Hey, world

On the Watts Prophets and the author's days in the Writers Workshop

Editor's note: Odie Hawkins was a member of the Watts Writers Workshop that spawned the Watts Prophets, a collection of spoken-word artists considered among the forbears of modern hip-hop. He is the author of such novels as Lost Angeles, Memoirs of a Black Casanova and Busting Out of an Ordinary Man, published by Holloway House.

I sat there, in the middle of a funky hot August day, in deepest Chicago, 1965, sucking on the corner of a half-pint of cheap Scotch--all I could afford after working two weeks' worth of 12-hour days in the post office--staring at the chaotic scenes being broadcast from Watts'Nam, California. I was mesmerized and, in a way, exhilarated. The brothers and sisters out west were saying: "You're goddamned right we're mad as hell and we ain't gon' take this shit anymo'!" It was like a very hyper version of a Civil Rights march. My then-wife, a classically gorgeous, walnut-brown Cre'all sister from Naw 'Leans, just a dance step from Congo Square, strolled past mumbling, "Hmf...lawwwd h'mercy! Will you look at what them fools is doin'? Burnin' they own neighborhoods up."

I didn't bother to respond to her booooshiee bullshit judgment; I had a ghetto chess game going on in my head. Lawwwd h'mercy my ass, them motherfuckers is gettin' ready to get ahold of substantial coins. That's what the King-Pawn move shot to my brain. Obviously they were getting ready to get some money 'cause that's what the government did back then: If those black people are mad enough to burn up their own ghetto, then we better hurry up and throw some ducats at the problem, whatever the fuck it is, or else they'll be firing Beverly Hills and Malibu up, next time. Damn the Commission Reports and all that bullshit, we already know what they're going to say, just fling some bucks down on their rebellious black asses and the problem will go a...w...a...yyy. OK?

Strange how shit can be put into motion. Sometimes you can imagine it, and it'll be. I prayed for the circumstances to open up, to widen the cracks that would give me the opportunity to make it to the coast. I made e'baws. I put in for a transfer to the "EL-A" post office. They had some kind of weird-ass transfer deal at the time that would allow you to go somewhere else, if someone somewhere else wanted to be where you were. Kind of a postal musical-chairs number. I don't know why, but some funky chump at the Beverly Hills p.o. (was the motherfucker crazy?!) wanted to relocate to Chicago. Never found out who he/she was, and didn't give a shit. Part one of my plan had fallen into place; we switched up.

1966. Writer Budd Schulberg (On the Waterfront) had put his most humane instincts to work and come up behind the Watts Writers Workshop. Kiss a dick, never been anything like it before and, unfortunately, nothing like it since. Seems that damned near everybody had discovered they could sing, dance, act, paint, philosophize, poet, write, poetize, be f'real. A jet-lagged carpetbagger, I dived into the mix the minute the plane docked. In the wake of the Revolt--which most of the usual mainstream suspects still want to label "a riot"--Watts was in an artistic ferment. The Watts Writers Workshop, y'all, right there at 103rd Street, next to the railroad tracks, had so many world-class poets-writers it was unreal.

K. Curtis "I can get it for you wholesale" Lyle. Quincy Troupe (Miles Davis' cookie man). Wanda Coleman. Eric Priestley ("God is the Sun"). James "In the Temple of My Mind" Thomas Jackson. Harry Dolan. Emery Joseph "I love, we must love, we must love black people, we must love black people, we must love black people, we must love black people, we must love black people, we must looovvvveee..." Evans. Stanley "Negroes" Crouch. Sonora McKellar. Ojenke, O-jen-ke, O. Johnny Scott's shit, which took him to Harvard's 'hood. Kaman "Cliff on the Edge" Daaood. George Wesley "The winking keisters in the shower at Quentin" Bourland. Sharlene "Me bad poet, he knocked me up with his karate chops" Grant. Elvie Whitney. People who only came once. Or twice. The Watts Prophets--Richard Dedeaux, Anthony "Father Amde" Hamilton, Dee Dee McNeil, and Otis O'Solomon--came out of this jambalaya.

The competition--which is not really what it was, if you relate to rap slashes and back to Bebop bashes--was something fierce. Critiques could be switchblade-sharp. "I'd suggest you unplug your fuckin' ears brother, in order for you to really get a clear understanding of what the poem is saying." If your shit was not wayyy up, the best way to survive the evening was by being extremely cool. Like quiet.

The serious could become so tenderly soulful that we simply wanted to cry, embrace our Afikanity, and hear it again. 'Specially the stuff that some of the middle-aged sisters wrote, stuff about what it felt like to wash dishes in your own lil' ghetto bungalows and look at the sparrows shittin' on their window ledges.

My then-wife, the gorgeous One who didn't give a shit about anything that didn't rhyme with money, thought I had completely blown my cool when I announced that I was gonna be a writer. Believe me, the Watts Writers Workshop inspired that kind of craziness. "That's cool with me, Mr. Man, you being a writer 'n' all, but how're we gonna feed the kids, pay our bills, deal with these white folks?" I didn't have an answer for these perfectly legitimate questions, and I didn't look too hard for one. I was going to be a writer. Fuck everything else. I thought I was doing something tough, but it was almost punkish in comparison to the poets who had been declared "The Watts Prophets."

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