Thursday, November 15, 2007

Dear Caridad,

I want to let you know how saddened we are by Ralph’s death but I also want to share a memory I have of him.

A few years ago, Jonathon and I were playing at Neahwa Park. I saw a car pull up in the distance. Out jumped Ralph and a little girl. He pulled out a bike and helped out the little girl who I surmised was his great-niece. Ralph helped her ride the bike. I was impressed at his ability to keep up with her. They were having such a great time together. I thought, how fortunate she is to have Ralph as her uncle.

From what I have heard about Ralph, I realize that this was another example of the tremendous impact he had on people and how fortunate his family, friends, colleagues and students were to know him.

My condolences to you and Ralph’s family.

Michelle Hendley

From A Student's Perspective

I think the greatest attribute you can assign a professor is that he made you look forward in coming to class. Dr. Watkins was one such professor. He was incisive, dedicated and impassioned. He did not suffer fools gladly, but was possessed of a dry, wicked humor that he could unleash when a situation called for it. Though his presence will be sorely missed, his legacy will continue through his students. Thank you, Dr.Watkins.

Rod Salisbury/Class of '90

Monday, November 12, 2007


When I was thinking about what I would talk about at Dr. Watkins' memorial service, I was completely overwhelmed with emotion. I decided to take a break from thinking and run group therapy with the 10 troubled teenage boys that I work with. The topic of the day was masculinity and the "ideal man." My boys have serious mental illnesses, have been abused, neglected and forgotten by society. First we looked at some advertisements to discuss the "media male." For many of these boys, the images of men that they have seen in movies, on TV and in magazines are the only male role models that they have been exposed to. The boys listed all the expected characteristics of media men: Chauvinistic, rude, loud, muscular, tough, dependent on women, stupid and lazy. One boy raised his hand and said, "but all men aren't like that, there have to be some good ones." So then we discussed all of the characteristics of the "ideal man." This list was more promising: kind, gentile, supportive, smart, healthy, respectful and honest. I then asked these boys if they could think of any men that met this second set of criteria. They couldn't think of anyone. Immediately my heart flooded with warmth as I thought of the one man that I knew who demonstrated these characteristics.

As group ended, one boy stopped me in the hall and said, "Miss, I don't think that an ideal man exists." I responded, "I knew one man who demonstrated all of these characteristics and more." He nodded his head and slowly said, "I hope that I can be a man like that."

I have never met a man with such a gentle and wise presence as Dr. Watkins.

Dr. Watkins always expected the best from his students, but he also fulfilled those expectations. I took four classes with him during my time at SUCO. He never canceled a class, or was late. All of his lectures were well presented and interesting. I learned to write properly, to think for myself and to fight injustice at every turn. My life has been blessed because Dr. Watkins took the time to mentor me during some very impressionable years. I only hope that I can live my life so that he will be proud.

Heather Sanford, BA Africana Latino Studies 2005

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

A Soldier on the Move for Truth and Justice

Within the six years I knew Ralph, I was and continue to be inspired by his affluence of knowledge, quiet strength and perseverance when confronted with discrimination and injustice. He was instrumental in grounding me and expanding my awareness of the struggles and triumphs of being a woman of African descent. Conversing with Ralph prompted me to embark on a journey of discovering and appreciating aspects of myself that were often devalued and rendered invisible. Because of him, I have grown to enthusiastically embrace and freely express multiple identities which include being a queer woman of color feminist who actively challenges status quo and champions the rights of marginalized groups globally.

Thanks to the unconditional support of Ralph, I was able to penetrate a layer of the steel wall of the white supremacist capital patriarchy at SUNY Oneonta to assertively demand equity and social justice. Ralph's passion and dedication to aiding students struck by the dehumanizing forces of oppression was a gift he used brilliantly and selflessly. This gift gave students like me a voice--a safe space to name the realities of our oppression and develop a context for struggling to eradicate the exploitation of institutions on campus and beyond. Ralph educated me about the significance of having a critical consciousness. He demonstrated the importance of organizing an inclusive liberation movement which provides a framework of affirmation for marginalized peoples and ways of existing in a social context that allows celebration and acceptance.

-Denora Williams

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Remembering Ralph

I first met Ralph when I arrived on campus in 1981. I never got to know him that well, but we did run into each other at a number of campus and social events. I will also always remember how welcoming he was to me as a new faculty member; he treated me as a colleague and not a junior faculty member still fresh out of graduate school (which I was!). I will miss his charm and gentle sense of humor.

