Posts Tagged ‘Race’

Rev. Everett Reynolds Gave Voice to the Voiceless

July 18, 2011 6 comments

Another Omaha elder leader has passed.  The Rev. Everett Reynolds spent the better part of his life fighting the good fight against injustice. The following in memoriam piece I wrote appeared in The Reader (

Rev. Everett Reynolds leading a march, ©Lincoln Journal-Star photo



Rev. Everett Reynolds Gave Voice to the Voiceless

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (

Rev. Everett Reynolds was not from Nebraska but he’s remembered as someone who made a significant mark here.

The St. Louis, Mo. native passed earlier this week in Omaha at age 83.

As a United Methodist minister and community leader he led congregations, worked with parolees, headed the local chapter of the NAACP, founded Cox Cable television channel CTI-22 and advocated for civil rights.

His work followed that of his father and grandfather, who were preachers. But for a long time Reynolds resisted The Call.

As a youth, he moved with his family to Lincoln, Neb., where his father pastored a church. After his father took over at Clair Memorial United Methodist Church in Omaha, Reynolds attended Technical High School.

But school and church were far from his mind. He heeded another calling, music, to become a professional musician in touring dance bands. He sang ballads and blues and played bass violin. He sat in with such legends as Count Basie and Lionel Hampton. He also played for top Omaha Midwest touring bands led by Lloyd Hunter and Earl Graves.

It was a heady time, but as the years went by he got caught up in the night life. Women. Booze. His alcoholism made him a liability. Once, after a week-long bender, he woke up in Houston, unable to remember what happened. Exiled from the band, this Prodigal Son finally returned home.

In a 2004 interview he said after failing to kick his drinking habit, he asked for divine help, and this time he stayed dry. In 1950, he rejoined the church and married. He and his wife Shirley celebrated their 61st wedding anniversary last year. His fall from grace and his subsequent recovery and rebirth, he said, gave his ministry “a message” for anyone straying from The Word. “For I have been there.”









He made his ministry an extension of his work as a Nebraska parole officer. In his duals roles he said he often shared with youth his own experiences.

Reynolds, who held a theology degree and a doctorate, eventually took over his father’s pulpit at Clair Methodist. A consistent theme he delivered as a preacher is that “we’re all created equal in the sight of God. One blood are we.” Black or white, he said, shouldn’t matter. “When we reduce our faith to race, we’ve reduced our faith. Each time we make an advance, it’s for all people, not one.”

“My father was against any kind of inequitable treatment of people, of any people,” says Trip Reynolds, one of the late pastor’s three sons. “That’s his hallmark. Some people talk it — my dad was frequently acknowledged for practicing what he preached.”

Rev. Reynolds went on to pastor Lefler United Methodist Church. During his tenure, he assumed leadership of the Omaha NAACP. It was a tough time for the organization, locally and nationally, with declining memberships and a flagging mission.

As a NAACP spokesman he made his voice heard on hot button incidents like alleged police brutality. He raised awareness. He advocated dialogue. He organized protests. He called press conferences. The cable channel he founded, which originated as Religious Telecast Inc. before changing names to Community Telecast Inc., was created as a forum for minority voices to be heard. Trip Reynolds ran the channel with his father and today is general manager.

The late minister is remembered as the conscience of a community.

“He was very strong and intense in what he believed in,” says Metropolitan Community College liaison Tommie Wilson.”Powerful, intelligent. He knew civil rights backwards and forwards, and he stepped out there and he did it — fighting for justice for everybody. He was a fine man and quite a leader.”

“He took on some really difficult and sometime controversial cases, and he did that knowing what the consequences were and being unafraid to address those consequences,” says Omaha City Councilman Ben Gray. “He also helped create alternative programming and an opportunity for different voices.”

Along the way, Reynolds made clear the NAACP’s watchdog mission is still relevant. “Our struggle continues. People are still hurting because of inequities in such areas as education, employment, voting and the criminal justice system,” he once told a reporter.

When Reynolds stepped down as Omaha NAACP president in 2004, he recommended Tommie Wilson succeed him.

“I feel Dr Reynolds is responsible for me appreciating my history and me wanting to follow those big shoes he wore,” says Wilson. “When he asked me to take over it intensified in me my desire to do all I could to do to make a difference.”

Clair United Methodist Church, 5544 Ames Ave., is hosting a Friday wake service from 6 to 8 p.m., and a Saturday funeral service at noon.

‘Walking Behind to Freedom,’ A Musical Theater Examination of Race

June 21, 2011 36 comments

I don’t see a huge amount of live theater, but I attend more than enough shows to give me a good feel for what’s out there.  My hometown of Omaha has a strong theater scene and one of the more dynamic works I’ve seen here in recent years came and went without the attention I felt it deserved. It was called Walking Behind to Freedom, and it deal head-on with many persistent aspects of racism that tend to be trivialized or distorted. The fact that a fairly serious piece of theater dared to tackle the issue of race in a city that has long been divided along racial lines took courage and vision. Playwright Max Sparber, a former colleague and editor of mine at The Reader ( based the play, which unfolds in a series of vignettes, on interviews he did with folks from all races around the community. He asked people to share experiences they’ve had with racism and how these encounters affected them. A local musical group called Nu Beginning wrote songs and music that expressed yet more layers of insight and emotion behind the dramatized experiences. A diverse group of cast and crew collaborated on a rousing, moving, thought-provoking night of musical theater.  I had a personal investment in the show, too, in that my partner in life played a couple different speaking parts.  She was quite good.  My story about the show appeared in The Reader.



