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Nebraska’s Changing Face; UNO’s Changing Face


I wrote the following  feature and sidebar exploring some trends about the changing face of Neb. and the University of Nebraska at Omaha, my alma mater.  Slowly but surely the state and some of its institutions are becoming more diverse.  Some of the changes can be readily seen already, others not so much, but in a few decades they will be more obvious.   It’s a healthy thing that’s happening, though diversity is still taking far too long to be fully felt and lived and embraced in all quarters, but that’s for another story.

 

 

 

 

Nebraska’s Changing Face

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

Nebraska’s “Plain Jane” sameness has long extended to its racial makeup. Diversity hasn’t held much truck here. Even when the foreign-born population was at its peak in the state’s first half century, the newcomers were predominantly of European ancestry.

An African-American migration from the Deep South to Omaha in the early 1900s established the city’s black base. Until a new immigration wave in the 1990s brought an influx of Africans and Latinos-Hispanics to greater Neb., the composite face of this Great Plains state was decidedly monotone.

The perception of Flyover Country as a bastion of white farmers has never been completely accurate. The state’s two largest metropolitan areas, for example, have always boasted some heterogeneity. Urban areas like Omaha and urban institutions such as the University of Nebraska at Omaha express more racial-ethnic diversity because of longstanding minority settlement patterns and the university drawing heavily from the metro.

But it is true Neb.’s minority population has always been among the nation’s smallest, which only supported the stereotype.

Finally, though, its minority numbers are going up and its diversity broadening.

Still, if Nebraskans posed for a group portrait as recently as 1980 more than 9 of every 10 would have beeb white. Only 6 percent identified as African-Americans, Latino-Hispanics, Native Americans or Asians.

The lack of diversity extended virtually everywhere. The largest minority group then, blacks, was highly concentrated in Omaha. Despite slow, steady gains blacks still account for only 13 percent of the city’s population and 4 percent of the state’s population.

But as recently announced by UNO researchers, Neb. is changing and with it the face of the state. A group picture taken today would reveal a noticeable difference compared to a quarter century ago, with whites now accounting for 8 of every 10 residents. Indeed, the state’s minority population has more than doubled the past four decades, with by far the largest increase among Latinos-Hispanics, who now comprise the largest minority segment. Latinos-Hispanics are on a linear growth trajectory. They tend to be young and their women of childbearing age.

Minority growth has been even greater in select communities, such as Lexington, where meat processing attracted newcomers.

Celebrated native son filmmaker Alexander Payne’s new movie “Nebraska” – set and shot primarily in the northeast part of the state – accurately portrays a slice of Neb.’s past and present through a large ensemble of characters, all of whom but two are white. The exceptions are both Hispanic. The Oscar-winning writer-director may next make a partly Spanish-language feature about the impact of the immigrant population on Neb.’s towns and cities.

New UNO Center for Public Affairs Research projections posit that by 2050 the state’s portrait will dramatically change as a result of major demographic trends well under way. Within four decades minorities will account for about 40 percent of the entire population. Nearly a quarter of the projected 2050 population of 2.2 million, or some 500,000, will be Latino-Hispanic.

It’s a sea change for a state whose diversity was traditionally confined to a few enclaves of color. Immigration, migration and natural causes are driving this new minority surge.

Everything is relative though. So while CPAR Research Coordinator David Drzod says, “Our diversity will increase,” he adds, “Neb. is one of the less diverse places countrywide and other states are going to become more diverse as well.”

Still, the snapshot of Neb. is changing due to real demographic shifts with significant longterm consequences. Just as the majority white base is holding static or declining, non-whites are proliferating. The results can be seen in the ever more diverse profiles of some communities, neighborhoods, schools and other settings.

Thus, for the first time in Neb. diversity is becoming more lived reality than aspirational goal.

Economic conditions were the main driver for the sharp rise in Latinos-Hispanics migrating here. Plentiful jobs, a low cost of living, coupled with aggressive industry recruitment, lured people to move here from places with comparatively weak economies, high cost of living and job shortages. Neb. grew its Latino-Hispanic base from points of origin in California, Texas. Mexico, Central America and South America, The state also saw its African and Asian populations increase as refugees from Sudan and Bhutan, for example, resettled here.

Drozd says, “People are not coming as directly for new jobs like in the ’90s when the meat processors were expanding and recruiting. We expect to see some regional migration that Neb. has typically seen from smaller locations to more urban locations that tend to have a diverse pool of job opportunities within various industries.”

While migration has slowed from its peak waves it’s expected to continue in fits and starts. Migration, researchers agree is “a wildcard” that can’t be accurately forecast, but Office of Latino and Latin American Studies Research Associate Lissette Aliaga Linares notes an uptick in Latinos-Hispanics from Arizona, which OLLAS Director Lourdes Gouvia attributes to that state’s anti-immigrant policies.

Drozd says Neb.’s minority experience is consistent with some surrounding states and inconsistent with others.

“We are typical of the Great Plains in that we tend to suffer from outmigration especially of young college-aged whites, which is counteracted by in-migration and increase in the minority population groups. On the other hand Neb. is unique in that we are growing faster in some of our metropolitan areas and not holding our population as well as some of the more rural areas.”

 

 

 

 

 

The emergence of more minorities is perhaps most visible in urban inner city public schools, where student enrollment naturally reflects the heavily minority communities these schools serve. Minority enrollment in the Omaha Public Schools stands at 68 percent.

“The diversity of UNO will continue to grow and one only has to look at the demographics in the metro area to understand that traditional middle school and high school students will increasingly be students of color,” says UNO Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic and Student Affairs B.J. Reed.

Some outstate school districts are now majority Latino-Hispanic.

The impact of diversity in this small population state that suffers from brain drain cannot be overstated.

“There’s a large part of Neb. that would be having population decline if it were not for minority growth,” says Drozd. “There’s all sorts of implications with respect to aging, the workforce, health care, education. From a gerontology standpoint you have the possibility of seeing a younger, more diverse working-age population caring for a predominantly white non-Hispanic aging population and will there be any issues associated there. With programs like Social Security you’re going to be relying more and more on an immigrant population to support payments for predominantly white people collecting from the program. So there are potentials for tension there and of course political ramifications and all sorts of factors.”

Gouveia, a sociology professor, reminds that “Latinos are going to imitate some trends of the larger population the more urban and educated they become,” adding. “The more women are able to work outside the home fertility rates will drop and the population will begin to age. It’s the life cycle.”

As minorities grow they become a larger sector of the tax and voting base that elected officials and prospective candidates must recognize.

Drozd says communities must adapt, whether offering English-as-a-Second Language programs or multicultural competency classes, in order to best serve minorities and their particular needs.

As more minorities graduate high school educators and employers hope that many of these college-bound grads and working-age young adults will attend school and find jobs in-state.

“As people have become upwardly mobile in Neb.’s past that has led to outmigration out of the state,” says Drozd. “It’s going to be a very policy relevant factor because people born in the early ’90s are now hitting age 18. Even if they choose a Neb. college where are they going to go to work? Will there be jobs and associated positions for them here in the state or will they go out of state?”

Just as preparing students to succeed in school is critical, so is preparing a workforce for today’s service and skilled jobs.

“Let’s make no mistake about this, without immigration Nebraskans may have to rethink how they are going to have a viable economy that produces not only jobs but payrolls that produce taxes from which an aging population will benefit greatly,” says Gouveia. “Without this population there won’t be services this Boomer population and this aspiring mini-global city of Omaha depends on. These are increasingly service economies and that means it’s very important for the economy to increasingly be based on higher pay jobs likely to grow, such as information technology or biotechnology.

“That also means educational institutions need to be able to truly know how to train this generation of children of immigrants. The children may not be immigrants themselves but a large number have immigrant parents who endured very poor, disadvantageous conditions that tend to disadvantage the educational achievement of their children. We have to have multidimensional. multidisciplinary perspectives to understand who this population is. And that goes to our research also.”

She believes minorities will succeed to the extent opportunities allow.

“We haven’t addressed the serious barriers to education that would guarantee that new face of America and of Neb. becomes a face with equal opportunities to participate in the prosperity all of us will want to share.” She says if barriers to upward mobility aren’t removed “it may prevent Neb. from truly harnessing what we call this demographic bonus that’s been gifted to this state. A state that was losing population were it not for minority growth and international migration would be in serious trouble today to have a viable economy and future.”

 

 

 

 

Daniel J. Shipp, UNO associate vice chancellor for student affairs, says schools must find ways to support minority students.

“When combined with the typical struggles of new college students the demographics of race-ethnicity will create even more difficult challenges in both access to and success in college. Not only must we continue to open our doors wider to traditionally under-served student populations but once on campus it is critical for all of us to see their success as a top institutional and community priority.”

UNO Associate Vice Chancellor for Academic and Student Affairs Pelema Morrice urges educators and employers to appreciate diversity’s many forms.

“We always focus on racial-ethnic diversity but I think intellectual diversity, geographic diversity, cultural diversity, all those different forms of diversity, really add a lot of value to everyone’s experience. There’s plenty of evidence that the more diverse environment we’re in the more we all have opportunities to learn from each other.

“So I think it’s incredibly important for an institution to be a welcoming and diverse environment where folks can learn from each other at a higher level. I think that adds to the educational experience and it provides students with really good training to go out and be productive citizens and to be successful in the workplace.”

Diversity is also the way of this flatter, interconnected world.

Reed from UNO’s Academic and Student Affairs office, says “Our students will grow up in a much more global environment requiring exposure to difference cultures and different experiences.”

Where diversity often must be programmed, Gouveia is heartened by students’ inherent embrace of it. “About this new Neb. mosaic, one thing I’m particularly hopeful about is the younger generation. I love our new students. From any background they are so much more prepared and so much more ahead of where we are as professors or department chairs or deans in terms of knowing how to do diversity. We are the ones who are often behind them.”

As Neb. becomes more multi-hued, UNO’s Morrice says representative stakeholders should discuss what diversity holds for the state.

“With these new demographics coming forward it means our student base will obviously be more diverse than it is now and that means the outcomes will be more diverse and so we’ll see more diverse workplaces and communities within the state. We’re just a piece of that puzzle but I think it’s a good collective conversation for everyone to have as the state continues to grow and it becomes clear that there will be different faces at the table.”

 

 

 

 

UNO’s Changing Face

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

The same demographic trends on pace to make the United States a minority majority population by 2050 and making Neb. a more racially-ethnically diverse place in the second decade of the new millennium, are increasingly being expressed at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Roughly a quarter of UNO’s 2013-2014 freshman class is minority and just under 20 percent of the school’s entire undergraduate enrollment is minority. Both are record marks for the school. In 2000, for example, UNO’s minority enrollment stood at 9 percent. The minority numbers are even greater among graduate students.

