Liza Williams –
Liza Williams began authoring a column in the Los Angeles Free Press in 1966. The column was simply titled “Liza Williams,” and it became a regular feature of the newspaper until 1972. In 1971, Putnam published a collection of her columns in an anthology titled Up the City of Angels. The column describes life in Los Angeles in the 1960s. Whereas many columns focused exclusively on controversial topics, Williams’ work describes everyday-life more often than it takes on the Vietnam War. However in February 1968, Williams reviewed a poetry reading by the then-recently-sentenced black nationalist poet LeRoi Jones (now Amiri Baraka). Her review sparked a debate about racism that lasted for months among the Free Press’ readers. Williams’ front page review gave voice to one of the tensions that existed between the white left and black revolutionaries, to whom the white left often looked for leadership.
Williams’ review was titled “LeRoi Jones Worries Me.” In it, she describes attending a reading at the Black Congress Hall on February 9, 1968. Williams takes issue with Jones’ appeal to violence in his poetry. She quotes what she considers troubling lines of Jones’ poetry: “Cracker you may be wood, and / fire is what you need to change / your ways…Smash the windows at night, these / are magic actions…Who will survive America, few / Americans, some Blacks, and / no Crackers at all” (3). Describing herself as a white Jew committed to ending racism, Williams writes, “I had the same feeling sitting there among the costumed aryans of the Black Power movement, as I imagine I would have had sitting at a meeting of the American Nazi Party”(3). She asks,
“What the hell was I doing there? I who have always fought as best I can for the abolishment of racial designations, and that doesn’t mean that Blacks should think of themselves as no colour, but that we all should think of ourselves as people, with the added benefits of whatever cultural heritage we come from apart from the common cause that unites us as fellow human beings.” (3)
Williams quotes Fannie Lou Hamer saying, “There’s whites that suffer, there’s Mexican-Americans that suffer, there’s Chinese that suffer. So as Black people we’re not the only ones that suffer. I’m perfectly willing to make this country what it has to be. We’re going to have to fight these battles together” (3).
By the time of Williams’ review, Jones had become a topic of interest to the counterculture. Many believed that he had been excessively sentenced for his participation in a riot on account of his poetry. Many viewed Jones as the victim of a racist judicial system. Williams’ review sparked a flurry of responses the following week. The “Letters” column included five letters dedicated to the topic of Jones, four of them addressing Williams’ article, another listing more than 25 supporters of Jones.
Letters both in support of and critical of Williams’ review came in for months. Sparked by Williams’ review, Safford Chamberlain penned a full page opinion piece in which he defends Williams’ position. On April 26, Glory Roberts published the most extensive rebuttal against Williams’ criticisms. In “Black Woman Worries Liza Williams,” Roberts writes,
“[Williams] said amidst the shouting of African slogans she thought ‘What the hell was I doing here.’ Which was my exact reaction upon reading her article. Surely she knew LeRoi Jones was NOT Langston Hughes reading stories of Jess B. Semple – or did she?
Then our Free Press Flip goes on to quote Sister Fannie Lou Hamer…You damn well right we shall have to fight these battles together AFTER we have gotten ourselves together INDIVIDUALLY. Again, white-liberals may think articles like Liza’s are unimportant. But, believe me, if Brother LeRoi’s poetry worries Liza Williams, an idiot like Liza writing for a liberal publication should worry you.” (8)
Roberts goes on to quote more of Jones’ poetry that is more optimistic, “We’ve a long time, / A long way to go, / We have each other, and the / world, / Don’t be sorry, / Walk on out through sunlight life, / and know WE’RE ON THE GO / FOR LOVE” (8).
Williams’ review facilitated a sustained and passionate debate about racism that took place in the pages of an underground paper. On whatever side one falls concerning Jones’ poetry, it was Williams who was responsible for turning the Los Angeles Free Press into a medium that could facilitate a grassroots discussion of a topic relevant to the white left, to black revolutionaries, and to the counterculture more generally.
Despite leaving a sustained mark on the underground press, Liza Williams’ whereabouts are uncertain. The most recent information about her comes from a man claiming to be her son who posted in a discussion forum in 2008. He wrote that she was living in a mental health institution in New York. She reportedly suffered from bipolar disorder. Her work has been preserved in her published book and in the archives of Independent Voices.
Works by Liza Williams can be found in the Independent Voices archive.
Bradley, Marion Zimmer. The Mists of Avalon. New York: Random House Pub. Group, 2001.
McMillian, John Campbell. Smoking Typewriters: The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Morgan, Robin, “Goodbye to All That,” Rat, February 7, 1970.
Peck, Abe. Uncovering the Sixties: The Life and Times of the Underground Press. New York: Citadel Press, 1991.