Nu Beginning



‘Walking Behind to Freedom,’ A Musical Theater Examination of Race

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (

The subject of race is like the elephant in the room. Everybody notices it, yet nobody breathes a word. The longer the silence, the more damage is done. Seen in another light, race is the label comprising the assumptions and perceptions others project on us, soley based on the shade of our skin or sound of our name. Seeing beyond labels sparks dialogue. Stopping there erects barriers to communication.

Race is as uncomfortable to discuss as sex. Yet, attitudes about race, like sex, permeate life. It’s right there, in your face, every day. You’re reminded of it whenever someone different from you enters your space or you’re the odd one out in a crowd or issues of profiling, preferences and quotas hit close to home.

It often seems Omaha’s predominantly white population wishes the topic would go away in a weary — Oh, didn’t-we-solve-racism-already? tone — or else makes limp liberal gestures toward more inclusion. Then there’s the majority reaction that pretends it’s not a problem. Take the Keystone neighborhood residents now opposing the Omaha Housing Authority’s planned Crown Creek public housing development. Opponents never mention race per se, but it’s implicit in their expressed concerns over property values being adversely affected by public housing whose occupants will include blacks. Nothing like rolling out the old welcome wagon for people trying to get ahead.

On the other side of the fence, militant minority views claim that race impacts everything, as well it might, but such sweeping indictments alienate people and chill discussion. How much an issue race is depends on who you are. If you have power, it’s not on your radar, unless it’s expedient to be. If you’re poor, it’s a factor you must account for because someone’s sure to make you aware of it.

If you doubt Omaha is beset by wide rifts along racial lines, you only need look at: its pronounced geographic segregation; its mainly white police presence in largely Latino south Omaha and African-American north Omaha; its rarely more than symbolic multicultural diversity at public-private gatherings; its few minority corporate heads and even fewer minority elected public officials. Then there’s the insidious every day racism that, intentionally or not, insults, demeans, excludes.

It’s in this climate that, last fall, Omaha Together One Community (OTOC) said: We need to talk. A faith-based community organizing group focusing on social justice issues, OTOC commissioned an original musical play, Walking Behind to Freedom, as a benefit forum for addressing the often ignored racial divide in Omaha and the need for more unity. It’s the second year in a row OTOC’s staged a play to frame issues and raise funds. In 2003, it presented a production of Working, the Broadway play based on the book of the same name by Studs Terkel.

With a book by Omaha playwright Max Sparber and music by the local quartet Nu Beginning, Walking Behind to Freedom premieres May 7 and 8 at First United Methodist Church. Performances run 7:30 p.m. each night at the church, 69th and Cass Street. Free-will donations of $10-plus are suggested. Proceeds go to underwrite OTOC operational expenses.

The play’s title is lifted from a famous quote by the late entertainer and Civil Rights activist, Hazel Scott, who posited, “Who ever walked behind anyone to freedom? If we can’t go hand in hand, I don’t want to go.” The show coincides with the 40th anniversary of Congress passing landmark Civil Rights legislation in 1964.

Max Sparber



As a foundation for the play, OTOC did what it does best: organize “house meetings” where citizens shared their anecdotes and perspectives on racial division. Sparber and Nu Beginning attended the meetings, held at OTOC-member churches city-wide, and the ensuing conversations informed the non-narrative play, which is structured as a series of thematic monologues, dialogues and songs.

“I built my script based on some of these interviews, along with some broader themes,” said Sparber, whose Minstrel Show dealt with an actual lynching in early Omaha. “We got some great stories out of it. The people who came to the meetings were very interested in the subject and I certainly got some stories that were invaluable. More than anything, we wanted this play to be specific to Omaha, and therefore we wanted its origins to be within Omahans’ own experiences.”

Surfacing prominently in those sessions was the theme of division and how by going unspoken it only deepens the divide. “This is a town that’s very separated geographically. The majority of blacks live in north Omaha. The majority of Latinos live in south Omaha. The majority of whites live in west Omaha. And, as a result, there’s not a lot of crossover,” Sparber said. “It’s really sad how closed up Omaha is,” said the play’s director, Don Nguyen, lately of the Shelterbelt Theater.

“Along with that, race is quickly becoming an undiscussed element in Omaha,” added Sparber. “I think a lot of whites believe we live in a post-racism world and, therefore, it’s not a subject that needs to be addressed. Whereas, black people experience this as not being a post-racism world at all and are kind of startled by this other viewpoint. So, there’s this disconnection based on understanding.”



Hazel Scott



Two lines in the play comment on this dichotomy: “I think a lot of white people feel that racism ended in the Sixties, with Martin Luther King. The only thing about racism that ended in the Sixties WAS Martin Luther King.

Any impression all the work is done alarms Betty Tipler, an OTOC leader. “A lot of us are in our comfortable spaces. We go inside our houses with our two garages and we think things are okay. Things are not okay. The issue of race has not been cured and, if we’re not careful, things will go backward,” she said. Despite the illusion all’s well, she added, the play reminds us people of color still contend with bias/discrimination in jobs, housing, policing. “We may as well face it.”