The 11 percent rise in UNO minority enrollment from 2000 until now reflects in large measure the Latino-Hispanic boom that happened in-state from 1980 to 2010, when that segment increased from about 37,000 to 167,000. The Latino-Hispanic population is expected to add another 370,000 residents by 2050, according to UNO’s Center for Public Affairs Research.

As a public institution with a state-wide reach, UNO’s a model for the changing face of Neb. Drawing principally from the Omaha metropolitan area, which as the state’s largest urban center has always been Neb.’s most racially-ethnically diverse spot, UNO is, as expected, one of the most diverse campuses in the University of Nebraska system.

At the University of Nebraska-Kearney minority undergraduate enrollment has nearly doubled since 1995. Today, nearly a quarter of its students are non-white or non-resident alien. Meanwhile, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln reports the most diverse student body in its history. UNL’s  2,328 minority undergrads are about 12 percent of the undergraduate total, a 9 percent increase just from last year. Just as at UNO, the largest minority gains at each school are in the Latino-Hispanic and international students categories,

 

 

 

 

As minorities comprise a growing segment of the state’s mainstream and of its public schools’ enrollment, institutions are tasked with incorporating these populations and responding to their needs.

“The good news for Omaha is that UNO has a proud tradition of supporting minority students through various educational equity and learning community investments such as Goodrich, Project Achieve and the newer Thompson Learning Community,” says UNO Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Daniel J. Shipp. “These programs provide student participants with a network of caring and concerned faculty, staff and peer mentors that help students to succeed and thrive in college. Moving forward, I expect we will continue to build on our national reputation for attracting and supporting the growing numbers of minority students and their families in the Omaha area and beyond.”

“Minority students are an important population but they are only one of an increasing mosaic of diversity at UNO, whether they are military, first generation, students of color or adult learners or transfer students,” says UNO Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic and Student Affairs B.J. Reed. “We are working every day to ensure that these students feel welcome at UNO and have the type of support services and environment that will make them want to be want to be here and to be successful. We do this for all our special populations of students. We have programs and learning communities as well as staff specifically directed at helping ease their transition to UNO and success in their academic goals.”

Reed says hiring faculty and staff who reflect the changing face of UNO “is a top priority,” adding, “We have made important strides in diversifying our staff but we lag behind where we want to be here and also with recruiting and retaining a more diverse faculty. We are working on reviewing existing policies and procedures and looking at incentives and support efforts to increase the diversity of faculty and staff to reflect the changing demographics of our student body.”

There’s wide agreement that diversity is a net sum experience for all involved.

“The benefits are substantial,” Reed says. “The workplace is becoming increasingly diverse and employers need and want an increasingly diverse group of employees. We cannot underestimate the shift occurring here. We need to provide a strong educational workforce for employers and UNO must be positioned to do that effectively.”

 

 

 

 

Office of Latino and Latin American Studies Director and Sociology Professor Lourdes Gouveia agrees that educators at UNO and elsewhere must increasingly consider diversity and its impact.

“We have to educate our professionals and student populations in ways that allow them to be skilled about global issues and diversity and to have multicultural competencies as the world is very connected,” she says. “But also we need to address structural barriers that may prevent Neb. from truly harnessing what we call this demographic bonus that has been gifted to this state. A state that was losing population if not for minority growth and international migration would be in serious trouble today to have a viable economy and a future.”

Color-blind love: Five interracial couples share their stories

February 6, 2014 3 comments

If you’ve noticed I write a lot about race, you’re right.  That is to say I do revisit the subject in various ways in assorted stories, though truthfully race makes up a very small percentage of what I write about.  But there are reasons why I keep returning to the topic and some of them are very personal to me.  The following  cover story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) about interracial relationships will appear in that newspaper’s Valentine’s issue.  Why interracial relationships?  Well, I’ve been in three in a 14-year period.  Each with an African-American woman.  The first of these was of long duration, 12-plus years.  She died in October 2012.  The next was of very short duration.  The most recent is with my girlfriend of six months.  We intend to get married one day.  My interest in dating interracially can be traced in part to my growing up experience.  I was raised in a northeast Omaha neighborhood that was almost entirely white until I was 10 or 12.  I was born in 1958 and it wasn’t until the late 1960s that blacks could get homes as far “west” as 42nd Street in North Omaha because of restrictive covenants and red lining tactics.  We lived at 42nd and Maple.  As the landmark TV series All in the Family became a sensation in the very early 1970s my older brothers and I used to joke that our father was our family’s own Archie Bunker.  It was an exaggeration to call him that but he definitely had some bigoted attitudes.  For proof that God has a sense of humor the first black family on the block moved on one side of us, the second black family on the block moved on the other side of us, and for good measure a single black woman moved across the street.  My father and mother got along famously with our black neighbors.  My brothers were too old to be playmates or friends with the black neighbor kids but I wasn’t and so I spent a fair amount of time over their homes as they did over my home playing Army Man, ping pong, pool, and just exploring the neighborhood.  My folks and the black adults next door to us and the black woman across from us enjoyed amiable, cordial, even warm relationships.  While this was playing out on my home turf I had a very different experience when visiting my Italian-American and Polish-American relatives in South Omaha.  Many of them said racist things, freely using the “n” word and criticizing my parents for staying put as our neighborhood became increasingly integrated and within a few years predominantly black.  My uncles and aunts said things like, “How can you live with those people?  Why don’t you move?”  But my folks didn’t feel right joining the white flight bandwagon.  My mom actually worried about the message that would send to our black neighbors, who by the late ’70s were all around us.

By the time I became a journalist in the mid to late 1980s I had personally observed the transformation of my neighborhood from virtually all-white to nearly all-black.  I would remain in that neighborhood, in the house I grew up in, until 2005, my parents having long since moved out.  I saw a lot of things play out in The Hood that gave me a certain appreciation for and understanding of African-American life from a social justice, sociological, cultural, anthropological perspective.  By the mid 1990s I had begun interviewing and profiling African-Americans and reporting on black subjects, past and present, and that work began giving me additional perspective.  I’ve filed a few hundred stories by now related to various aspects of black culture.  It doesn’t make me an expert, but I am an interested and careful observer and I hope my work synthesises some of the complex history, issues, and context that inform these subjects.  My work in this area led me to develop many sources, acquaintances, and friends among blacks, male and female, young and old, from all walks of life.  I’ve long admired black women and I’ve found many attractive but I never acted on that interest or impulse until I was 42.  My first interracial dating experience ended up being a long-term committed relationship with a wonderful woman named Joslen whom I met at the same American Red Cross job we worked.  Twelve-plus years with her afforded me my most intimate window yet into Black America.  She passed away far too young at age 53.  I’m still very close with her family.  The next relationship only lasted four months but it gave me an intense immersion into the life of a talented singer, devout Christian, and outstanding mother.  Her name was Carole.  My current relationship, though only six months old, is quite serious and shows every indication of being for keeps.  Pam is a writer, photographer, mixed media artist, and community activist-advocate with a strong faith life.   She’s the mother of two adult children.  Through her I’m obviously getting a whole new exposure to the  journey of a woman who happens to be black and it’s only enriching me even more.  Of course, in the vast majority of my time spent with these partners race didn’t-doesn’t enter the picture.  We engaged-engage as a couple, as man and woman, as distinct personalities with both shared and divergent interests, not as racial tokens or archetypes.

Though the following story is not about me or my interracial datiing history, my background with regards to intermixing inevitably, inescapably infuses what I write and how I write about it.  I did quite intentionally choose to make black-white couples the focus of my piece because that has been my own lived experience in relationships these past 14 years.  Besides, the black-white dynamic is the core racial dynamic in America and I feel at least that any examination of racial relations, and in this case racial mixing, needs to begin and end there, even though I fully recognize there are many other interracial pairings beyond this that could very well and should be examined.  But I’m just one writer and this is just one story.  I chose to write this article because it’s closest to my heart and head.  Someone else will have to write that other story.

 

 

 

 

 

Color-blind love: Five interracial couples share their stories

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Two bodies in the mirror:
one’s me, the other’s you,
with two far different cultures
some say will bring just strife.
A DIFFERENT SHADE OF LOVING,
a different color of life.

Valentine’s Day is a reminder that though love comes naturally, it’s not without obstacles.

Given America’s apartheid legacy, interracial romance has historically been taboo, scandalous or confined to back-door liaisons. As recently as 1967 Southern anti-miscegenation laws criminalized having intimate relations with or marrying someone of another race.

If you think America’s beyond all this, consider that a Louisiana justice of the peace denied an interracial couple a marriage license in 2009. A Cheerios commercial depicting a black-white couple and their biracial child elicited complaints in 2013. Interracial love portrayals are still rare enough to make news. Hollywood treatments range from treacly (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?) to melodramatic (Monster’s Ball) to sophomoric (Guess Who?) to banal (Something New).

Whether your interracial poster couple is Kim and Kanye or newly elected New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio with his black wife and their biracial children high profile images such as these reinforce the emerging mosaic. The phenomenon is real, not hype. In 2012 the Pew Research Center found interracial marriages in the U.S. reached a record 4.8 million or an all-time high of 8.4 percent of all U.S. marriages. More recent Pew studies find broad acceptance of interracial coupling among all major racial-ethnic groups and the increase of biracial children blurring color lines as never before.

This organic movement is a result of individuals pairing off according to the law of attraction, not social constraints.

Newly elected New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio and family

 

 

Even when mixing risked not just gossip or indignation but danger and imprisonment, it still went on. Some couples openly defied convention and ostracism. Some challenged race laws in court. It seems human heart desires trump artificial efforts to keep different persuasions apart.

There’s also the intrigue of exploring the other side. Online adult sites promote interracial hookups that range from romantic dates to one-night-stands to paid sexual encounters.

When it comes to amour, anecdotal currents say race is not a driving factor for mixed couples though it can be for those around them.

 

 

Interracial marriage was and still is a civil rights issue

 

 

Five metro couples, all variations of black-white twosomes, recently shared their stories. None of the individuals involved went looking for a partner of another race, it just happened. While their relationships are not racialized, race is an undeniable factor in their lived experience.

Emily Pearce and Travis Mountain are 30-somethings who each dated interracially before getting together. He has two children from previous relationships, including a son whose mother is white. Emily, a fitness instructor and elementary school vocal instructor and Travis, a U.S. Marine veteran, personal trainer and rapper, are parents of a girl, Rebel Mountain.

They’re keenly aware being interracial matters to some.

“I do think it makes a difference to people,” Emily says. “I don’t think we’ll ever live in a post-racial world, honestly. Neither of us thinks of us as being in an interracial relationship but other people do, and it does bother me.”

“As far as interracial couples, like it or not it’s something popular now,” says Travis, aka Aso. “It’s just more accepted. If people do have a problem with it it’s more just kept to themselves.”