Dr. John H. Relethford
SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor
Department of Anthropology
State University of New York College at Oneonta

Friday, October 26, 2007

A Feminist Ally

One of the things that drew me to Ralph Watkins was that he was a committed feminist ally. For a man of his generation, whose masculinity was formed in the pre-Second Feminist wave era, he was truly unique. Ralph genuinely liked women and women genuinely liked Ralph. He was comfortable around them and they were comfortable around him.
Perhaps his ease and comfort with women had something to do with how he was never interested in objectifying women. Or maybe it had something to do with being raised by his mother and his grandmother. I do know that he saw women as having a unique perspective that helped him understand the world around him in a new way. In fact, many of his friends were women: mature women, young women, Black women, White women, Latinas and Asian American women, lesbian women, straight women, U.S.-born or women born in other countries, artists, scholars, the mail carrier. His youngest female friend, our great niece, was ten years old!

Women were drawn to him because he was safe. You never got the usual sexual politics with Ralph. He assumed that women had something important to say, that they were thinking beings, and that he would learn from them in some way. I always found his relationship to the women in his life inspiring. I admired him his ability to put the women he interacted with immediately at ease. I marveled at how he seemed to attract women like a magnet. One memory I have regarding how women were drawn to him revolves around a conference on Puerto Rican women we both attended at SUNY-Albany in the early ‘90s. I had just returned to the East coast from graduate school to do field work in New York City. I found out about the conference and he came along, interested as he was in women’s issues and scholarship on, by or about women. Over the course of the two days, every time I turned around some woman was calling out to him by name and saying hello or stopping him to talk intently about something they had learned in a session. I was amazed at how many people---women---he met at the place and said to him “damn, Ralph, you’re a woman-magnet.” He shook his head and smiled that enigmatic smile of his.

Ralph was the one who put the landmark book on multiracial feminism, This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, into my hands when I was 20 years old. This book had the effect of transforming my life by articulating so much of my own submerged political and social values and ideas about what it means to be a working class woman of color raised in the United States. He had met the Black feminist Barbara Smith at a conference while she was tabling for Kitchen Table Press and struck up a conversation with her. He ended up buying a copy of the book for me and one for him.

On Ralph’s memorial folder is a quote from a play by Ntozake Shange, the black revolutionary poet and playwright from the 70s. Shange once came to speak at SUCO. Ralph was responsible for taking her around. Shange had been severely criticized by black men, especially black revolutionary men, for her feminist views in her commercially successful play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf. But in Ralph she found a kindred spirit who saw the beauty of her vision ----that unless Black women are free none of us are---and was not daunted by it. Ralph was committed to freedom in the largest sense of the word. They had such a marvelous time together that by the end of the day they were holding hands as they walked around campus like old friends. I savored that image of them for years.

Just this past June, I was about to attend a woman’s drumming event about two hours away from here. I did not read the fine print and found out from a friend that the group sponsoring the event had a policy of “only women-born women” allowed to the event. “Only women-born women” I yelled as I read the policy, and went to find Ralph to share this and my sense of stunned outrage with him. He immediately, without equivocation said “Oh, well you can’t go.” For me that summarizes so much about Ralph. His commitment to women was inclusive, had integrity and was unflinching, even for those women who acquired their gender identity as women much later in life than the rest of us. It has been that unflinching commitment to social justice that made my 23 years with Ralph so wonderful.

-Caridad Souza

In Memory

There I was, in the 1977-1978 school year, a junior at Oneonta. My political consciousness was growing in leaps and bounds and I found myself taking all the courses I could in what was then called the Black/Hispanic Studies Department. And that is how I stumbled across Ralph Watkins and his “Comparative Slavery” course. I was just starting to put the pieces together of what institutional racism was and how it functioned - and Ralph was right there with a map to show me the way. He had patience with my “Long Island white girl” naivete, but simultaneously knew how to challenge me to dig deeper, as he understood that I was searching, longing to know more, and he supported me through the process. And the teaching did not stop at the classroom door. I distinctly remember stopping by his office one day to talk, and he told me to read Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man”, which he described as a novel that was like jazz, filled with syncopation, rhythm, and beat. And then of course, there were all those after hours talks, and beers, at the Black Oak...and laughter, oh, the laughter! I can hear his laugh and see his smile as I write this.....

I left Oneonta in 1979 and moved on to Boston University to receive a dual Masters in Social Work and African American Studies. And for the past 17 years, I have run my own consulting company that focuses on diversity and anti-racism. The solid foundation I got from Ralph is with me each and every day in my work.

As the years past, Ralph became more than my teacher and mentor – he became my friend. I am honored to have know him. He impacted my life in a very profound way, as I know he impacted many, many others over the course of his teaching career. What a rare gift indeed to have had him in my life. He will be missed.

With love,
Patti DeRosa