According to OTOC leader Margaret Gilmore, the process the play sprang from is at the core of how the organization works. “We’re about bringing different people in conversation with each other to talk about what’s in their hearts and minds,” she said. “It’s a process of learning to talk to each other and listen to each other and then seeing what we have in common to work together for change.” She said the meetings that laid the play’s groundwork crystallized the racial gulf that exists and the need to discuss it. “We don’t talk about this stuff enough. We don’t talk about it on a personal level and how it affects us, which is what I think this play gets to. When we ask the right questions and we’re willing to listen, then the experiences that people tell in their own words are dramatic and provocative.”

“It’s very important we listen to real people’s stories. The only way you can come up with the truth is to go to the people. We haven’t watered down or changed their stories, but literally portrayed them,” said OTOC’s Tipler, administrator at Mount Nebo Missionary Baptist Church, which hosted some of the house meetings.

Indeed, the vignettes carry the ring of reportorial truth to them. Most compelling are the monologues, which unfold in a rap-like stream-of-consciousness that is one part slam-poet-soliloquy and one part from-the-street-rant. Some stories resemble the bared soul testimony of people bearing witness, yet without ever droning on into didactic, pedantic sermons, lectures or diatribes. The language sounds like the real conversations you have inside your head or that spontaneously spring up among friends over a few drinks. Often, there’s a sense you’re listening in on the privileged, private exchanges of people from another culture as they describe what’s it like to be them, which is to say, apart from you.



Don Nguyen



For director Nguyen, the “real life testimonies” add a layer of truth that elevates the material to a “more powerful” plane. “I think it will definitely work for us that people know this is real. It’s not an overall work of fiction. This is real stuff.”

The misconceptions people have of each other are voiced throughout the work, often with satire. You’ve heard them before and perhaps been guilty yourself assigning these to people. You know, you see an Asian-American, like Nguyen, and you reflexively think he’s fluent in Vietmanese or expert in martial arts, some assumptions he’s endured himself. “Oh, yeah, my personal experiences definitely help me to relate,” he said. “Growing up in Lincoln I got in fights all the time. People making fun of me. Thinking I knew kung-fu or I only spoke Vietmanese, which is not true. But it’s not just the blatant racism. It’s the underlying stuff, too. Sometimes it’s not even intentional, but it’s just there. And it’s that gray stuff I think these pieces capture pretty well and that people need to hear more of.”

In the vignette Tricky, some women lay out the subtle nature of racism in Omaha. “…it’s like a fox. It’s tricky. It’s sly. You’ll be standing in line at a store, and the cashiers will be helping everybody except you…and you’re the only black person in line…and because it’s so sly, I think white people don’t notice it at all.

The play also looks at racism from different angles. One has a guilt-ridden realtor rationalizing the unethical practice of steering, which is another form of red lining. The other has a new generation bigot defending his right to espouse white pride in response to black heritage celebrations. The concept of reverse racism is explored in the real life case of students protesting their school’s special recognition of black achievers at the expense of other minorities. And the wider fallout of racism is examined in the confession offered by an insurance agent, who reveals rates for car-house coverage are higher for residents of largely black north Omaha, including whites, because of the district’s perceived high crime rate.

The vignettes touch on ways race factors into every day life, whether its the unwanted attention a black couple attracts while out shopping or the hassle African-American men face when driving while black, or DWB, which is all it takes to be stopped by the cops. The shopping piece uses humor to highlight the absurd fears that prompt people to act out racist views. Music is used as heightened counterpoint to the boiling frustration of the DWB victim, whose cries of injustice are accompanied by the soulful strains of doo-wop singers.

Bridging the play’s series of one-acts are songs by Nu Beginning, whose music is a melange of hip-hop, R & B, soul, pop and gospel. A little edgy and a lot inspirational, the music drives home the unity message with its uplifting melodies, which are sung by choruses comprised of diverse singers.

Some pieces are heavier or angrier than others. Some are downright funny. And some, like Mirrors, speak eloquently and wittily to the concept of how, despite our apparent differences, we are all reflections of each other. Here, Nguyen employs a diverse roster of performers to represent the mirror symbol. Perhaps the most telling piece is Function. This beautifully-rendered and thought-provoking discourse is delivered by an architect, who suggests racism has survived as both an ornament of the past, akin to a Roman column on a modern house, and as a still-functional device for those in power, as when a politician plays the race card.



First United Methodist Church



Whatever the context, there’s no dancing around the race card, which is just how Nguyen likes it, although when he first read the script he was surprised by how brazenly it took on taboo material, such as its use of the N-word.

“Typically, a script or show sugarcoats the issue of race. It’s a very cautious topic. You don’t want to offend or patronize people by saying the wrong stuff. But this piece is much different. All of its pretty much in your face,” Nguyen said. “What I mean is, it’s very direct. Max (Sparber) makes no bones what he’s writing about, which is great. It’s a big risk to take as a writer, but essentially it’s the most interesting path to take, too. And I’m all for stirring up trouble. I’m fine with that.”

OTOC’s Betty Tipler feels racial division is too important an issue to be coy about. “We’ve got to come out of the closet, so to speak, and talk about racism and differences” she said. “We tend to shy away from talking about it, but it won’t go away. We have got to come together, put it on the table, take a look at it and deal with it — no matter how much it hurts me or how much it hurts you. But before we can do that, we’ve gotta put it out there. We won’t get anywhere until we do. And I believe this play is a step toward doing that.”

Christy Woods, a singer/songwriter with Nu Beginning, said the play is about hope. “I believe if people are open to change, we can go hand-in-hand to freedom. Just because I’m this and you’re that, doesn’t mean I have to be one step behind you. Why can’t we go together? We want people to feel inspired to go out and make a change. We want to touch, but also to teach, and I believe this musical does that.”

