Unsafe as houses: the Watts Rebellion, poetry, and the concept of home

I’m investigating the concept of home as it appears in poetry published by writers affiliated with the Watts Writer’s Workshop, a workshop created by director Budd Schulberg in the late 1960s as a response to the Watts Rebellion of 1965.  The Watts Rebellion, called a “riot” by the media at the time, was an uprising in the mostly-Black neighborhood of Watts in South Central Los Angeles.  It was a response to a number of factors related to racial injustice and inequality, one of which being housing.  In the years and months leading up to the Rebellion, Black families in the neighborhood were stripped of more and more security, and according to Set the Night on Fire, Mike Davis and Jon Wiener’s account of political movements that characterized the 1960s in Los Angeles, 1964 saw the repeal of a bill that would have helped Black communities achieve fair housing protections.  Prop 14, the ballot measure overwhelmingly voted on by White Angelenos, instead protected White builders’ and homeowners associations’ “right to discriminate” based on race, effectively curtailing most Black people (even those who had “bootstrapped” their way into more lucrative careers or financial security) from moving out of overcrowded neighborhoods and into majority-White communities (119).  Though it was struck down in 1967 by SCOTUS, the damage of Prop 14 to the Black communities in South Central was already done, creating a ghettoizing effect that left residents feeling spatially, as well as socially, trapped.  This, combined with drastic reductions in the number of jobs available to people in these communities, poorly funded and understaffed schools, deliberately-withheld funding for youth programs, and an increase in violent, often murderous policing by Chief of Police William Parker and his LAPD, created a tense and frustrated populace.  When an incident in which two Black men were pulled over led to a veritable swarm of cop cars, people in the community rose up in protest—protests that, when exacerbated by police escalation, turned chaotic and deadly.

The housing crisis in South Central, and its consequent political and social uprising, is particularly striking as it intersects with contemporaneous White rhetoric in Southern California about housing.  Los Angeles, a sprawling city made extant by virtue of its tentacular freeways and satellite communities large enough to be cities within the city, began around the end of WWII to pride itself on its plethora of single-family homes, readily available property for (White) working- and middle-class families, and its idyllic, sunshiney, freedom-obsessed way of life that was made possible with these innovations in urban living arrangements.  In “Writing Watts,” Daniel Widener explains that then-Mayor Sam Yorty’s symbolic linking of new types of housing arrangements with prosperity and progress made him blind to the plight of residents who suffered despite their housing: he invokes “Yorty’s dogged insistence that the single-family homes, palm trees, and ‘nice buildings’ precluded the definition of Watts as a “ghetto” (672).  In the minds of many White people living in 1960s LA, anyone in possession of such accommodations was lucky; any accompanying segregation or poverty didn’t register.

In the Watts Writer’s Workshop, community participants were encouraged to examine and express the ways in which their social conditions contributed to poverty and injustice.  Some of these writers chose to attack the very image of the home itself, so sanctified in the Southern Californian imagination of the time, and show how, within the confines of a ghettoized community, a home is not a safe and happy place, but perhaps a prison, a place of danger, or an object to be co-opted or colonized by an invading or policing force.  I want to explore this imagery in my research, focusing on selected spoken word “raps” by The Watts Prophets, and poems by Wanda Coleman, considered LA’s “poet laureate,” as well as Ojenke and others who were published in “From the Ashes,” Schulberg’s anthology of Watts writers.

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