Not always.

“It does get thrown in your face ,” Emily says. “If you go somewhere    without a lot of diversity you do get looks.”

She says at some schools she’s taught at black women staffers became unfriendly when they discovered she was dating Travis.

“They treated me differently. They were nasty to me.”

“Her dating me has opened her eyes about how differently she’s treated by dating somebody that’s black,” Travis says. “Black women hate to see ‘a good black man’ date a white woman because they look at it like you’re taking that black man away from our community but I don’t look at it that way.

“People want to put you in a category and it’s so stupid.”

 

 

Travis Mountain and Emily Pearce

 

 

The two hail from widely divergent backgrounds. She’s from an intact middle class family in Enid, Oklahoma. He was the only male in a single mother-headed home in North Omaha projects. She says her educator parents brought her up to be color-blind and never had an issue with her dating outside her race. He says the matriarchs of his family disapproved of interracial dating but didn’t have a problem when he did it. Each feels accepted by the other’s family.

“It’s like homosexuality – you can have a problem with it if you want to but what happens if it’s your brother or your kid? So be careful what you’re really hating because it might just happen to you,” says Travis.

“Neither of us set out to be in an interracial relationship, we just liked each other and we really balance each other out and I think it is because of the totally different experiences we have,” says Emily.

Dell and Lena Gines are another 30-something couple. They too faced little family resistance. She’s white and he’s the product of interracial parents. Together 23 years, Dell and Lena have five children. They feel America’s moved forward on race but has far to go.

Lena, a fitness instructor, says Dell’s parents have “shared some of their struggles and we definitely didn’t have to go through the same struggles. I think their generation kind of paved the way a little bit. It’s come so much further from even when we were dating. Seeing that progress is encouraging but it’s very slow.”

“It’s going to take more time,” says Dell, senior community development director with the Omaha Branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City. “I’ve never met somebody that’s past the race thing but I know people who are comfortable with interracial relationships while acknowledging the race thing. I do think we’re more aware of race and are more willing to recognize people can get together and function in relationships regardless of race.”

Dell grew up in multicultural northeast Omaha, where he says he came up with “tons of mixed kids.” Self-identifyng as black, he and his biracial friends dated both black and white girls.

“It was a normal thing.”

Lena didn’t grow up around people of color. Her first interracial dating experience was with Dell, whom she took for Middle Eastern. When she discovered he was black, she says, “I didn’t think it was that big of a deal.”

For them, it’s never been about race. “We fit and that was it,” she says.

Dell says, “I think it’s very important to note our similarities outweigh our differences.”

“I didn’t even think about the racial thing until he came to my family’s Christmas party, where everybody else was white and I was like, ‘Oh, this looks different.’ Then he took me to an African-American church and it was like reversed,” says Lena.

 

 

Dell and Lena Gines

 

 

The couple intentionally reside in North O for the diversity it exposes their biracial children to.

One of the few times someone confronted her about being with a black man was when a woman at a hair salon called Lena a n_____-lover.

“It took me by surprise,” she says. “That’s when it kind of became real. I didn’t have any friends, black or white, who had any issues with it, but I had other black women say things to me like, ‘You’re taking one of ours’ and ‘Why don’t you leave him to us?'”

Dell says racial baiting is “past the tipping point” now that interracial relationships are trending up, adding. “East of 72nd it’s such a common sight. Maybe if I lived out west I would have a different experience. You’re rarely going to hear it from black guys anyway. You’re much more likely to hear it from black girls. I’ve never had anybody actually come up to me and challenge or question me on that. I would dare anybody to say anything about it to my face.”

He believes intermixing will create a new racial narrative in America.

“You’re going to have kids like me or my children identifying along lines that aren’t so clear anymore. It’s going to change the way people look at race and ethnicity. It has to. Once you can get past identifying people as a class or a group and you identify them as individuals then it’s hard to keep gross intolerance in play.

“The rise of interracial relationships is going to force change because it means families that probably haven’t intermixed now have to. When you meet people on that basis then you begin to see things other than ethnicity or race.”

Ron and Twany Dotzler make their 33-year mixed marriage and large rainbow family – they’re parents to 14  – a living symbol of inclusion and tolerance through their Abide Network and Bridge Church.

The mid-50ish couple met at now defunct Tarkio (Mo.) College, where both played basketball. He came from insular all-white rural Iowa. He was naive about his own prejudice and the plight of Black Americans. She came from an almost exclusively black Washington D.C. neighborhood and the discrimination her family endured made them wary of whites. Twany says she once couldn’t conceive of being with a white man because “I just couldn’t see what two people from different backgrounds would have in common.”

 

 

The Dotzlers, Twany and Ron (holding baby), 5th and 6th from left, back row

 

 

When they got together in the early 1980s his family had no problem with his choice of mate but many residents of his hometown did.

“A lot of people were outraged. A big uproar.”

Twany’s family opposed their union. It took time, but acceptance came.

Each partner also had to work on their own racial hangups, especially when they began having children.

The family’s encountered welcome and disdain. The first few years the Dotzlers were married they lived in Broken Bow, Neb. They moved to the burbs, where Ron says, “Everybody seemed to accept us.” After entering the ministry the pair committed themselves to mission work. North Omaha became their calling. Racial incidents began happening.

“We were at a restaurant in Fort Calhoun and this guy at the bar yells, ‘Hey, you n––––r, yeah, you n––––r, get out of here.’ At a church picnic one of my kids goes to kick a ball and another kid kicks it and says, ‘Aw, go get it n––––r.”

When the couple applied to have their kids attend a small Washington County school local residents turned out en mass at a school board meeting to oppose their admission.

“Other families had been accepted. Our family had been rejected. We were denied access to the school,” Ron says.

“That was a real blow,” Twany says. “They didn’t want us to come.”

Overturning fear-based perceptions is what the Dotzlers do through Abide sponsored home renovation projects, neighborhood cleanups and justice journeys that bring diverse people together.

“I think that’s why I love what we do,” says Twany. “We can be a bridge to expose people to those differences, to people who may not think like you do, act like you do, look like you do, yet if you can just be intentional about getting to know them through relationships you’ll see what we do have in common and what we can do together.

“It’s all relational – seeing a person different from you and being able to value them right where they’re at. We’ve been getting people together to build relationships, to break down those denominational walls, those racial walls, those economic walls, for a long time. When you have to be together for a long period of time you learn some things about yourself and about others.”

Somehow some folks are threatened
by what we represent,
Although to make a statement
was never our intent.

 

 

Michael and Cassandra Beacom

 

 

When Michael and Cassandra Beacom began dating in the ’80s he was not only a newbie at interracial romance but to people of color having grown up in white-centric Keystone and attending white Catholic schools. Moving with her father’s Union Pacific job, she was exposed to both integrated and segregated environs. She dated mostly black guys in college, though a white boyfriend did propose marriage.

The Beacoms fell head over heels upon first meeting at a party. When they became a couple not everybody approved.

“The girl that introduced us was not thrilled with us being together,” Cassandra, says, “so you find out who your friends are or at least their viewpoints anyway.”

“Some friends said we support you, we’re behind you all the way,” Michael says, “and some others cut and ran or had their thing about it.”

He says her parents were cool but while his folks liked her as his friend they were “definitely not prepared” for him to have a black girlfriend.

“They said horrendous, horrible, evil, terrible things, to the point where I understood I would have to be saying goodbye to my family.”

Nothing negative was said to her, an administrative assistant with the Omaha Public Schools, only to Michael, a senior agent at PayPal.

“They gave him all the grief, they didn’t give me the grief,” says Cassandra, who adds she only found out much later the extent of his family’s unease.

Rather than cause a scene, the couple eloped and kept their marriage secret. Michael says, “I was terrified.” When Cassandra got pregnant with their first child, the family embraced her. The big wedding the couple put off was finally held. She and her late father-in-law became close and she’s tight today with her mother-in-law.

Their biggest hurdles with race have been with institutions. They say racist assumptions forced their son into foster care before a court intervened. That separation trauma still hurts. As do double standards that have seen her treated one way because she’s black and him another way because he’s white. Then there’s the times people assumed they couldn’t possibly be a couple.

 

 

Tim Shew and Brigitte McQueen Shew

 

 

Union for Contemporary Art founder-executive director Brigitte McQueen Shew upsets expectations in northeast Omaha. Not only is she a mix of African-American and Iranian-Chaldean, she’s married to a younger white man, chef Tim Shew.

“I have run-ins with people who say I’m not black enough to understand the African-American crisis. I do feel because of my work here, my advocacy for North Omaha and the fact I live in this community there’s an element of surprise when people realize my husband is not African-American. This is nonsense. Could we stop doing this to each other?”

The couple’s experience differs from that of her parents, whose extended families wanted nothing to do with Brigitte and her siblings.

“We were the yellow kids with funny hair. We were different and were always treated as such.”

She says she’s glad things have progressed to where she and Tim don’t have to go through what her interracial parents “went through in the ’60s,” adding, “It’s interesting how much of a non-issue that factor is in our relationship.”

Brigitte, who grew up in Detroit, dated interracially from the jump.

“Race is not a criteria. It’s not something I think about, it’s more about personality and who the person is than what color they might be,” she says. “With my mom it never mattered. I had moments with my siblings where it was like, ‘Why is it you always seem to be dating white guys?’

It wasn’t an issue, it was more of an observation. I don’t think anybody would say that if you were dating someone who was blonde or brunette. I realize not everybody has that sort of blindness to it.”

Tim, who grew up in west Omaha, was curious about brown girls but never did anything about it until Brigitte. Their families have always been fine about their relationship. She says the only time her race has come up with them was at a birthday party for one of his nephews.

“I made a chocolate cake. We were all at the table and I was sitting across from this sweet little boy who said, ‘Why are you the same color as the cake?’ Some people were really embarrassed and Tim’s brother totally defused things with, ‘I’m glad somebody finally asked that question, I’ve been wondering that since you started coming around.’ It was just this perfect moment.”

The Shews plan to have children one day. Though aware biracial kids can have a tough time they take solace in the fact their families and friends don’t hold the prejudices earlier generations did.

“I’m excited for our child to be part of the family we’ve created,” she says. “It’s a brilliant thing.”

We sense their eyes upon us:
the glance, the stare, the gaze.
Some puzzled, some condemning,
some burn with inner rage.
With but a few accepting,
some hurl the jagged knife.
A DIFFERENT SHADE OF LOVING,
a different color of life.

Lyrics are from “A Different Shade of Loving” by Mick Terry.