Nguyen hopes the play attracts a mixed audience receptive to seeing race through the prism of different experiences. “That’s where I’m trying to aim the show. As we go through these vignettes, I want some people to identify with them and some people to be like, ‘Oh, I didn’t know that.’ That’s what I want to create.”

What Happens to a Dream Deferred? John Beasley Theater Revisits Lorraine Hansberry’s ‘A Raisin in the Sun’

June 14, 2011 15 comments

It’s only in the last few years I finally saw both a stage production and a television production of the classic play A Raisin in the Sun, and while I found each impressive, the thing that really turned me onto the work was reading Lorraine Hansberry’s famous work. Its intensity and truth burn on the page. After reading the play I knew I had to see a performance of it, and that motivation is what led me to write the following piece for The Reader ( When I was still in the good graces of Omaha’s Beasley Theater’s I watched part of a rehearsal there and then saw a performance of the play in its entirety. Not too far removed from that experience I caught the TV version with Phylicia Rashad, Sanaa Lathan, Audra McDonald, and Sean Combs.  The themes of Raisin resonate with me on many levels, but it is its dramatic interpretation of the Langston Hughes line, “What happens to a dream deferred?” within the context of a man and family struggling to get their small piece of the American Dream that deeply affects and disturbs me.



Ruby Dee and Sidney Poitier from the 1961 film adaptation of Hansberry’s play



What Happens to a Dream Deferred? John Beasley Theater Revisits Lorraine Hansberry‘s ‘A Raisin in the Sun‘      

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (

After its 1959 opening at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York, A Raisin in the Sun was the talk of Broadway and the play’s 28-year-old author, the late Lorraine Hansberry, was the toast of the theater world. Hansberry became the first black whose work was honored with the New York Drama Critics Circle’s best play award.

The Youngers, a poor, aspiring black Chicago tenement family, are the prism through which she looks at the experience of oppression in segregated USA. Her modern story of assimilationist pressures and deferred dreams offers a realistic slice of black life unseen till then. The politically-aware Hansberry, who studied under W.E.B. DuBois and wrote for Paul Roberson’s Freedom magazine, took the play’s title from a Langston Hughes poem that asks: “What happens to a dream deferred. Does it dry up, like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore…Or does it explode?”

Lena is the stalwart, widowed matriarch holding her family intact. Ruth, the eldest daughter, is the beleaguered wife of Walter, a bitter chauffeur striving to move up in the world. Beneatha, Ruth’s younger sister, is a collegian who rejects God and embraces Africa. Her hopeful beau, George Murchison, is the bourgeois American counterpoint to her sweet-on admirer, Joseph Asagai, a politically-minded Nigerian.

When the prospects of a fat insurance check threaten tearing the family apart, Lena acts rashly and buys a house in a restricted white neighborhood. Then, just as Walter’s dreams of owning a business are crushed, the alarmed residents offer the Youngers a buy-out. What Walter will do next is at the crux of the family crisis.

With its successful Broadway revival in 2003-04, Raisin proves its themes are still relevant today and that’s one reason why the John Beasley Theater is staging it now through October 10. While not revolutionary, Raisin reveals some hard truths.

“What we have for the first time with Hansberry in the ‘50s is a dignified, realistic portrayal of the complexities of black life,” said poet and essayist Robert Chrisman, chair of the Department of Black Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and founding editor of The Black Scholar. “With Walter, you have the young black man who wants his chance. Mama (Lena) represents the stolid, powerful, tenacious will of black people to keep on keeping on. She is the moral center of the play. These are all realistic, engaging portraitures of black people. You don’t have any stereotyped servants. I think dignity is key in Raisin because it’s finally to assert his fundamental human dignity Walter turns down the buy out.”

For Chrisman, “the single strongest theme in Raisin is the tenet that if you have your dignity, you have the potential for everything and if you do not maintain and courageously uphold your dignity and freedom as a human being, you have nothing. And I think all of that was new in the portraiture of blacks in white theater. What preceded it up to the 1950s was usually something based on the minstrel-entertainment genre — the shuffling chauffeur, the maid, the bell hop, the clown. In black theater you had legitimate efforts at portraying blacks, but I think it’s with Hansberry you get the breakthrough. She sets the stage for the subsequent work of August Wilson and Charles Fuller, who deal with issues of generations, dreams and career aspirations and frustrations. In a way, she did for modern black drama the same thing that Richard Wright did for the modern black novel.”



Lorraine Hansberry



Directing the Beasley production is UNO dramatics arts professor Doug Paterson, who said the play “became the springboard for black theater” in the latter half of the 20th century. “Black theater exploded in all kinds of directions,” he said. He added that the militant dramatists who followed Hansberry, such as Amiri Baraka, were critical of her “drawing room kind of drama” when they “felt what was necessary was to be bold…different…experimental.” However, Chrisman reminds, “Baraka was writing at the cusp of the ‘60s and the movement of this more militant vision forward. I think what Hansberry is saying is that whether Walter goes down as a freedom rider or starts a riot is immaterial. Asserting his dignity is what matters.”

