As an editor and writer at the NY Times Sunday Book Review from 1964 to 1985, he contributed numerous book reviews and articles on literature, sports, and entertainment as well as obituaries of artists ranging from George Carlin, Richard Pryor and Rodney Dangerfield to Gwendolyn Brooks. He was the Book Page editor for Penthouse (1977–1978) and American Visions (1986–1991) magazines. In 1979, he was the recipient of an Alicia Patterson journalism fellowship; his research on African American humor led to publication of the highly acclaimed social history, On the Real Side: Laughing, Lying and Signifying–The Underground Tradition of African American Humor That Transformed American Culture (1994). (A revised edition, On the Real Side: A History of African American Humor, was published in 1999.)
Watkins first published book was Black Review (1971); the paperback literary anthology, which he edited, included contributions by Julius Lester, Cecil Brown, Nikki Giovanni, and others. Subsequent books include Dancing with Strangers: A Memoir (1998), The Bob Love Story (2000), and African American Humor: The Best Black Comedy from Slavery to Today (2002). His latest book is Stepin Fetchit: The Life and Times of Lincoln Perry (2005), a biography of the pioneer African American motion picture actor.
Watkins, who was born in Memphis, Tennessee, and grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, now lives in New York City, where he continues to write, lecture, and appear for speaking engagements. A graduate of Colgate University (1962) who is listed among its Distinguished Alumni, he was NEH Professor of Humanities at the university in 2007 and 2008.