Wanda Ewing Exhibit: Bougie is as Bougie Does

December 8, 2013 2 comments

Omaha has lost one of its most respected and exibited artists, Wanda Ewing.  As a memoriam to her, I am posting for the first on this blog a story I did about an exhibition of hers some years ago.  When the assignment came I already knew her work and like most folks who experienced it I was quite impressed.  I very much wanted to do a full-blown profile of her but I only got the go-ahead to focus on the exhibit.  She was very gracious with her time in helping me understand where she was coming from in her work.  Her untimely death has taken most of us, even though who knew her far better than me, by complete surprise.  Facebook posts about her are filled with shock and admiration.

You can appreciate her work at http://www.wandaewing.com.  The Omaha World-Herald should have a notice in the next day or so.

 

 

 

Wanda Ewing Exhibit: Bougie is as Bougie Does

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

 

 

 

Wanda Ewing is at it again. The Omaha printmaker known for her provocative spin on African-American images has created a sardonic collection of reductive linocuts and acrylic paintings that considers aspects of beauty, race and social status. The work has been organized in the solo exhibition, Bougie, at the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery in Lincoln, where it continues through December 2.

The title comes from a slang term, derived from the French word bourgeois, used in the black community as a put down for anyone acting “uppity,” said Ewing, an assistant professor in the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “It speaks to the level of acceptance due to your social and economic background, your physical appearance, all of it.”

She explores bougie through the template of popular magazine culture and its vacuous lifestyle advice. The heart of the show is 12 faux glossy covers, each a reductive linocut with vinyl lettering on acetate, depicting a slick monthly women’s mag of her imagination called Bougie. The garish covers are inspired by Essence and other Cosmo knockoffs whose content places style over substance.

Among the “bougie markers,” as Ewing calls them, are black cover girls with straight or long hair and “story tags” that embody those things compelling to bougie women — shopping, how to lose weight, money and getting a man. Some of the teasers get right to the point: “Not Hood enough? 25 ways to get ghetto fabulous.” Another reads, “It’s what’s on the outside that counts.” Among the many double entendres are, “Tom Tom Club, back on the scene” and “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas.”

“I wanted to achieve something that was funny to read, but had some grit to it,” she said.

Each “issue” is adorned by a head and shoulders illustration of a black glamazoid female, the features made just monstrous enough that it’s hard to recognize the real-life celebs Ewing based them on. One vixen is based on home girl Gabrielle Union. Other iconic models include Halle Berry, Mariah Carey, Beyonce, Tyra Banks, Janet Jackson, Eve, Star Jones and Queen Latifah.

Ewing “distorted” the images, in part, she said, as “I didn’t want them to be necessarily commentary on the celebrity, because it’s not about that,”

These cover girls represent impossible beauty standards and thus, in Ewing’s hands, become primping, leering creatures for the fashionista industry. Like the figures in her popular Pinup suite, she said, bougie women “are not shrinking violets.”

Contrasted with the plastic mag images are big, bold, beautiful head portraits of more realistically rendered black women and their different hair styles — bald, straight, permed, afroed, cornrowed — executed in intense acrylic and latex on canvas. These are celebratory tributes of black womanhood. The figures-colors jump out in the manner of comic book or billboard art. “I’m still holding onto being influenced by Pop Art,” Ewing said. “I love color. I’m not afraid of color.” The Hair Dresser Dummy works, as she calls them, are a reaction to the stamped-out glam look of the old Barbie Dress Doll series. Ewing’s “dolls” embody the inner and outer beauty of black

 

women, distinct features and all. We’re talking serious soul, here.

 

 

There are also fetching portraits of women that play with the images of Aunt Jemima and Mammy and that refer to German half-doll figures Ewing ran across. Another painting, Cornucopia, is of a reposed woman’s opened legs amid a cascade of flowers — an ode to the source of life that a woman’s loins represent.

All these variations on the female form also comment on how “the art world likes to celebrate women,” she said, “especially if they’re naked and in pieces.”

Bougie
 examines women as objects and the whole “black is-black ain’t” debate that Ewing’s work often engages. Glam mags help inform the discussion. Ewing said black models were once shades darker and displayed kinkier hair than today, when they have a decidedly more European appearance. “I grew up looking at these images and felt bad because as hard as I tried, I couldn’t achieve what was being shown,” she said. At least before, she said, publications offered “a variety of the ways black women looked. Now, these magazines idealize the same type of woman with the same kind of features. I find that interesting and damaging on so many levels.”

Like the figures in her Pinup series, Bougie’s women are too self-possessed or confident to care what anyone thinks of them.

Leave it to a master satirist, Omaha author Timothy Schaffert, to put Ewing’s new work in relief. In an essay accompanying the show, he comments:

“The women…demonstrate a giddy indifference to their objectification, defying any interpretations other than the ones they choose to convey. See what you want to see, the women seem to be saying. You can’t change who I am, they taunt. Ewing portrays women in the act of posing, women possibly conscious of their degradation yet nonetheless seducing us with their self confidence. For Ewing’s women, the beauty myth becomes just another beauty mark…

“And yet the politics of fashion are what give Ewing’s work its sinister and satirical bent. Just beyond the coy winks and the toothpaste-peddling smiles and curve-hugging skirts of these fine black women is the sense that the images aren’t just about them” but about “the various co-conspirators in the invention of glamour. In Ewing’s work, black women assert themselves into the commercial, white-centric iconography of prettiness, and the result is at times funny, at times sad, at times grotesque, but often charming. Her women rise above the didactic, each one becoming a character in her own right, in full control of her lovely image.”

In the final analysis, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

“Although this work is coming from an artist who is black, it is not limited to just the black community,” Ewing said. “Ultimately, the work is about beauty. That’s a conversation everyone can contribute to.”

A conversation is exactly what her work will provoke.

The Sheldon Gallery is located at 12th & R Streets. Admission is free. For gallery hours, call 402.472.2461 or visit www.sheldonartgallery.org.

When New Horizons Dawned for African Americans in Omaha

January 17, 2013 9 comments

 

 

The following story was supposed to have appeared in The Reader (www.thereader) but human error resulted in a much shorter version being published.  Fortunately I can publish it here and on the paper’s website and link it to Facebook and Twitter and all the rest of the social media universe. The piece explores one of the first intentional interracial housing developments in Omaha and perhaps anywhere in the Midwest or the nation as a whole.  The suburban New Horizons addition was created in the 1960s as a sanctuary free of the red lining practices and restrictive housing covenants that relegated blacks to specific, designated, and confining areas to live.  Blacks found no barriers to build or rent or move into New Horizons, where their neighbors might be black or white. This social action or experiment largely worked, too, though decades later the neighborhood has lost the diversity it once had and is now mostly white.  The cruelest cut with what happened to the article not being published as it should have been in the paper is that this story is very personal to me. You see, my late life partner, Joslen Johnson Shaw, grew up in New Horizons.  She was African American,  Her parents, George and Juanita Johnson, built there in 1969 and were among the first residents in the neighborhood, black or white. The Johnsons were barrier breakers in more ways than this.  They didn’t let racism or discrimination stand in the way of their aspirations.  Before moving to New Horizons Joslen accoompanied her folks to open houses and saw with her own eyes as realtors and homeowners shunned and ignored them.  As Joslen’s mother, Juanita, put it, “It was if we were invisible.”  My primary source for the story is Juanita, who still lives in New Horizons.  Joslen and I bought a home of our own in New Horizons six years ago.  It’s just around the corner from Juanita’s place.  I’m sitting in my office in that home as I type and post this.  The other main source is Joslen’s brother, Marty.  I wrote the story for them and in memory of Joslen and her late father, George.  I wanted to make sure I got it right and that’s why it upset me when the story I cared so much about didn’t wind up in the paper as it should have.  Well, here it is the way it was supposed to be there.  This one’s for you, honey.

 

 

 

 

When New Horizons Dawned for African Americans in Omaha

For The Reader

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

It took the civil rights movement to bring segregation in the United States into sharp relief. The South was the epicenter of the racial equality battle but American-style apartheid as well as attempts to dismantle it were everywhere, including Nebraska.

Omaha prides itself on hospitality yet African Americans here could not always live or or work or play or attend school where they wanted through the 1960s. In response to housing and work discrimination, for example, protest marches, sit-ins and other advocacy efforts organized.

With homeowners, realtors and banks discouraging blacks from white neighborhoods, it took extraordinary measures for blacks to integrate some sections of the city. One remedy was the creation of a new subdivision, appropriately named New Horizons, located on the then-western outskirts of the city, just off 108th Street between Dodge and Blondo and just north of Old Mill. The backs of the western-most homes abut 108th Street and the easternmost residences face 105th Street. Homes also extend from Nicholas Street on the north to Burt Street on the south. The interracial developers designed the new addition as an integrated neighborhood open to all. By all accounts their vision was fulfilled.

Situated in what was then-countryside New Horizons was established in 1965 and the first houses were built soon after on the tiered land. Corn fields stretched south, west and east of this built-from-the-ground-up neighborhood only a stone’s throw away from small working farms and stables. The two major east-west thoroughfares in the area, Dodge and Blondo, were two lanes each then.

 

 

10761 Izard St, Omaha, NE 68114

New Horizons neighborhood

 

 

This story chronicles the experiences of some past and present residents of this mixed race community, including what precipitated their moving there. They don’t necessarily view New Horizons as having been a social action or social experiment but that’s exactly what it was. It was revolutionary for the time, especially by Omaha standards, where even hometown icon and Major League Baseball Hall of Famer Bob Gibson was frustrated in his attempts to move into the neighborhood of his choice. If he couldn’t find satisfaction, then every day people like George and Juanita Johnson stood little chance.

In the mid-1960s the Johnsons were a college-educated, two-income married couple on an upwardly mobile track, but neither their names nor their positions gave them any influence to change that era’s prevailing discrimination. He was a Benson High art teacher. She was a North High math instructor and guidance counselor. They’d recently started a family and next sought buying a new, larger home near a park and good schools.

The North Omaha residents had built a house at 38th and Bedford but having outgrown it they set their sights on moving to wherever they could find their dream home. As African Americans, however, their aspirational pursuits, like those of countless other persons of color, were blocked.

It was a time when blacks were routinely subjected to unfair housing practices, some subtle, others blatant, that effectively confined them to living in a small geographic area. Regardless of means, if you were black in Omaha then you had little choice but to live, as the Johnsons did, in the area bounded by Cuming Street on the south, Ames Avenue on the north, 40th Street on the west and 16th Street on the east. The northeast inner city became the black “ghetto.” Getting out of it required a migration not alike that of blacks migrating from the Deep South.

In many ways Omaha’s de facto segregation was as pernicious and long lasting as any on the books in the South, resulting in a divided city that clearly demarcated the Near Northside as Black Omaha. Red lining real estate tactics, discriminatory banking practices, restrictive housing covenants and unfair hiring standards made it difficult if not impossible for blacks to live and work in many parts of their own city, denied and discouraged simply due to the color of their skin.

