A Rag Blog Interview:
Mariann Wizard's Odyssey
“I love my country, but not always my Nation. I am a child of Mother Earth and loyal to her alone.“ -- Mariann WizardBy Jonah Raskin / The Rag Blog / June 22, 2012
Wizards really do work wonders and Mariann Garner Wizard -- an icon of Austin’s radical movements and countercultural institutions -- is no exception.
The feisty co-author of two popular books -- the legendary underground comic, The Adventures of Oat Willie, and a classic study about the Sixties-era G. I. movement, Turning The Guns Around -- Wizard was also a contributor to No Apologies: Texas Radicals Celebrate the '60s, and to Paul Buhle's Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History.
She has worked her wizardry all over Texas for most of her life, and especially in Austin ever since she moved from Fort Worth to attend UT. These days she works that wizardry, more often than not, on the Internet -- as a professional science writer specializing in natural therapies, and as a contributing editor to The Rag Blog.
A writer for The Rag and later for The Daily Worker, she joined SDS in the 1960s, and later belonged to the Communist Party of the United States. Her activist life didn’t leave much room for studying and she left UT before she earned a degree. On July 23, 1967, her husband, George Vizard, was shot and killed in Austin, and, though 45 years have passed since then, she has never forgotten the murder that day or her own youthful self.
By the time that she went back to college, and graduated from Juarez-Lincoln University with a B. A. in communications, Texas wasn’t the same and the United States wasn’t, either. The War in Vietnam had ended, legal segregation was a thing of the past, and American women had liberated themselves from the narrow roles that had confined them in the 1950s. Wizard herself had been transformed by the waves of rebellion and resistance that broke all around her.
For her whole life, she has rarely if ever accepted any of the preordained roles that others might have tried to impose on her. Even as a child, she had a free, independent spirit. In the last half century, she has been the author of her own ongoing Odyssey, delivered her own irreverent lines, written and performed her own brand of satirical poetry, helped to give birth to Austin’s public access TV station, and served as a mainstay in a community that has sustained her for decades.
Loyal to friends and to family, she’s as much a part of Texas traditions as Molly Ivins, Ann Richards, and Marilyn Buck, a friend of 45 years until her death two years ago, in August 2010.
I met Wizard for the first time eight months ago, spent several days with her in Austin, where she introduced me to her son, Matthew, and her former partner, Michael Kleinman, one of the prime movers and shakers behind Seattle’s annual Hempfest.
We ate Mexican food, listened to homegrown music, and gazed at the stars at night. I think we may have had a margarita or two. Mostly we talked from early morning to late at night about Austin, burritos, cannabis, UT, the weather, the Yippies, and more. We’ve gone on talking ever since then. This is our first public conversation.
Jonah Raskin: Wizard sounds like an unusual last name. Where does it come from?
Mariann Wizard: After my first husband, George Vizard, died and after my divorce from my second husband, Larry Waterhouse, I adopted the nickname “Wizard” that Alice Embree had given me. I made it my legal last name. I probably took the name in part because of "Mr. Wizard" who was featured on a science program for kids on TV when I was growing up.
Your husband, George Vizard, was shot and killed on July 23,1967. That’s 45 years ago. How does that event touch you today?
On a very real level, I will be "the widow Vizard" until the day I die. I was 20 years old, and although I've given it the good old college try on several occasions, there has never been another man who made me feel so totally secure, or so immensely proud that of all the girls in Texas, he picked me to be his wife. He was really somethin' else! I would not be the person I am today had I not known him.
You were born in Fort Worth. What was it like growing up there after World War II?
It was a great town in part because as a little white girl I didn't get segregation. The city had and still has a great library system, parks, art and history museums, public transit, and a feeling of unlimited opportunity. We also had something called "winter" with snow days, snowmen, winter coats, and winter wardrobes.
Were you a child of the Cold War?
The whole red terror was a part of my childhood. In high school, they gave us cardboard discs to write our names and pin them on our shirts in case of nuclear attack. That was the beginning of the end of my confidence in authorities.
When do you think you woke up and began to see what was happening in America?
When I saw black kids on TV fire-hosed in Alabama for doing what I did every Saturday: sip a soda at Woolworth's. I thought it could be fixed if people would simply remember what they taught us in Sunday school about Jesus loving all the little children. I didn’t look deeper into the workings of our society until on TV I saw the bombing of Vietnam and the Vietnamese and made a connection between the war there and racial injustice at home. Thank goodness for TV!
Why did you join Students for a Democratic Society?
A very brilliant, now deceased Austin anarchist organizer, and Navy veteran known as Bob Speck -- whose real name was Bob Baker -- got me to staple booklets for a Vietnam teach-in when he found me drinking coffee in the Chuck Wagon, the UT Student Union hangout for beatniks, bikers, international and Negro students, civil rights workers, and assorted weirdos. A week or so later, I went to an SDS meeting and was blown away.