Although it stops short of radical redresses to racism and inequality, her work is full of red hot anger and indignation. Paterson said, “She revealed so much. She anticipated sort of everything that happened in civil rights, black power and integration.” He said the original production was also influential in terms of the contributions to American theater and film that its cast and crew have made. Among the lead actors, Sydney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Claudia McNeil, Ivan Dixon and Louis Gossett are household names. Douglas Turner Ward is a co-founder of the Negro Ensemble Theater. Lonne Elder III is a major playwright. Director Lloyd Richards is perhaps Broadway’s most acclaimed dramatic interpreter. “It’s an extraordinary play for what it did historically. That’s why we study it,” said Paterson, who’s taught it for years. “I always wanted to give it a shot” directorially.

Chrisman well recalls the impact of the 1961 film version, whose adaptation Hansberry wrote. “There was a tremendous surge of pride and dignity in audiences,” especially black audiences, at the time. The concerns of Raisin, he said, still reverberate today. “I think in some ways it’s still very contemporary because you still have the same kind of interest in the African experience that Beneatha had in young folks today. And you still have, perhaps even more desperately, the need of the young black man to start a business of his own.”

The play ends with the Youngers deciding to move where they’ll clearly be unwelcome, but it doesn’t show the struggle of blacks living in a white enclave organized to oust them. As Chrisman said, “There should be a sequel to it, because it ends on the affirmative note…You could have another play that shows the ostracism, harassment, graffiti, coldness and so on that have been reported by first-generation integrating blacks.” And that’s ironic, as the playwright’s own family underwent that very trial by fire when she was a young girl. Her educated parents were social activists in Chicago and when their move into a white section met with resistance, they fought the injustice all the way to the Supreme Court.

For her next play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, Hansberry disappointed some by telling a Jewish story. She died of cancer, at age 34, the day that play closed on Broadway. Other works were posthumously adapted into books and plays by her former husband, Robert Nemiroff, a writer and composer. In 1973, Nemiroff and Charlotte Zaltzberg adapted her first play into the Tony-winning musical Raisin.

Back in the Day, Native Omaha Days is Reunion, Homecoming, Heritage Celebration and Party All in One

June 11, 2011 71 comments

Even though I grew up in North Omaha and lived there until age 43 or so,  I didn’t experience my first Native Omaha Days until I had moved out of the area, and by then I was 45, and the only reason I did intersect with The Days then, and subsequently have since, is because I was reporting on it.  The fact that I didn’t connect with it before is not unusual because it is essentially though by no means exclusively an African American celebration, and as you can see by my picture I am a white guy. Then there’s the fact it is a highly social affair and I am anything but social, that is unless prevailed upon to be by circumstance or assignment. But I was aware of the event, admittedly vaguely so most of my life, and I eventually did press my editors at The Reader ( to let me cover it. And so over the past eight years I have filed several stories related to Native Omaha Days, most of which you can now find on this blog in the run up to this year’s festival, which is July 27-August 1. The story below is my most extensive in terms of trying to capture the spirit and the tradition of The Days, which encompasses many activities and brings back thousands of native Omahans – nobody’s really sure how many – for a week or more of catching up family, friends, old haunts.

NOTE: The parade that is a highlight of The Days was traditionally held on North 24th Street but has more recently been moved to North 30th Street, where the parade pictures below were taken by Cyclops-OpticJack David Hubbell.

My blog also features many other stories related to Omaha’s African American community, past and present. Check out the stories, as I’m sure you’ll find several things that interest you, just as I have in pursuing these stories the last 12 years or so.


Vera Johnson,a Native Omahans Club founder, (Photo by Robyn Wisch)




Back in the Day, Native Omaha Days is Reunion, Homecoming, Heritage Celebration and Party All in One

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (

A homecoming. That’s what Native Omaha Days, a warm, rousing, week-long black heritage reunion, means to the thousands of native sons and daughters coming back in town for this biennial summer celebration. Although the spree, which unfolded July 30 through August 4 this year, features an official itinerary of activities, including a gospel night, a drill team competition, a parade, a dance and a picnic, a far larger slate of underground doings goes on between the many family and class reunions, live concerts and parties that fill out the Days. Some revelers arrive before the merriment begins, others join the fun in progress and a few stay over well after it’s done. A revival and carnival in one, the Days is a refreshing, relaxing antidote to mainstream Omaha’s uptight ways.

North Omaha bars, clubs and restaurants bustle with the influx of out-of-towners mixing with family and old friends. North 24th Street is a river of traffic as people drive the drag to see old sites and relive old times. Neighborhoods jump to the beat of hip-hop, R&B and soul resounding from house parties and family gatherings under way. Even staid Joslyn Art Museum and its stodgy Jazz on the Green take on a new earthy, urban vibe from the added black presence. As one member of the sponsoring Native Omahans Club said of the festival, “this is our Mardi Gras.”

Shirley Stapleton-Odems is typical of those making the pilgrimage. Born and raised in Omaha — a graduate of Howard Kennedy Elementary School and Technical High School — Stapleton-Odems is a small business owner in Milwaukee who wouldn’t miss the Days for anything. “Every two years I come back…and it’s hard sometimes for me to do, but no matter what I make it happen,” she said. “I have friends who come from all over the country to this, and I see some people I haven’t seen in years. We all meet here. We’re so happy to see each other. It’s a reunion thing. It’s like no matter how long you’re gone, this is still home to us.”