Though blacks live everywhere in the metro today, Omaha’s geographic segregation persists – with most blacks in Omaha still residing in North Omaha – in part due to the lasting imprint of the housing discrimination that once ruled the day.

Better opportunities in education, employment and housing slowly emerged in response to equal rights pleas, marches, mandates, laws and court rulings.

“Things were just beginning to open up with schools and jobs and activities in Omaha but you had to look for them. You know, you would see pictures in the paper of things happening, of activities that should have been open to everyone, but because of restrictive housing they really weren’t,” says Juanita Johnson.

She says an entire apparatus or conspiracy of bigoted hearts kept white areas off limits to blacks. Realtors and others acted as overseers in steering blacks to all black enclaves or to undesirable neighborhoods deemed ready for integration.

“We contacted some realtors and they showed us some places north. They told us we could be blockbusters and open up some new neighborhoods,” Johnson recalls. “The realtors decided which areas were going to integrate and which areas weren’t. They would watch the housing trends and determine, ‘We’ll let this block go now.” But the neighborhoods they were offering to us didn’t show much potential, they didn’t look like they were going to stay good working neighborhoods, they didn’t look like they were stable. There were several for rent signs on properties.”

 

 

Juanita Johnson today

 

 

She’s sure some realtors she and her late husband George dealt with were merely “going through the motions” to placate them.  “They just showed us places that we would not have been interested in anyway – houses that were too small for what we wanted. We didn’t want a place that would have other houses six feet on either side. We wanted to find a house or build a house on a good-sized lot that had room for yard and play space for kids.”

Even though the Johnsons were eager and prepared to buy, it was as if their money was no good and their wishes didn’t matter. The more they looked for a home and were turned away the more incredulous they grew.

“We went to several open houses and at some of them it was as if we were invisible,” Johnson says. “I mean, they would greet people in front of us, they would greet people that were coming in behind us and it was just as if we weren’t there. I really can’t say there was anything (racial) said, it was more or less as if we were invisible walking through the places. We just thought they were stupid to behave in this way and we laughed at them.”

The Johnsons experienced the same frustration in their desire for a better life that the fictional Younger family encountered in Lorraine Hansberry‘s A Raisin in the Sun. Though the Youngers meet much resistance in the story, they eventually fulfill their goal of moving out of the inner city tenement they rent into a suburban home of their own. That play’s powerful dramatization, later adapted to the screen, made quite an impact on blacks facing the same issues in real life.

“I think that helped to motivate a lot of us in that it appeared to be possible and that this could happen to us as individuals,” says Johnson.

But there were societal-cultural roadblocks to achieving that dream. Being shunned, ignored and disrespected the way the Johnsons and so many of their black peers were elicited hard feelings in some, discouraged others and in the case of the Johnsons, motivated them even more.

The fact that we had been looking for a place and were just tired of running into barriers,” Johnson says, is what made the prospect of building a home in New Horizons “so attractive.” She says New Horizons represented a balancing-the-scales effort at “an integrated community of middle to upscale housing that was out far enough from the main part of the city that people wouldn’t say we were living in the ghetto – that we were in a suburban house just like anyone else.”

Moving to a racially blended suburb also promised a diversity fast disappearing in northeast Omaha, where white flight left the area predominantly African American. The suburbs also meant access to better performing schools.

“We wanted to be in a situation where we could have the best for our children, the best opportunities, and we wanted them to be exposed to the cultural advantages I knew other children were being exposed to,” she says. “We wanted our kids to have the opportunities to participate in whatever they were really interested in doing and not be kept out or let in because they were black. We knew we wanted an opportunity for the kids to have a really integrated education.”

Juanita, Joslen and George Johnson a few years before moving to New Horizons

 

 

Enter New Horizons. Its late developers were prominent Omaha veterinarian, Dr. A.B. Pittman, architect Golden Zenon and architect-civil engineer J.Z. Jizba. Pittman and Zenon were African American and Jizba was white.

For Pittman, New Horizons was an expression of a commitment to helping his own people realize their dreams and to bridging the divide between people of different races and creeds. He was president of the Omaha branches of the National Urban League and the National Council of Christians and Jews.

“My father was always concerned about getting people better housing,” says his daughter Antoinette “Toni” Pittman. “He was on the board of the Urban League Housing Foundation (now Family Housing Advisory Services), the Omaha Planning Board and the Omaha Housing Authority. Even before New Horizons he was involved in a housing development around 27th and Hamilton that the North Freeway took out. He was just concerned with people bettering themselves. He just did it, he didn’t talk about it.”

Pittman struck a personal blow for equal housing by buying a home at 97th and Dodge. In order to avoid potential obstacles or opposition he had a proxy buy it for him and then hand over the deed, explains his daughter, who grew up there. She says hers was the only black family there and fortunately they met no resistance.

Dr. A.B. Pittman

 

 

The Johnsons were friends with the Pittmans through the northeast Omaha Episcopal church they both attended, St. Philip’s.

“Probably George and A.B. and Zinnon had been talking about this and it just seemed it was available at the right time and we were in the right position to make that decision and build there. We were looking at getting settled before any more time went by,” says Johnson.

The Johnsons moved into their newly built split-level home in the spring of 1969. Their late daughter, Joslen Johnson Shaw, was 9 at the time and their son Marty 4.

She says finally getting into the house they’d so long sought brought a mix of feelings, including relief.

“We were just real anxious to get settled in what we knew was going to be our permanent home.”

Another black family there with the same surname, though no relation, felt the same sense of accomplishment.

“I remember the day we moved in there my father standing in front of the house and being so proud,” says Glenda Johnson Moore, whose parents Walter and Bernice Johnson had weathered the same frustrations George and Juanita did in seeking a new home. “Who would have ever thought my father would have moved in that neighborhood? That was unheard of. It was great. I mean, it was a big thing.”

It was enough of a newsworthy event that the Omaha World-Herald did a story.

For the most part, New Horizons lived up to its promise, with a nearly 50-50 split of blacks and whites at the start. A Hispanic family also became early residents there.

“It worked out fine,” says Juanita Johnson, who adds that the neighborhood association and occasional neighborhood picnics enjoyed nearly even black and white participation. Her best friends there were black and white. She suspects most if not all the whites who moved into New Horizons were not looking to make any kind of social statement about diversity.

“I think they were people that really didn’t care, they were just looking for housing.”

That was true of Corinne Murphy and her late husband William, who built their home in 1970 directly north of George and Juanita’s. Though the Murphys knew about the open integration policy it didn’t factor one way or the other in their decision. “We were just looking for a place where they were building houses and this happened to be one of the places they were building them,” says Corrine. “I just liked the neighborhood. It had a nice park. There weren’t too many people yet.”

She says the idea of living in a racially mixed neighborhood “didn’t bother us” and that, if anything, she admired her new black neighbors, most of whom were professionals. “They were a lot smarter and better off than I was. They all had good paying jobs and were well educated. I got along with them all.”

She says her five kids became fast friends with the black kids in the neighborhood.

“Marty Johnson and my son Rory were very good friends. There was a time when they were walking home from school and kids were picking on Marty and my Rory just got right in the middle of that argument with those kids and made sure he got home OK. Yeah, they were best friends, they really liked each other. They still do.”

Marty says neither the white kids he befriended there nor their parents ever betrayed any hint of racism.

“I was always up at their houses playing and their parents were always very friendly and welcoming to me, and they’d always come down and play at our house.”

Whatever sport was in season, he says, neighborhood kids would join in playing it, older kids, young kids, black kids, white kids.

“Looking back on it now somebody driving by having no idea what this neighborhood was about would probably be really surprised to see all these kids of different colors playing together. It was probably very unique. I look back at it and I think, ‘Oh wow,’ it was probably pretty groundbreaking.”

Marty Johnson, wife Laura and their children (circa 2005)

 

 

Lee Valley, an adjacent neighborhood built around the same time as New Horizons, stood in sharp contrast because it lacked any diversity. The Horizons kids would occasionally challenge the Valley kids to a game of football or baseball and the marked difference in their makeup was hard to ignore.

“We were this totally mixed group of kids playing these white kids,” Marty says.

The area school Marty and Joslen attended, Edison, was all white until the Johnson siblings and some of their fellow black Horizons neighbors attended there. Marty says he never ran into racism in the neighborhood but did at school.

Glenda Johnson Moore also had a hard time adjusting to otherwise all white schools but her Horizons experience wasn’t all peaches and cream.

“The people that lived across the street from us were extremely racist,” she says. “We were called names. It got better eventually but you felt it, you absolutely you felt it. It was uncomfortable for a long time.”

Overall, she’s grateful to have grown up there.

“I’m glad I had the diversity. It’s made me a stronger person, it’s made me who I am today. I can communicate to anybody. It was a good place, it was a good thing.”

Juanita Johnson says she wanted her kids to have the enrichment that comes from diverse experiences because her “progressive” parents wanted the same for her. Her father Saybert Hanger was one of the area’s first black attorneys and a federal meat inspector. Her mother Ione Hanger was an elementary school teacher in the Omaha Public Schools and later taught at Creighton University. Johnson says her parents wanted full opportunities for all kids “and I was fortunate enough that they pushed and encouraged me to break barriers.”

At Omaha Central High, circa 1945, Juanita was the only black student on the year book and school newspaper staffs. She received her master’s from Creighton University at a time when few blacks attended there. At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s  International House she resided with students from around the world and she attended interracial camps that attracted students from the four corners.

Similarly, her husband cultivated black and white friends growing up in Marshalltown, Iowa and he integrated Wayne State (Neb.) College.

It’s not coincidental both Marty and Joslen involved themselves in activities, including her showing horses, that meant interacting mainly with whites. Joslen integrated Brownell-Talbot School. Many of their friends were white. Each ended up with a white life partner.

Marty says, “I think my well-rounded life is because my parents were always exposing me to different things. They really were pioneers in a lot of different things. This was the pattern of their life –  breaking barriers. If there was a barrier they certainly eliminated it. They were groundbreaking and cool and somewhat courageous, too.”

His mother says all of it was meant to foster a time when “I didn’t want my children to have to look at the things they were doing as being barrier breakers. If they wanted to try out for something they could just go ahead and try and either be good enough to be accepted that every other child was accepted or refused because they weren’t good enough, but not because of their color.”

Juanita and George were also intentional about keeping their family’s ties to Omaha’s traditional African American community alive. For example, they continued attending their home parish, St. Philips, whose congregation was entirely black. Marty took music lessons from an instructor in northeast Omaha. Joslen was active in Jack and Jill, a social club designed to reconnect young blacks dispersed when their families moved from the Near Northside.

Marty says he appreciates “all that my parents exposed us to and always giving us opportunities. I feel very fortunate they made the choices they made. It’s pretty amazing to me how forward thinking they were.”

