odie hawkinsOdie Hawkins:
The Last OG Standing

by Rhonda Crowder
August 2009

When readers think of classic street-lit, the names Iceberg Slim, Donald Goines, and Chester Himes generally comes to mind. Those from the Tri-State area may even speak of Nathan Heard as he sold a million copies of his novel Howard Street back in the day. But, are you familiar with Odie Hawkins? And, if so, did you know he’s still writing? As one of the original Holloway House authors, Hawkins, 82, has authored over a dozen novels, wrote screenplays as well as episodes of Sanford and Son, and even worked as a journalist in Ghana during the course of his 40-year writing career. Just recently, Hawkins acquired the rights to all of his earlier titles and has re-released those with themes still odie hawkins quoterelevant today through his own publishing company. So, being the great-granddaddy of the genre, he’s passing some gems to the next generation.

How difficult was it for "street" lit writers to get major publishing deals when you started out? Why?
Major publishing deals for “street lit” writers were non-existent when I started out. And it’s true to this day. Why? Because major publishers are deathly afraid of failing. If an editor fails to come up with a best selling item, he or she is lower-leveled. No one wants to take a chance at failing. Aside from that, most of the Clarence Thomas, Ward Connerly, Thomas Sowell, Keyes – guys and gals who have been appointed to open the sluice gates for African-American writers – are firmly out to lunch. Check out the shelves… their choices.

What was it like working with Holloway House?
Holloway House was a special experience. Despite the fact that Bentley Morris, the publisher, always seems to think that I’m downing the scene whenever I say he never promoted our (Iceberg, Goines, Nazel, Hawkins) books in a major fashion properly, I will always maintain that he had the vision to exploit us when no one else had the vision to do it. Go figure. I think the record should show that Holloway House was built on the backs of a bunch of Black writers and that publisher who had the vision to exploit these writers benefited. What else can I say? He might not agree with this view but let’s see the novels he wrote.

As young writers, what do we need to know or do to ensure street lit’s survival?
I would say to young writers… pay much more attention to the works of your ancestors. We need to know what they did so that we can enrich their endowments. Dig it? If we find that they built on a bogus foundation, call’em on it. But first, do a serious investigation of their lives, their times, their circumstances.

To ensure the survival of this so called urban thingamajig, we need to screen it constantly, to make certain that pseudo-impostors are not allowed to cloak themselves with a mantle that they’ve never been under and shouldn’t be trying to cover themselves with.

Can street lit, as we know it, survive another 40 years and beyond?
I have to say straight up that despite the Messianic belief a lot of folks (African Americans and non African Americans) have in our recently elected Obama, a whole bunch of stuff is not going to change. Will not change. Ain’t. As long as people are forced to survive on the streets, in one sense or another, there will be street lit. Writers must write about what they know to write about. The nature of it may reach the virtual reality level and maybe beyond but, if it draws from the well of their experiences in this life, it’s going to be there. Sometimes I think about the differences in dynamics that created a Phyliss Wheatley, a Donald Goines, an Iceberg Slim, an Odie Hawkins. Was Sister Wheatley, George Washington’s favorite Black poet, a ghetto writer? Was her stuff street lit? Who was she…?

What do writers need to know before trying to break into film and television?
Writers need to know that breaking into film and television is a bunch of bullshit. You can be a superb writer. This has nothing to offer television. Television caters to mass consumption: farting, belching, Plumber Joe, Sara Palin, Boss Rumbaugh. Who you know. Film, almost the same thing. Don’t you wonder, sometimes, as you see one jive ass movie after another come out of Weirdywood, that you could do that one better? But it has nothing to do with artistic excellence. It has to do with who our brother is/was, how much money you want to lose? Tax write offs, bidness. Can I gain more income by investing in a losing project? Or, investing in a project that’s going to breakout? Under the current trend of capitalistic thinking you can make more being bailed out than by making a superior film. Go figure again.

How can today's street/urban writers step up their game to make a bigger impact in the literary industry?
I can’t say anything in a generic fashion about what street/urban writers should do or how they can step up their game to make a bigger impact in the literary industry. But I will be willing to speak to those writers who’ve done me the honor of asking that I speak out.

I would ask my brothers and sisters to learn how to write. There, I’ve said it. What does that mean? Learn the mechanical elements of film, television, novel, short story writing. I’ve had writing classes for years and people showed up, prepared they thought to write world shakin’ novels. But, they didn’t know how to do a character sketch or an outline. You wouldn’t try to go from California to Maryland without a road map. Why try to write a 300-page novel without an outline?

We know that African American writers and other people of color are always going to be asked to write better, more perfectly, more better, more accurately, than the average non-colored writer. So, if you want to get into the mix, be better at their game than they are. You’ll have half a chance of succeeding, at least. Sorry, folks, it still be like that. And it will be, until you do your own thang.

To learn more about the works of Odie Hawkins visit: www.odiehawkins.com

Rhonda Crowder is a general assignment reporter for the Call and Post Newspapers in Cleveland, Ohio, freelance journalist, editor, and aspiring novelist.
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