WYSO

The Watts Rebellion & Watts Writers: 1965 & Today

Jan 18, 2017

After the Watts Rebellion in Los Angeles in 1965, something unique happened. An Academy Award-winning screenwriter visited Watts and realized the neighborhood had stories the nation needed to hear.

The Riots & The Writing Workshop
In the summer of 1965, Watts was the story. Violence erupted across the neighborhood after a black man was arrested for drunk driving in front of a crowd. The people watching grew angry, and fights broke out between the police and onlookers. Soon, fires were set and looting began. 34 people were killed over the next six days, and city blocks burnt to the ground.

After the riots ended, the late screenwriter Budd Schulberg, who won an Academy Award for On the Waterfront, started a Writers Workshop in Watts. He brought in notable authors like Allen Ginsberg and Norman Mailer, and he filmed an Emmy-winning documentary on the workshop.

Schulberg wanted black voices from LA to be heard, and soon they were everywhere. Writers like Ojenke, Sonora McKeller, and Quincy Troupe were on TV, in print, and performing in front of tens of thousands at Civil Rights rallies. They also guest edited The Antioch Review and went on a national lecture tour. That’s how the Watts Writers wound up reading at Antioch College, and WYSO was there to record them.

One Watts Writer
Quincy Troupe is 77 now. He's published ten books of poetry and co-authored Miles Davis' best-selling autobiography. These days, he hosts The Harlem Arts Salon, which features the likes of Ta-Nehisi Coates, when he isn’t writing, but the Watts Writers Workshop is where he became a poet.

“Nobody,” Troupe says, “until I got to Watts, was talking to me about poetry. So, I wrote all these perfect forms. I could write the 14 lines. I could write the 19 lines. I could rhyme everything. I could do all that, but it didn’t have any poetry.”
 
When Troupe found his voice, his poetry merged worlds—like when he riffs on Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, and Dylan Thomas in “Ode to John Coltrane.”

An arrest during the Watts Riots
Credit New York World-Telegram / via wikimedia commons

You blew your fingers to smoking cinders
preparing for the "Ascension,"
blew beautiful sad death songs
on "Kind of Blue" mornings,
now the ages await you,
beyond the infinite darkness
where the "Bird" of bebop slumbers.

But rage rage rage Coltrane!
Rage against the taking of a vision!
Rage rage rage Coltrane!
Rage against the taking of Life!
For after Life eye know of no other vision.

Then & Now
The Watts Writers Workshop brought Watts to the world, and in doing so, it brought the anger and frustration of the civil rights movement to the forefront.

“Because we were writing about it from the ground,” Troupe says. “I was living there in Watts. We were opening up for rallies—big rallies—with Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown. We were doing those kind of readings in the park, where 30,000 people would come.”

But as he built a national reputation, Troupe became a target for police at home in Watts. “They would take me to jail,” he says. “And I’d be there for the weekend. They would always do it on Fridays, so I couldn’t get out until Monday, and Budd Schulberg would have to come down there and bail me out.”

Troupe sees the recent unrest in American cities—in Ferguson and in Baltimore—and he says the stories are a lot like Watts:

“My take on it is this: I’ve been there before. I’ve been watching black men and women get killed for years now. This is the thing I’m afraid of in the United States—this is what Donald Trump represents to me—he’s bringing all that stuff back. I have not seen it as raw as it is now. I have never seen Watts this raw except in the 1960s.”

Rediscovered Radio is made possible in part by Ohio Humanities, a state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.