April 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 3
It depends on whose imagination is being touched. History does not really contain any inevitabilities. It is just full of booby traps for the stupid. British imagination in 1916 could think of nothing for a Padraic Pearse except the hangman’s noose; a few years later, it could think of nothing for Michael Collins but the Black and Tans; and today, as a partial but inescapable result, there is no British Empire. We still have a chance, over here, if we have enough imagination to see how to grasp it.
There was Dublin in 1916, and there was Watts in 1965, with fire in the streets, guns going off, and men being killed. An uncommonly gifted and perceptive writer named Budd Schulberg saw it all on television —the thing does have its uses, now and then—and had enough imagination to see that it compelled him as a writer to try to find out just what was going on in his own corner of the country. He came up with, at last, the most improbable answer you could think of. He went down into Watts, found an empty room amid the ruins, and opened a free school for writers.
He had quite a time, and he tells about it in one of the most moving books we are likely to get for a long time— From the Ashes: Voices of Watts .
To begin with, he narrowly escaped getting his head bashed in, the people in Watts being somewhat suspicious of outsiders. For another thing, he sat in his new school for weeks without getting a single applicant. For a third, he concluded that he might stir up a little interest by running the excellent movie On the Waterfront , for which he had written the script, and he asked if some neighborhood movie house could not put it on, for free—only to learn that there was not a movie house anywhere in Watts. He finally ran the thing off for an audience of some thirty restless young bloods in a vacant storeroom, only to see the audience walk out on him halfway through because there was a boiling commotion at the undertaking establishment across the street. A woman had just brought in her dead six-months-old daughter, who would not have died if she could have been taken to a hospital quickly; the trouble was that there was no hospital within twelve miles. People were a little upset.
From the Ashes: Voices of Watts, edited and with an introduction by Budd Schulberg. New American Library. 275 pp. $5.95.
Running a writers’ school under such circumstances could be difficult, but Mr. Schulberg kept at it.
He then discovered a thing that Eric Hoffer pointed to in The Temper of Our Time —namely, that this country “is simply lumpy with talent.” Here he was, working in an area full of grade-school and high-school dropouts, dope addicts, young people with long police records, people down below the bottom of the ladder, and he got them writing and learned that they had something to say and, with a little help, knew how to say it. His book, From the Ashes , is a collection of stories, poems, and essays these Watts folk wrote, and their level is extraordinarily high.
It was not easy going. There was a young painter who burst out with the words: “Why fool around with a lot of fancy words for what we want? We all know what we want—freedom. It’s the one word. Without freedom we aren’t alive. We’re walking dead men.” And there was a self-taught musician who told him: “What’s the use of writing what we want? We’ve been trying to say what we want for years, but who listens to us? We’re not people. If you really thought we were human beings you wouldn’t allow us to live like this.”
However, Mr. Schulberg kept at it, and he got somewhere. He put people to work, and surprisingly often he uncovered work that deserved an audience. And as he did this he thought of the occasional individual who can speak for the many, and he writes of this man: “His single candle may light a thousand thousand candles. And the light and warmth of these candles may help redeem and regenerate the core of the ghetto, that decomposed inner city, waiting either for a phoenix to rise from the ashes or for bigger and more terrible fires.”
It all depends (to repeat) on whose imagination is touched. The British in Dublin in 1916 had imaginations impervious to outside stimuli, and they could think of nothing but the hangman, the rifle squads, and the cop with his heavy club. It seems that there can be another way. Mr. Schulberg’s book is one of the most hopeful indications in a long time, and it has nothing at all to do with the use of force.
What did Mr. Schulberg’s people write? There is no space here to quote properly, but one sample may be meaningful. It is a poem called “Negro History,” by Jimmie Sherman, and it goes like this:
A ship A chain A distant land A whip A pain A white man’s hand A sack Afield Of cotton balls— The only things Grandpa recalls. Granpa recalls.