Tuesday, August 11, 2009

An Old Friend

Budd Schulberg, the famed novelist and screenwriter and founder of the Watts Writers Workshop died August 5, 2009. He was 95. I met Budd in 1966 a few months after he launched the workshop in burned-out Watts, the South Central neighborhood smoldering after six days of rioting by angry, marginalized citizens. The impoverished black ghetto had had one too many feuds with police and all hell broke loose. Pawnshops were looted, stores were burned to the ground, fires roared and gunshots rang through the night.

Budd watched the flames and angry mobs on television from his hilltop home in Beverly Hills. He wanted to do more than write about the injustice and poverty in Watts. He posted a notice on the door of a neglected house left standing among the charred ruins on 103rd Street, “Writing Workshop, Wed., 6pm.” Poets and short story writers trickled in and the Watts Writers Workshop was born. Over the next seven years they published anthologies and dramatic scripts for television. The Workshop was replicated in urban communities across the country.

Thus began my six-year association with Budd and the local poets and writers whose work he nurtured. Needless to say, the experience made a powerful impression on me. Budd became godfather to my first child, and on the 40th anniversary of the riots he wrote:

“Last night I read your excellent L.A. Youth from cover to cover and I felt proud of your work and at the same time it broke my heart. All those poor kids wanting to study and get on with their lives, and meanwhile obsessed with the mindless drive-by’s and ethnic school fights. It’s really so much more violent than when we were in Watts in the ‘60’s. And there seems to be no relief, no real effort to solve those social problems so ridden with terror.”

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