Juanita Johnson still lives in New Horizons and her next door neighbor is still Corinne Murphy. The neighborhood is not nearly as diverse as it once was and the homes show their age, but it’s held its own. Many old-line black residents have moved or died off and few new blacks have moved in. Johnson attributes the paucity of blacks there to the fact they have so many more options today. That was the whole point of New Horizons anyway – freedom to live where you want.

Now the metro’s replete with diverse neighborhoods just like New Horizons used to be and may be again.

Free Radical Ernie Chambers the Subject of New Biography by Author Tekla Agbala Ali Johnson

December 5, 2012 3 comments

 

 

 

Ernie Chambers.  His name variously polarizes, raises blood pressure, inspires, confounds, sparks discussion and debate, and generally elicits some kind of response .  If you’re a Nebraskan, past or present, than you not only know the name but the context for why the mere mention makes it virtually impossible to take a neurtral stand about this vociferous, independent, lone wolf figure who is an open book in some ways and an enigma in other ways.  His name’s traveled widely outside Nebraska as well.  He first gained local and national noteriety back in the 1960s for his stirring presence in the documentary A Time for Burning.  He parlayed the stage that gave him and his grassroots work as activist, advocate, guardian, and spokesperson for Omaha’s African-American community to win election to the Nebraska Legislature.  He served as that body’s only black representative for 38 years, finally leaving office because of term limits, but he’s just returned to his old District 11 seat after defeating incumbant Brenda Council in the Nov. 6 general election.  When he was in office before he took many controversial and brave stands and he never, ever backed down from a fight, often employing his sharp wit and procedural mastery to humble opponents and win concessions.  He’s back alright, armed with much the same rhetoric he’s used since the  height of the black power and civil rights movements, which begs the question:  What does the 75-year-old social justice warhorse have to offer his district in an era when many of his constituents need more education, relevant job skills, living wage jobs, and transportation solutions and want economic development in North Omaha that includes them, not excludes them?  Is he in touch with younger generation and professional blacks who perhaps see things differently than he does and want specific, tangible progress now?  This story doesn’t address those things but a future story I write just might.  Instead, the following piece for an upcoming issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com) looks at a new political biography about Chambers by Tekla Agbala Ali Johnson, who offers some insights and opinions about the man she’s long admired.  The book is aptly titled, Free Radical: Ermest Chambers, Black Power and the Politics of Race.

 

 

Ernie Chambers, ©photo courtesy the Nebraska Legislature

 

 

Free Radical Ernie Chambers the Subject of New Biography by Author Tekla Agbala Ali Johnson 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally apepared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

It’s fitting a new book taking the measure of Nebraska politico legend Ernie Chambers is out just as this old social justice warhorse has proven he still owns the people’s will.

In the Nov. 6 general election the 75-year-old Chambers demonstrated the pull he still maintains by decisively beating incumbent Brenda Council to regain his old state legislative seat. Public disclosure of Council’s misuse of campaign funds to support a gambling addiction undoubtedly hurt her. But she would likely have found Chambers a formidable opponent anyway.

Amid the struggle for racial equality in the 1960s, Chambers emerged as a black activist straight out of central casting. The longtime state senator was everything the white establishment feared or loathed: a young, brash, angry black man with an imposing physique, a rare eloquence, a brilliant mind, a devoted following and a dogged commitment. His goatee and muscle shirt effectively said, Fuck off.

When he saw a wrong he felt needed remedy he would not give in or remain silent, even in the face of surveillance, threat and arrest.

The Omaha native was forged from centuries of oppression and the black nationalist militancy of his times yet remained fiercely independent. He paid allegiance only to his grassroots, working poor base in northeast Omaha, whose District 11 residents elected him to nine terms in office. He stayed real cutting hair and holding court at Goodwin’s Spencer Street Barbershop for many years. He was forced out of office in 2009 only because of term limits, a petition effort widely seen as targeting him specifically.

At a Nov. 3 Community Day rally in North Omaha Chambers said:

“I don’t come to these kind of gatherings regularly. It’s not easy for me, even though I enjoy being around my brothers and sisters. But I’m a solitary person. Basically, I am a loner, and experience has created that persona for me because I’m in situations where bad things can happen and if I’m relying on somebody else and they don’t come through – I know what I would do but I don’t know what somebody else would do. I can’t depend on anybody else.

“So if I see an issue that needs to be addressed it’s for me to address it. I don’t go to committees, I don’t go to organizations, I don’t ask anybody for anything, and it’s not that I’m ungrateful or unappreciative. I just have to survive and my survival depends ultimately on me. So that’s why I do what I do.”

Author Tekla Agbala Ali Johnson well captures his enigmatic essence in the main title of her political biography, Free Radical, as he’s been a singularly reactive yet stable force these many decades. The subtitle, Ernest Chambers, Black Power and the Politics of Race, refers to the context of his public service role.

Chambers was not the first black leader in Nebraska. Nor was he the first to hold public office. But he was the first to command wide respect and wield real power. During a 38-year run in the legislature that made him the longest-serving state senator in Unicameral history he mastered the art of statecraft. Trained as an attorney and possessing a facile mind even his critics admired, he adeptly manipulated legislative rules and procedures. Though he represented a small, poor constituency and uttered divisive rhetoric, fellow senators needed his support if they wanted their bills advanced. He couldn’t be ignored.

The arc of his political career is a major focus of Johnson, who at one point was in charge of his personal papers.

“She had access to information that other people didn’t have access to,” he says of his biographer.

Overall, he’s pleased with the final product and its depiction of his career.

“I don’t have any objection to what she did.”

In terms of fairly and accurately capturing his work as an elected official, he says it’s right on “as far as it went,” adding, “Many articles have been written that go into more depth on some things than Tekla wrote about in her book.” He says he understands “there are things someone will emphasize that I wouldn’t and there are things I would emphasize that they wouldn’t. But that’s the way it goes. No two people see a complex issue the same way. Even people called historians are really interpreters. They can’t write everything about everything, so they select what they think is important in order to convey the message they have in mind.”

He says he had little input into the manuscript.

“There may have been something when she got through that she sent and I dealt primarily with grammar and inconsequential things. I didn’t try to change the thrust of it or tell her what to write.”

Johnson confirms the same, saying she only sought his opinion on certain matters and even then they sometimes disagreed. In order to maintain her scholarly freedom she says she only began writing the book after she left his employ and then had little contact with him during the writing process.

In the end, he’s flattered his political life has been documented.

“I appreciate the fact that somebody thought enough of the work that I’ve done to compile material between two covers of a book and make that available to whomever may choose to read it.”

He says he’s doing interviews in support of the book “mainly because of Tekla, the amount of time and effort she put into the work, and I don’t want to say or do anything that would diminish in any respect what she has done or the value that I place on it.”

Perhaps the most telling vantage point of Chambers she gained came when she worked as his legislative aide.

“I actually got to see the day to day process,” she says of the experience.

 

 

Tekla Agbala Ali Johnson, ©wschronicle.com

 

 

The book began as Johnson’s history thesis at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She served as a consultant to the Great Plains Black History Museum in Omaha and helped catalog its collection. Today, she’s an assistant professor of history at Salem College (N.C.). Her Texas Tech University Press published book is available wherever books are sold.

Johnson says when she hit upon the idea of making Chambers her thesis study a professor told her, “That’d be great, except he won’t let you. He won’t let anybody that close to him.” She found a way in, however. “I decided to go to his office. I didn’t actually ask him. I talked to his legislative aide, Cynthia Grandberry, and said, ‘Look, I want to write my dissertation on Sen. Chambers,’ and she said, ‘Sure, if you help me clean up the office.'”

This was 2001.

“He produced such enormous volumes of materials that despite an excellent filing system he literally had overrun the file cabinets many years before. I actually spent the first two years of the project processing his papers,” says Johnson.

The project was a labor of love about a figure she idolized as a girl.

“I grew up knowing about Sen. Chambers. I’m from North Omaha and he was always sort of somewhere there in the background. As a young woman I would occasionally see him speaking at an event, especially if there was something dire that had happened in the community.”

Immersing herself in his vast collection she says she acquired a new appreciation for his advocacy and for how her own coming-of-age intersected with his work.

“One of the things I first noticed in working on the collection is that almost a third, but a full fourth for sure, of his papers are about police violence and killings, police harassment, complaints from citizens in North Omaha. It took up a large section of one of the four rooms his papers are housed in. It was enormous.

“I also found I traced back to myself. I came across police incidents that happened when I was young that I remembered Sen. Chambers speaking out against. One of those was when I was 10 years old and living in Lincoln (Neb.). On our corner Sherdell Lewis was shot (and killed). We knew him. My sister and I were his papergirls. He was shot on his doorway by Lincoln police. Shortly after the shooting the black community came to my mother’s house because they needed a place nearby (to mourn and vent).”

Johnson says many questioned whether the shooting was justified.

“I had totally forgotten about that. There’s a picture in the book of Sen. Chambers leading a protest march along with the victim’s mother.”

Similarly, she says Chambers was a vocal critic of the shooting of Vivian Strong that sparked urban unrest in Omaha in 1969 and of other cases where excessive force was used.

She says any understanding of him must start with “the deep dedication of North Omahans to Sen. Chambers because even at his own expense he would not back down when he felt like the community was endangered or when he felt there was no respect for the lives and the civil rights and human rights of people in the community.” She says coming from a bi-racial home (her father’s African American and her mother’s Caucasian) she “sort of got to peek” at how blacks and whites viewed Chambers from different lenses. She also got to know how he understood that his rails against police brutality played differently to different audiences.

“He knew it was hard to believe for whites who lived in west Omaha or small towns. because those things were so far out of their experiences.”

 

 

 

 

She admires how he never let go of what he deemed important. His response to allegations of extreme police misconduct is illustrative, she says.

“In most cases when there was a police killing in the community he would request an investigation by the city. If that wasn’t done, if it was deemed a no-fault killing, if nobody were to be held accountable, then he went to other authorities. There are several (incidents) documented in the book where he filed for federal investigations into killings with the Department of Justice.”

She says one of his lasting achievements was sponsoring and winning passage of legislation requiring a grand jury be convened and an investigation be done anytime someone dies in police custody or in jail.

“I remember him having said, “We’re tired of our people being killed.’ So this is definitely an important part of the book to me. What he says happened in North Omaha I know it happened. It was real.”

Bad things continue happening. He grieves for the gun violence plaguing his community today, much of it black on black. In too many cases innocent folks are caught in the crossfire.

“I can’t tell you all what it does to me when I see something horrible happen to a young person, to anybody,  but the helpless ones, the trusting ones, the ones who are trying for something better from us…they need help and we’re not there to offer it,” he said at the Nov. 3 rally.

