is that 25 years ago, the first Puerto Rican student association was formed at Colgate University. A group of seven or so Puerto Rican students (the term Latino was not in vogue back then) organized UNIDAD (which means unity in Spanish) in order to address the particular social, cultural, political and educational needs of that constituency back then. In the fall of 1972, we approached the then-Association of Black Collegians (ABC) to explore a partnership relation and the formation of a new organization that would recognize and incorporate a Puerto Rican perspective into the association. The offer was categorically rejected by even the most militant ABC members of the time.

Although a "cultural center" existed, nevertheless, its basic orientation and purpose catered fundamentally to black student needs, agendas and symbols. UNIDAD was born out of a new paradigm: neither black nor white. Our historical reality represented a rainbow of cultures and histories: indigenous Taino, Spanish European, African, Asian and a host of other rich traditions.

Twenty-five years later, there continues to exist a rather myopic vision regarding the unique contributions and existence of Puerto Rican and Latino constituents at Colgate. The "Widening Horizons" piece simply fails to make mention of any Puerto Rican and Latino presence that has impacted Colgate University for close to a quarter of a century. In fact, not one Puerto Rican or Latina face appears on any of the Scene pages of Hubbard’s essay. Even the 10th AOC anniversary coverage by Hubbard ignored any reference to the particular Latino faces that have composed the overall Colgate mosaic. This may or may not be intentional. Eleni Tedla’s statement from the recent article, however, may indeed ring true that "you can’t empathize with people of color if you don’t know their situation."

It is rather unfortunate that after 25 years, Hubbard and the Scene have difficulty realizing that the existential reality of Puerto Ricans and other Latinos in the U.S., and particularly at Colgate, is neither synonymous with nor any less significant than a black and/or multicultural paradigm. By definition, many if not most Puerto Ricans and other Latinos are a multicultural people. At the same time we are unique and remarkably heterogeneous.

As one of the charter members of UNIDAD who developed the first Puerto Rican Salsa program at WRCU, who became the second Puerto Rican to ever join and sing with the Colgate 13, who joined the efforts to disband the ABC in order to form the Union of Minority Folk (UMF, precursor to the birth of ALANA) in 1974, and who struggled to help recruit more than 22 Puerto Rican and other Latinos in 1973–1974, I would hope that in the near future, Colgate writers and photographers might learn to incorporate and even dare to highlight how the presence and impact of Puerto Ricans and other Latinos in Colgate’s history has truly served in "Widening Horizons."

David Traverzo Galarza ’76
Bronx, NY