And why was that?
I’d been in girls' organizations all through high school and knew that girls and women could decide things as well as boys and men. I had also been in mixed-gender groups where girls sat back and let the boys do the talking and pontificating. At the SDS meeting, two beautiful women -- both of them hooked up with cute, smart, influential guys -- stood up, spoke up, and got their points across. Even their men folk were pleased. That was Alice Embree and Judy Schieffer, who had been a civil rights worker in Mississippi, weighed about 80 pounds dripping wet, and was fearless.
Did you think that SDS would go on and on, forever?
As I came to know SDS people and "to participate" with them, I had the sense that our relationships would last forever, based not on some casual propinquity, money, or the bonds of high school, but because we believed in things worth struggling to achieve, struggling without cease, and perhaps without even a glimpse of the promised land. We had to learn to be kind to each other, to accept each other as we were, to love for real, and to keep the faith. Bob Dylan was a big help. I reckon he still is.
Do you think Texas is more violent than any other place in the States?
Hell no!... Do you want to step outside and ask that question again, Mr. Raskin? We aren’t a violent people. We’re just emotional. I support the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. I have a Goddess-given right to self-defense by any means necessary.
When you think about Texas, do you consider it a part of the United States, or is it its own separate country?
Greater Tejas -- say, the 1718 boundaries, when Mission San Antonio de Bexar was founded -- is a vital geopolitical part of Mesoamerica, ripped from Madre Mexico by Yankees. The hideous border fence is an insult to Nature as well as Humanity. Imagine the influence of Mexico today if Texas had remained part of its Republic! Viva Zapata! Viva Juarez! Y Viva la Reconcuesta de Paz that we now witness in our changing demographics! If you can't beat 'em, outbreed 'em. The most popular name for baby boys in 2011 in Texas, and several other current U.S. states, was Jose.
To many Americans in, say, New York or Berkeley, the idea that Texas has a counterculture and a radical movement seems implausible.
It's not just Texas that leftists on the effete coasts don't see, hear, or respect! They don't know what's going in Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, or Arkansas, either! That's why SDS had to have a "Prairie Power" movement. Texas is the Heartland, but all y'all bi-coasters just fly over it or motor through it looking for hicks.
How has feminism unfolded in Texas in ways that would surprise East Coast and West Coast feminists?
Hmmmm... Roller Derby, maybe? With the Internet, Grrrrl Power is everywhere.
How do you define yourself politically these days?
I don't have a party; sometimes I think of myself as an unaffiliated working-class libertarian Marxist-Leninist, but I am more than that, too. I write satiric and outraged poetry, howling to the best of my ability at the moon of our discontent, trying to keep some sense of language alive wherein words have meaning beyond the convenience of the moment.
I hope that the generation coming into their prime now will embrace new paradigms of social and economic intercourse, redefine happiness as something that cannot be bought at a store, learn it's okay to live on beans and bread, and put into practice a lot of what my generation dreamed.
You've been involved in the movement to decriminalize and legalize cannabis. What ideas do you have now to further the cause?
The legalization movement has allowed itself to be stigmatized as a kind of Cheeto-munching-couch-potato-smart-ass-white-boy-jerk. The public face of the movement is all too often exactly that. NORML's new Women's Alliance is a welcome development and one that we’ve been advocating for years. Grown-ups smoke cannabis, too. Until users start supporting professional, well-planned public interest campaigns, we can all go on reveling in our image as "rebels."
You’ve been through several incarnations, if you can call them that, as a radical. Is there a cause or a movement that you belonged to and feel proudest about it?
I have always been an advocate and practitioner of the First Amendment. I’m a Free Speech and a Free-to-Assemble loyalist to the bottom of my soul. To speak and associate freely with people of like- and unlike minds is the essence of freedom. I’m a proud supporter of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Texas Civil Liberties Union, and have a long and proud roster of free speech causes, publications, and occasions.
What are some of your Austin activities?
I spent a good 14 years involved on a daily basis as a volunteer with public access television in Austin, and at the state-of-the-art television studio that I and a small group of people demanded be built in East Austin. When visitors ask me for a tour of "my town" it’s the first place I show them. Every day people at the studio learn to deconstruct the mass media and construct their own media. Public access is free speech television!
What about your involvement with the Communist Party, U.S.A.?
I joined in 1966 in part because it was then illegal under Texas law to do so. I was not then and never was a secret member, but a proud and open one. The CPUSA taught me critical thinking to go with my own critical feelings.
When you’re away from Texas what do you miss most about it?