As Omaha jazz-blues guru Preston Love, a former Basie sideman and Motown band leader and the author of the acclaimed book A Thousand Honey Creeks Later, observed, “Omahans are clannish” by nature. “There’s a certain kindredness. Once you’re Omaha, you’re Omaha.” Or, as David Deal, whose Skeets Ribs & Chicken has been a fixture on 24th Street since 1952, puts it, “People that moved away, they’re not out-of-towners, they’re still Omahans — they just live someplace else.” Deal sees many benefits from the summer migration. “It’s an opportunity for people to come back to see who’s still here and who’s passed on. It’s an economic boost to businesses in North Omaha.”

Homecoming returnees like Stapleton-Odems feel as if they are taking part in something unique. She said, “I don’t know of any place in the country where they have something like this where so many people over so many generations come together.” Ironically, the fest’ was inspired by long-standing Los Angeles and Chicago galas where transplanted black Nebraskans celebrate their roots. Locals who’ve attended the L.A. gig say it doesn’t compare with Omaha’s, which goes to the hilt in welcoming back natives.





Perhaps the most symbolic event of the week is the mammoth Saturday parade that courses down historic North 24th Street. It is an impressionistic scene of commerce and culture straight out of a Spike Lee film. On a hot August day, thousands of spectators line either side of the street, everyone insinuating their bodies into whatever patch of shade they can find. Hand-held fans provide the only breeze.

Vendors, selling everything from paintings to CDs to jewelry to hot foods and cold beverages to fresh fruits and vegetables, pitch their products under tents staked out in parking lots and grassy knolls. Grills and smokers work overtime, wafting the hickory-scented aroma of barbecue through the air. Interspersed at regular intervals between the caravan of decorated floats festooned with signs hawking various local car dealerships, beauty shops, fraternal associations and family trees are the funky drill teams, whose dancers shake their booties and grind their hips to the precise, rhythmic snaring of whirling dervish drummers. Paraders variously hand-out or toss everything from beads to suckers to grab-bags full of goodies.

A miked DJ “narrates” the action from an abandoned gas station, at one point mimicking the staccato sound of the drilling. A man bedecked in Civil War-era Union garb marches with a giant placard held overhead emblazoned with freedom slogans, barking into a bullhorn his diatribe against war mongers. A woman hands out spiritual messages.






Long the crux of the black community, 24th Street or “Deuce Four” as denizens know it, is where spectators not only take in the parade as it passes familiar landmarks but where they greet familiar figures with How ya’ all doin’? embraces and engage in free-flowing reminiscences about days gone by. Everywhere, a reunion of some sort unfolds around you. Love is in the air.

The parade had a celebrity this time — Omaha native actress Gabrielle Union (Deliver Us From Eva). Looking fabulous in a cap, blouse and shorts, she sat atop the back seat of a convertible sedan sponsored by her father’s family, the Abrams, whose reunion concided with the fest’. “This is just all about the people of north Omaha showing pride for the community and reaching out to each other and committing to a sense of togetherness,” said Union, also a member of the Bryant-Fisher family, which has a large stake in and presence at the Days. “It’s basically like a renewal. Each generation comes down and everyone sits around and talks. It’s like a passing of oral history, which is…a staple of our community and our culture. It’s kind of cool being part of it.”

She said being back in the hood evokes many memories. “It’s funny because I see the same faces I used to hang out with here, so a lot of mischievous memories are coming back. It’s like, Do you remember the time? So, a lot of good times. A lot of times we probably shouldn’t of been having as young kids. But basically it’s just a lot of good memories and a lot of lessons learned right here on 24th.”

The three-mile parade is aptly launched at 24th and Burdette. There, Charles Hall’s now closed Fair Deal Cafe, once called “the black city hall,” provided a forum for community leaders to debate pressing issues and to map-out social action plans. Back in the day, Hall was known to give away food during the parade, which ends at Kountze Park, long a popular gathering spot in north Omaha. Across the street is Skeets, one of many soul food eateries in the area. Just down the road a piece is the Omaha Star, where legendary publisher Mildred Brown held court from the offices of her crusading black newspaper. Across the street is the Jewell Building, where James Jewell’s Dreamland Ballroom hosted black music greats from Armstrong to Basie to Ellington to Holiday, and a little further north, at 24th and Lake, is where hep cat juke joints like the M & M Lounge and McGill’s Blue Room made hay, hosting red hot jam sessions.




Recalling when, as one brother put it, “it was real,” is part and parcel of the Days. It’s all about “remembering how 24th and Lake was…the hot spot for the black community,” said Native Omahans Club member Ann Ventry. “We had everything out here,” added NOC member Vera Johnson, who along with Bettie McDonald is credited with forming the club and originating the festival. “We had cleaners, barber shops, beauty parlors, bakeries, grocery stores, ice cream stores, restaurants, theaters, clothing stores, taxi companies, doctors’ offices. You name it, we had it. We really didn’t have to go out of the neighborhood for anything,” Johnson said. Many businesses were black-owned, too. North O was, as lifelong resident Charles Carter describes it, “it’s own entity. That was the lifestyle.”

For James Wightman, a 1973 North High and 1978 UNL grad, the homecoming is more than a chance to rejoin old friends, it’s a matter of paying homage to a legacy. “Another reason we come back and go down 24th Street is to honor where we grew up. I grew up at the Omaha Boys Club and I played ball at the Bryant Center. There was so much to do down on the north side and your parents let you walk there. Kids can’t do that anymore.” Noting its rich history of jazz and athletics, Wightman alluded to some of the notables produced by north Omaha, including major league baseball Hall of Famer Bob Gibson, Heisman winner Johnny Rodgers, jazzman Preston Love, social activist Malcolm X, actor John Beasley and Radio One founder and CEO Catherine Liggins Hughes.