In a public setting like the Community Day rally, the preacher’s son comes out in Chambers. the presumed agnostic, whose elocution has the melodic flair of the late jazz musician-radio host-lecturer Preston Love Sr. He holds an audience through his impassioned delivery and sheer magnetic presence. He sprinkles in metaphors and allegories from the Bible. It’s in settings like these the affinity between Chambers and the people becomes clear.

“He’s really in step with them. While Sen. Chambers didn’t form a group or join a group his ongoing dialogue with the community is the reason he maintained their trust and respect and why he actually was a liberating figure,” Johnson says. “To do that he insisted on passage of legislation that legislators could get collect calls, so he was able to get calls from all of his constituency. He also kept his job at the barbershop for years, in the summers and on the weekend, so people would have a place to come and talk with him personally.”

 

 

Ernie cutting heads and broadening minds in A Time for Burnng

Ernie acting as watchdog and martyr for his people

 

 

Chambers himself says that even when he lost his legislative seat he was still the person District 11 residents turned to for help, not black elected officials. That doesn’t surprise Johnson, who says he long ago earned people’s trust.

“He wasn’t the first person to take the role of leader in the community. Charlie Washington was a point person before him community members would go to.

But Sen. Chambers, because of his unusual ability intellectually, rhetorically, in terms of statecraft and the law and just his down to earth nature, earned an enormous following.”

Another of his greatest achievements, say Johnson and others, was getting district elections for the Omaha City Council, the Omaha School Board and the Douglas County Board of Commissioners. It’s resulted in many black elected officials for North Omaha. His open disdain for many of those representatives, whom he considers stooges for the white power structure, has distanced him from portions of the black elite class. Chambers being Chambers, he doesn’t much care.

“I think what has happened is they have been absorbed by the Democratic party and he chose to remain independent and I think that is probably the biggest divide,” says Johnson. “He was and is utterly completely free.”

Johnson believes he arrived at a point where he realized that as the lone black representative in the legislature representing a poor black constituency, the most he could do was to be their voice.

“All the legislators have to list their occupation and for a number of years he listed barber, but I think when he changed his written vocation to ‘Defender of the Downtrodden,’ it actually marked a change and a decision on his part that sort of is fatalistic. He decided that because of the politics and power lobbying that go on within the formal political parties and because of his own independence and insistence on speaking for the most disenfranchised, the poorest, and insisting government should haven in place support for their needs, he got to the point when he thought he would not be able to change the way that government in Neb. functions with respect to low income people.

“I think it was also the point when he was refused chairmanship again and again of the judiciary committee.”

In terms of legacy, she says, “he was at once respected but feared and unpopular among some of the senators. He would stop their bills if he didn’t get some of what he wanted and what he wanted was legislation or concessions that protected his people, that didn’t allow, for example, the Omaha Housing Authority to go into closed session and make decisions without public input. He did all kinds of things like that. He fought tooth and nail legislation to reduce allocations to people on aid to families with dependent children. He really fought those battles.”

“He’d get so frustrated, saying, ‘Y’all don’t know what it takes to make it on $320.’ Yes, it was rhetoric but it was heartfelt. He’s seen people struggling and he felt it was within the power of the state legislature to provide some relief. He felt at times they didn’t do it because of petty politics, because of western Neb. versus eastern Neb., because of racism, because of just indifference, and that made him angry.”

 

 

Ernie holding court at the barbershop today, ©danielj-v.tumblr.com

 

 

She says even though he often stood alone, he knew how to play politics.

“He never compromised his principles but he is a politician. He would come in on the weekends during the summer when session was out – this is what I gained from being able to actually observe – because he wanted to read up on all the other bills. He read up on what the interests of the other senators were. He knew their backgrounds, he knew everything about them. It’s not just the rules he employed, he played politics in terms of, ‘Look, if you want something from me, if you don’t want me to stop your bill or to filibuster, then you’re going to have to provide some concessions to things my constituents need.'”

Johnson says, “I don’t think he could have been more effective by doing it any other way. They dubbed him Dean of the Legislature because he was maximum effective for that base. I think the only way he could have been more effective is if those other senators had read as much about him and learned as much about the community he served and actually taken an interest, and I’m not saying a few didn’t, in how do we raise the standard for everybody in the state. If they had taken that position and cooperated with him more then he could have been more effective.”

Chambers operated much like his black peers in other states.

“African-American legislators across the country tended to be fairly effective just like Sen. Chambers in stopping legislation and not as effective at passing legislation. The ones who tend to be the most effective in working for the community tended to be on the out with the majority because they were battling all the time and they were always having to stand firm.”

Johnson wishes Chambers prepared the way for a successor.

“I do have a critique of him and it’s something I’ve openly talked to him about. He didn’t groom anybody (to replace him). It’s something I wish would have happened.”

As far as legacy, she feels his efforts in making Neb. the first state to pass any resolution for divestment of state funds from South Africa in protest of its apartheid practices “may be the thing he’s remembered for.”

Though serving 38 years in the legislature involved “self-sacrifice” on his part, she says it clearly hurt him when he could not run in 2008.

“I think he was not just disappointed because he had to leave for four years but the subtext for his career, besides trying to end police violence and confronting racism, was to gain political power for his constituency relative to other legislative districts in the state. His having to leave office made him feel that what he’d worked for had gone backwards because he felt the will of the people was being overridden by term limits. His constituency couldn’t elect him if they wanted to.”

She notes he ran unopposed several times and that he kept running because “I don’t think he saw anybody else as talented as he was who could really do the job as well as he did. That and the fact people let him know they wanted him to run again.” Now that he’s returning to the legislature she’s fascinated by how he and his new colleagues will work together.

“The body has changed because of term limits. The expertise that was there is no longer there. It hasn’t necessarily served Neb. well to have a constantly revolving, often times very young body at the helm. Who knows, maybe they’ll be more open to working with him. Maybe they’ll be less entrenched.”

An obvious advantage he’ll have, she says, is his vast experience.

Remarking on what people can expect from him, Chambers says, “For better or worse people have to see what it is that I am. They have to know what they’re getting if they come this way, and if they don’t like what it is I’m not the least offended. I probably wouldn’t like somebody like me. I would respect somebody like me. But likability is not an anything I cultivate because it doesn’t mean anything, it doesn’t achieve anything.”

He simply promises to be the same person he’s always been, which is to say someone “who never yields, never wavers, never accepts handouts from anybody, and whose only loyalty to a group is to this community.”

Color Me Black, Artist Francoise Duresse Explores Racial Implications

June 17, 2012 1 comment

The best art is provocative in that it engages you to think outside your comfort zone and to consider new truths.  That’s certainly the case with the work of Francoise Duresse, who makes you think about race and personal identity in semi-autobiographical series that explore the implications of skin color for herself as a dark-toned black woman in a world of lighter shades.  I wrote this story a few years ago when an exhibition of her work ran at the Loves Jazz & Arts Center in Omaha.

 

 

photo
Paper bag test case study #4 and #1, ©Francoise Duresse

 

 

Color Me Black, Artist Francoise Duresse Explores Racial Implications

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

As any person of color will tell you, the politics of race brands racial minorities with stereotypes that serve to isolate, diminish and exclude them.

In America perceptions of what it means to be black or to be a particular shade of black, for instance, carry the baggage of history and popular culture. Distortions abound. Media portrayals reinforce certain stereotypes.

Artist and University of Colorado art instructor Francoise Duresse, a native Haitian who’s lived and worked all over the world, has navigated societies that use skin color as a basis for stratifying, classifying people in caste systems. Her experience of “differentness” and her search for “personal identity” as a stranger in strange lands is something she often explores in her art. She looks at how “colorism” has and still does act as a litmus test for inclusion-exclusion, acceptance-denial.

That’s the case with her mixed media works on view now through July 24 at Loves Jazz & Arts Center. “Feeling separate” amid a majority population that doesn’t look like you is a powerful vantage point for any artist. Selections on display from two Duresse series, Queen Nappy, the Place from which I Come and The Paper Bag Test, examine the issue of black identity and image within the context of society, media, peers, heritage and ethnicity.

As her work illustrates, what’s bound up in one’s blackness is a complex question. Implicit in her pieces is an acknowledgement that certain assumptions made about blacks and certain attributes ascribed to them are not just race specific but hue specific. Her proposition is that Eurocentric, whiteness models make light skin more acceptable than dark skin across the racial spectrum.

These perceptions cut both ways, affecting not only how others see blacks but how blacks see themselves. Anecdotally, it’s well-known light-skinned people of color traditionally fare better than their dark-skinned counterparts when it comes to jobs, promotions, grades, appointments, memberships, invitations, customer service, et cetera. Duresse takes into account the burden of such realities.

Her Paper Bag Test refers to a once prevalent and still “hush-hush” practice of allowing or denying entry to public places based on skin color. Persons lighter than a grocer’s brown paper bag, she notes, “pass,” while darker hued individuals “fail.”  Her point is vestiges of this color coding extend to all kinds of situations or settings and remain fixed in people’s minds. It informs societal, cultural, institutional racism.

 

 

I’m Your Worst Nightmare, ©Francoise Duresse

 

 

An image of herself as a child and another as an adult literally adorn a string of paper bags, the portraits colored from lily white to jet black and all the gradations in between. Each time her face darkens it grows less distinct, a reference to how people of color are perceived and can become invisible before our eyes. The final adult portrait is abstracted beyond human recognition, into what appears a heavy garment — perhaps a comment on the weight of perception one‘s subjected to.

Several Duresse works use motifs to comment on the minimalization, fragmentation and objectification that attend moving through life as a person of color. For example, she variously underlays and overlays a silhouette of her adult self or a painted image of her “audacious surrogate,” Queen Nappy, with minstrel, blaxploitation images culled from advertisements. In a series of these paintings her alter ego is ever more distorted and diminished by these intruding forces of myth and propaganda, until finally her portrait is utterly obscured. It’s a powerful rumination on the danger of losing one’s sense of self amid all the misinformation.

In other pieces she repeats a Polaroid of herself as a little girl, the skin tone varying from nearly white to pitch black, with every variation in between. These images are juxtaposed with a large foreground portrait of sober womanhood. The contrast of youth’s innocence and idealism with the hard bitten lessons of adult life offers an indictment of the colorized socialization process.

Some works echo each other. One presents a sea of diverse yet distinctly African-American faces. Another pictures the same faces, only now commingled, perhaps diffused through enculturation. In another, a collage of these faces surround and underlay the portrait of an adult female — a comment perhaps on how a woman of color is an assemblage of many fragments, strains, features, hues. A stunning work entitled Blue Eyes pictures the artist as a fully bloomed woman — her face comprised of different hued images of herself as a girl, an evocation of how she embodies a lifetime of perceptions, influences, experiences.