My family, the big sky, the back roads, Mexican comida y cultura, and my own pad.
When you leave Texas what is it that you most want to get away from?
Nothing. I am going toward something special when I leave, not running away!
If you look at the whole state, in what part of it can one see the most glaring inequalities in terms of wealth and poverty?
I think it’s pretty well spread out, though the Valley is the poorest. Houston, Dallas, and Austin have enclaves for the super-rich juxtaposed with hairy areas where people live hand-to-mouth. Rural areas and small towns also show deterioration in the quality of life, but at the same time new construction is bringing in new populations.
Texas went from LBJ to George Bush; was that a big step backward or just a change of names and party designations?
Damn, don't blame Texas! A lot of other states supported George I! And a lot of others supported LBJ, too! Texas liberals -- many of them very sweet people -- have a propensity for shooting themselves in the foot perhaps more than any other group. If there’s a way to lose, they’ll find it.
Even in Austin you’re aware of the border aren’t you?
Every town with a significant Hispanic population is a target for la Migra. We absolutely see it here. Austin was a sanctuary city, although the feds took that away from us. Many immigrants come to Austin because there are resources here. Barbara Hines, part of the Austin Rag community, is an internationally-known advocate for immigrant rights and we’re all really proud of her! Casa Marianella is a local group that helps people who are fleeing political and social persecution.
Austin is a cultural oasis, and an anomaly isn’t it. I guess that’s why you live there.
Well, it was, but not so much now, I don't think. There are lots of towns where people are cooking Asian-Latin fusion food, where people talk with soft Caribbean accents, and where you can hear reggae. Of course, cannabis is everywhere, and sometimes more available in Boonietown, Texas, than here in the big bad city. And that has made all the difference culturally!
What about cowboy culture?
We still have unregenerate rednecks, and that's their right and their freedom as much as yours or mine. I have conservative religious people in my family and we get along okay -- though we can sure disagree -- because we’re family first and commissars of political correctness much further down the line. I lived in a rural north central Texas county for seven years, between 1997-2004, and really enjoyed most everything about it.
You’ve known some famous Texas radicals including Marilyn Buck and Lee Otis Johnson, both of whom spent big time in prison. What do you remember most about them?
Buck was my friend for 44 years and I only now understand what a privilege that was and what an extraordinary person she was. I miss her very much. I longed for her freedom and hoped until the very end that we would meet again in this life; I wasn't allowed to visit her for the last 14 years of her life. However, I feel her spirit very strongly moving in the world now. She’s a revolutionary icon for me with the same power as Che and George Jackson, forever young and beautiful, an inspiration to more people than we will ever know.
I knew Lee Otis only briefly before his long tragic incarceration and only briefly after his release. Before, he was gallant, charming, bold, and beautiful, an articulate student leader at a repressive black campus where the Uncle Toms of tomorrow were taught. Instead of shooting him, they busted him for passing a joint at a party and gave him 45 years in prison on a first offense. I was one of those who advocated for his release for many years. A local movement law firm secured his freedom and there was a huge, heartfelt party for him.
What happened after his release?
Years of imprisonment, torture, and isolation messed him up, and it wasn't long before he pulled the welcome mat right out from under himself. Today, we would understand, I hope, that he suffered from PTSD and had other serious medical issues. He got himself back in order, with the help of his family, before he passed away, but the prison system broke him, and we didn't know how to help him get it together again.
You have ties with prisoners and ex-prisoners, don’t you?
These days I'm really happy to have Robert King as a friend, a former prisoner in Louisiana's Angola State Prison and one of the "Angola 3." He’s the only one so far to be released. King is an asset to our progressive community; a wise man who spent 29 years in solitary confinement, he doesn't hate anyone, and continues to battle the system in a principled, disciplined way.
Are you the un-Texas Texan and the un-American American?
I love my country, but not always my Nation. I am a child of Mother Earth and loyal to her alone. Borders are drawn by men on maps, but they don't exist in nature. Nation-states are social formations that have arisen as civilization has (presumably) advanced, built on specific types of economic interactions.
But when you walk the paths of Tikal, or other ancient Mayan cities, or think about the civilizations that have risen and fallen in the Near East, it seems clear that borders are impermanent. Different economic patterns bring different sorts of social interaction, and no doubt will again, as the world turns. Maybe our descendants will be nomads, hunter-gatherers, or live in the kinds of space colonies that Ray Bradbury imagined in his science fiction.
Find articles and poems by Mariann Wizard on The Rag Blog.
[Jonah Raskin, a regular contributor to The Rag Blog, is the author of Marijuanaland: Dispatches from an American War, and Rock ‘n’ Roll Women: Portraits of a Generation. Read more articles by Jonah Raskin on The Rag Blog.]
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