For Helen McMillan Caraway, an Omaha native living in Los Angeles, sauntering down 24th Street brings back memories of the music lessons she took from Florentine Kingston, whose apartment was above a bakery on the strip. “After my music lesson I’d go downstairs and get a brownie or something,” she said. “I had to steer clear of the other side of the street, where there was a bar called McGill’s that my father, Dr. Aaron McMillan, told me, ‘Don’t go near.’” Being in Omaha again makes the Central High graduate think of “the good times we used to have at Carter Lake and all the football games. I loved that. I had a good time growing up here.”

For native Omahan Terry Goodwin Miller, now residing in Dallas, being back on 24th Street or “out on the stem,” as natives refer to it, means remembering where she and her best girlfriend from Omaha, Jonice Houston Isom, also of Dallas, got their first hair cut. It was at the old Tuxedo Barbershop, whose nattily attired proprietors, Marcus “Mac” McGee and James Bailey, ran a tight ship in the street level shop they ran in the Jewell Building, right next to a pool hall and directly below the Dreamland. Being in Omaha means stopping at favorite haunts, like Time Out Foods, Joe Tess Place and Bronco’s or having a last drink at the now closed Backstreet Lounge. It means, Goodwin Miller said, “renewing friendships…and talking about our lives and seeing family.” It means dressing to the nines and flashing bling-bling at the big dance and, when it’s over, feeling like “we don’t want to go home and grabbing something to eat and coming back to 24th Street to sit around and wait for people to come by that we know.”






Goodwin Miller said the allure of renewing Omaha relationships is so strong that despite the fact she and Houston Isom live in Dallas now, “we don’t see each other there, but when we come here we’re together the whole time.”

Skeets’ David Deal knows the territory well. From his restaurant, which serves till 2 a.m., he sees native Omahans drawn, at all hours, to their old stomping grounds. He’s no different. “We’re just coming down here to have a good time and seeing people we haven’t seen in years.” Sometimes, it’s as simple as “sitting around and watching the cars go by, just like we used to back in the good old days.”

North Omaha. More than a geographic sector, it is the traditional, cultural heart of the local black community encompassing the social-historical reality of the African-American experience. Despite four decades of federally-mandated civil rights, equal opportunity, fair housing and affirmative action measures the black community here is still a largely separate, unequal minority in both economic and political terms and suffers a lingering perception problem — born out of racism — that unfairly paints the entire near northside as a crime and poverty-ridden ghetto. Pockets of despair do exist, but in fact north Omaha is a mostly stable area undergoing regentrification. There is the 24-square block Miami Heights housing-commercial development going up between 30th and 36th Streets and Miami and Lake Streets, near the new Salem Baptist Church. There is the now under construction North Omaha Love’s Jazz, Cultural Arts and Humanities Complex, named for Preston Love, on the northwest corner of 24th and Lake. The same sense of community infusing Native Omaha Days seems to be driving this latest surge of progress, which finds black professionals like attorney Brenda Council moving back to their roots.

Former NU football player James Wightman (1975-1978) has been coming back for the Days the past eight years, first from Seattle and now L.A., and he said, “I’m pretty pleased with what’s going on now in terms of the development. When I lived here there was a stampede of everybody getting out of Omaha because there weren’t as many opportunities. I look at Omaha’s growth and I see we’re a rich, thriving community now.” During the Days he stays, as many do, with family and hooks up with ex-jocks like Dennis Forrest (Central High) and Bobby Bass (Omaha Benson) to just kick it around. “We’re spread out in different locations now but we all come back and it’s like we never missed a beat.” The idea of a black pride week generating goodwill and dollars in the black community appeals to Wightman, who said, “I came to spend my money on the north side. And I’ll be back in two years.”

Wightman feels the Days can serve as a beacon of hope to today’s disenfranchised inner city youth. “I think it sends a message to the youth that there are good things happening. That people still come back because they feel a sense of family, friendship and connection that a lot of young people don’t have today. All my friends are in town for their school-family reunions and we all love each other. There’s none of this rival Bloods-Crips stuff. We talk about making a difference. It’s not just about a party, it’s a statement that we can all get along with each other.”






“It just shows there’s a lot of good around here,” said Omaha City Councilman Frank Brown, who represents largely black District 2, “but unfortunately it’s not told by the news media.” Scanning the jam-packed parade route, a beaming Brown said, “This is a four-hour event and there’s thousands of people of all ages here and they’re smiling and enjoying themselves and there’s no problems. When you walk around you see people hugging each other. There’s tears in some of their eyes because they haven’t seen their friends, who’ve become their family.”

Family is a recurring theme of the Days. “My family all lives here.” said John Welchen, a 1973 Tech High grad now living in Inglewood, Calif. For him, the event also “means family” in the larger sense. “To me, all of the friends I grew up with and everyone I’ve become acquainted with over the years is my extended family. It’s getting a chance to just see some great friends from the past and hear a lot of old stories and enjoy a lot of laughter.”

Native Omahans living in the rush-rush-rush of impersonal big cities look forward to getting back to the slower pace and gentler ways of the Midwest. “From the time I get off the plane here I notice a difference,” said Houston Odems, who flies into Omaha from Dallas. “People are polite…kind. To me, you just can’t beat it. I tell people all the time it’s a wonderful place to have grown-up. I mean, I still know the people who sold me my first car and the people who dry-cleaned my clothes.”