Omaha’s Malcolm X Memorial Foundation Comes into its Own, As the Nonprofit Eyes Grand Plans it Weighs How Much Support Exists to Realize Them


African-Americans from the town where I live, Omaha, Neb., are often amused when they travel outside the state, especially to the coasts, and people they first meet discover where they are from and invariably express surprise that black people live in this Great Plains state.  Yes, black people do live here, thank you very much.  They have for as long as Nebraska’s been a state and Omaha’s been a city, and their presence extends back even before that, to when Nebraska was a territory and Omaha a settlement.  Much more, some famous black Americans hail from here, including musicians Wynonie Harris, Buddy Miles, Preston Love Sr. and Laura Love, Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson, Hall of Fame running back Gale Sayers, Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Rodgers, the NFL’s first black quarterback Marlin Briscoe, actress Gabrielle Union, actor John Beasley, producer Monty Ross, Radio One-TV One magnate Cathy Hughes, and, wrap your mind around this one, Malcolm X. That’s right, one of the most controversial figures of the 20th century is from this placid, arch conservative and, yes, overwhelmingly white Midwestern city.  He was a small child when his family moved away but the circumstances that propelled them to leave here inform the story of his experience with intolerance and bigotry and help explain his eventual path to enlightenment and civic engagement in the fight to resist inequality and injustice.  Though the man who was born Malcolm Little and remade himself as Malcolm X had little to do with his birthplace after leaving here and going on to become a national and international presence because of his writings, speeches, and philosophies, some in Omaha have naturally made an effort to claim him as our own and to perpetuate his legacy and teachings.  Much of that commemorative and educational effort is centered in the work of the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation based at the North Omaha birthsite of the slain civil rights activist.  The following story, soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com), gives an overview of the Foundation and recent progress it’s made.  Rowena Moore of Omaha had a dream to honor Malcolm X and she led the way acquiring and securing the birthsite and ensuring it was granted historic status.  After her death a number of elders maintained what she established.  Under Sharif Liwaru’s dynamic leadership the last eight years or so the organization has made serious strides in plugging MXMF into the mainstream and despite much more work to be done and money to be raised my guess is that it will someday realize its grand plans, and perhaps sooner than we think.

 

 

photo
Malcolm X Center

 

 

Omaha’s Malcolm X Memorial Foundation Comes into its Own,  As the Nonprofit Eyes Grand Plans it Weighs How Much Support Exists to Realize Them

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Self-determination by any means necessary.

The notorious sentiment is by Malcolm X, whose incongruous beginnings were in this conservative, white-bread city. Not where you’d expect a revolutionary to originate. Then again, his narrative would be incomplete if he didn’t come from oppression.

Born Malcolm Little, his family escaped persecution here when he was a child. His incendiary intellect and enlightenment were forged on a transformative path from hustler to Muslim to militant to husband, father and humanist black power leader.

As it does annually, the Omaha-based Malcolm X Memorial Foundation commemorates his birthday May 17-19. Thursday features a special Verbal Gumbo spoken word open mic at 7 p.m. hosted by Felicia Webster and Michelle Troxclair at the House of Loom.

Things then move to the Malcolm X Center and birthsite. Friday presents by the acclaimed spoken word artist and author Basheer Jones, plus The Wordsmiths, at 7 p.m.

On Saturday the African Renaissance Festival unfolds noon to 5 p.m. with drummers, native attire, storytelling, face painting and Malcolm X reflections. Artifacts from the recently discovered Malcolm “Shorty” Jarvis collection of Malcolm X materials will be displayed. The late musician was a friend and criminal partner of Malcolm Little’s before the latter’s incarceration and conversion to Islam.

It’s a full weekend but hardly the kind of community-wide celebration, much less holiday, devoted to Martin Luther King Jr.

“I tell people, you may still not like Malcolm X, you may have a problem with a revolutionary. Martin was a revolutionary and maybe you came to love him. But I do want you to know brother Malcolm’s whole story and where he came from,” says MXMF president Sharif Liwaru.

“A big portion of what we do is about the legacy of Malcolm X. We go into communities, schools and other speaking environments and we educate people about Malcolm X, what he meant, what his impact was on society. Sometimes people walk away with a different level of respect for him. Sometimes they walk away having a better understanding.”

Sharif Liwaru

 

 

Using the tenets of Malcolm X, the foundation promotes civic engagement as a means foster social justice.

Nearly a half-century since Malcolm X’s 1965 assassination, he remains controversial. The Nebraska State Historical Society Commission has denied adding him to the Nebraska Hall of Fame despite petition campaigns nominating him. Few schools have curricula about the slain civil rights activist.

From its 1971 start MXMF has struggled overcoming the rhetoric around its namesake. The late activist Rowena Moore founded the grassroots nonprofit as a labor of love. She secured the North O lot where the razed Little home stood and where she once lived. Fueled by her dream to build a cultural-community center, MXMF acquired property around the birthplace. The site totals some 11 acres.

 

 

By the time she passed in 1998 the piecemeal effort had little to show save for a state historical marker. Later, a parking lot, walkway and plaza were added. Other than clearing the land of overgrowth and debris, the property was long on promise and short on fruition, awaiting funds to catch up with vision.

Without a building of its own, MXMF events were held alfresco on-site from spring through fall and at rotating venues in the winter. “We felt a little homeless,” says Liwaru. “We were very creative and did a whole lot without a building but we didn’t have a place to showcase and share that.” All those years of making do and staying the course have begun paying off. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in public-private grant monies have been awarded MXMF since 2009. Other support’s come from the Douglas County Visitors Improvement Fund, the Iowa West Foundation, the Sherwood Foundation, the Nebraska Arts Council and the Nebraska Humanities Council.

Malcolm X historical marker at the birthsite

 

 

Most notably a $200,000 North Omaha Historical grant allowed MXMF to acquire its first permanent indoor facility, an adjacent former Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall at 3463 Evans Street, in 2010. Now renamed the Malcolm X Center, it hosts everything from lectures, films, plays, community forums, receptions and fundraisers to a weekly Zumba class to a twice monthly social-cultural-history class. Annual Juneteenth and Kwanzaa celebrations occur there.

MXMF conducts some longstanding programs, including Camp Akili, a residential summer leadership program for youth ages 14-19, and Harambee African Cultural Organization, an outreach initiative for citizens returning to society from prison.

The center is a community gathering spot and bridge to the wider community. Liwaru says it gives the birth site a “public face” and “front door” it lacked before, thus attracting more visitors. Besides hosting MXMF activities the center’s also used by outside groups. For example, Bannister’s Leadership Academy classes and Sudanese cultural events are held there.

“We’re very proud to be a community resource. It legitimizes us as an organization to have that space available. It makes a difference with the confidence of the volunteers involved.””

 

 

A recent site development that’s proved popular is the Shabazz Community Garden, where a summer garden youth program operates.

The surge of support is not by accident. The birthsite’s pegged as an anchor-magnet in North Omaha Revitalization Village plans and Liwaru says, “We definitely see ourselves as a viable part of it.” North Omaha Development Project director Ed Cochran, Douglas County Commissioner Chris Rodgers and Omaha City Councilman Ben Gray have helped steer resources its way.

Attitudes about Malcolm X have softened to the point even the prestigious Omaha Community Foundation awarded a $20,000 capacity building grant. Despite working on the margins, Liwaru says “investors could see our mission and work ethic and they supported that.”

Since obtaining its own facility, Liwaru says, “I find more people speaking as if our long-range plans are possible.” Those plans call for an amphitheater and a combined conference-cultural center.

For most of its life MXMF’s subsisted on small donations. When the building grant stipulated $50,000 in matching funds, says Liwaru, “”it was really the culmination of a lot of little gifts that made it happen.”

The all-volunteer organization depends on contributions of time, talent and treasure from rank-and-file supporters.

“We believe a little bit of money from a lot of people is beneficial,” says Liwaru. “Sometimes that meant we were probably working harder than the next organization that may be able to go to one or two people to get their funds, but it certainly makes us accountable to more people. We’re ultimately responsible to our community because we have so many community members contribute.

“Our organization belongs to the community. The people get the say.”

In tangible, brick-and-mortar terms, the foundation hasn’t come far in 40 years, but all things considered Liwaru’s pleased where it’s at.

“We’ve made a lot of progress. One of the things that makes me confident we’ve turned this corner is there’s still this strong commitment, there’s still passionate people involved.”

Aerial view of the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation birthsite grounds

 

 

Veteran board members and community elders Marshall Taylor and Charles Parks Jr., among others, have carried the torch for decades. “They bring experience and wisdom,” says Liwaru. He adds, “We’ve added strong young people to our board like Kevin Lytle (aka Self Expression), and Lizabet Arellano, who bring a lot of new ideas and a passion for carrying out change in this urban environment.”

However, if MXMF is to become a major attraction a giant leap forward is necessary and Liwaru’s unsure if the support’s there right now.

“Everybody wants sustainability in terms of stable funding and revenue. We put out a lot of funding proposals at the end of last year. Few were approved. We got a lot of nos. Most funders don’t say why. We don’t know if it’s because they’re not wanting to be affiliated with Malcolm X or if it’s not understanding what we do as an organization or if they don’t think we can see projects through to the end.”

He can’t imagine it’s the latter, saying, “Anybody who knows us knows we’re persistent and that what we talk we follow through with.”

His gut tells him the organization still encounters patriarchal, political barriers.

“We always feel we have to come in proving ourselves. I always come in and explain we’re not a terrorist organization or a splinter cell. Most of what we get is a lot of encouragement but it’s a pat on the back and ‘I hope that you guys do really well with that’ versus, ‘I can help.’ I think one of the challenging things is we’re not sure what people think of us. There are many who aren’t sure which Malcolm we’re celebrating.

“If an organization is just completely not interested in covering anything related to Malcolm X it’d be nice to know. So the question from me to philanthropists out there is, ‘What do you think about the Malcolm X foundation and what we do? Do you see it as a worthy cause? What are we missing?”

Malcolm X

 

 

Answers are important as MXMF is S100,000 away from finishing its planning phase and millions away from realizing the site’s full build-out. It could all take years. None of this seems to discourage MXMF stalwarts.

“We are willing to sacrifice and work diligently for however long it takes,” says Lizabet Arellano. Fellow young blood board member Kevin Lytle takes hope from the momentum he sees,/ “There’s more and more people at events and rallies and different things we do. People are finally starting to recognize and take pride in the fact Malcolm X was born here,” he says. “We have to start somewhere, and that’s a start. People know that we’re here and that we’re representing something beneficial to the community.”

Liwaru sees a future when major donors ouside Nebraska help the MXMF site grow into a regional, national, even international mecca for anyone interested in Malcolm X.

Besides a House of Loom cover charge, the weekend MXMF events are free. For details, visit http://www.malcolmxfoundation.org or the foundation’s Facebook page.


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