Although the Days traces its start back to 1977, when the Native Omahans Club threw the first event, celebrations commemorating the ties that bind black Omahans go back well before then. As a young girl in the ‘50s, Stapleton-Odems was a majorette in an Elks drill team that strutted their stuff during 24th Street parades. “It’s a gathering that’s been gong on since I can remember,” she said.

Old-timers say the first few Native Omaha Days featured more of a 24/7, open-air, street-party atmosphere. “We were out in the middle of the street all night long just enjoying each other,” said Billy Melton, a lifelong Omahan and self-styled authority on the north side. “There was live entertainment — bands playing — every six blocks. Guys set up tents in the parks to just get with liquor. After the dances let out people would go up and down the streets till six in the morning. Everybody dressed. Everybody looking like a star. It was a party town and we knew how to party. It was something to see. No crime…nothing. Oh, yeah…there was a time when we were like that, and I’m glad to have lived in that era.”

According to Melton, an original member of the Native Omahans Club, “some people would come a week early to start bar hopping. They didn’t wait for Native Omaha Days. If certain people didn’t come here, there was no party.”

Charles Carter is no old-timer, but he recalls the stroll down memory lane that was part of past fests. “They used to have a walk with a continuous stream of people on either side of the street. What they were doing was reenacting the old days when at nighttime 24th Street was alive. There were so many people you couldn’t find a place to walk, much less park. It was unbelievable. A lot of people are like me and hold onto the thought this is the way north Omaha was at one time and it’s unfortunate our children can’t see it because there’s so much rich history there.”

Then there was the huge bash Billy Melton and his wife Martha threw at their house. “It started early in the morning and lasted all night. It was quite a thing. Music, liquor, all kinds of food. It was a big affair,” Melton said. “I had my jukebox in the backyard and we’d have dancing on the basketball court. Endless conversations. That’s what it’s all about.”

Since the emergence of gang street violence in the mid-80s, observers like Melton and Carter say the fest is more subdued, with nighttime doings confined to formal, scheduled events like the gospel night at Salem and the dance at Mancuso Hall and the 24th Street rag relegated to the North Omahans Club or other indoor venues.

A reunion ultimately means saying goodbye, hence the close of the Days is dubbed Blue Monday. Most out-of-towners have left by then, but the few stalwarts that remain mix with die-hard residents for a final round or two at various drinking holes, toasting fat times together and getting high to make the parting less painful. After a week of carousing, out-of-town revelers wear their exhaustion like a badge of honor. “You’re supposed to be tired from all this,” Houston Isom said. “There’s no such thing as sleeping during this week. I can’t even take a nap because I’ll be worried I might be missing something.” Goodwin Miller builds in recovery time, saying, “When I go home I take a day off before I go back to work.” She and the others can’t wait to do it all over again two years from now.

The Ties that Bind, One Family’s Celebration of Native Omaha Days

June 11, 2011 41 comments

One of  my favorite events to write about is something called Native Omaha Days, which is really a bunch of events over the course of a week or two in mid to late summer, held every two years and in essence serving as a great big celebration of Omaha‘s African American culture and heritage. There’s a public parade and picnic and a whole string of concerts, dances, and other activities, but at the root of it all is the dozens, perhaps hundreds of family and school reunions and various get togethers, large and small, that happen all over the city, but most especially in the traditional heart of the black community here – North Omaha. I’ve done a number of stories over the years about the Native Omaha Days itself or riffing off it to explore different aspects of Omaha’s black community.   The story below for The Reader (www.thereader.comI is from a few years ago and focuses on one extended family’s celebration of The Days. as I like to refer to the event, via a reunion party they throw.

As the 2011 Native Omaha Days approaches (July 27-August 1) I am posting my stories about The Days over the past decade or so.  You’ll also find on this blog a great array of other stories related to African American life in Omaha, past and present. Hope you enjoy.





The Ties that Bind, One Family’s Celebration of Native Omaha Days

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (


The warm, communal homecoming known as Native Omaha Days expresses the deep ties that bind the city’s African-American community. It’s a time when natives long moved away return to roll with family and friends.

Beyond the cultural activities marking the festival, which officially concluded this week with the traditional “Blue Monday” farewells at northside watering holes, it’s an occasion when many families and high schools hold reunions. Whether visiting or residing here, it’s not unusual for someone to attend multiple public and private gatherings in the space of a week. The reunions embody the theme of reconnecting folks, separated by miles and years, that permeates The Days, whose activities began well before the prescribed Aug. 3 start and end well past the Aug. 8 close.

No singular experience can fully capture the flavor of this biennial love-in, but the Evergreen Family Reunion — a rendezvous of many families in one — comes close. Evergreen’s not the name of a people, but of the rural Alabama hamlet where families sharing a common origin/lineage, including the Nareds, Likelys, Olivers, Unions, Holts, Butlers, Turners and Ammons, can trace their roots.

For older kin reared there, Evergreen holds bitter memories as an inhospitable place for blacks. Those who got out, said Evergreen-born and Omaha-raised Richard Nared, were forced to leave. “Most of us came here because we had to,” he said. “A lot of my relatives had to leave the South in the middle of the night. I was little, but I did see some of the things we were confronted with, like the Ku Klux Klan.” The Nareds migrated north, as countless others did, to escape oppression and to find, as New York-raised Clinton Nared said, “a new freedom” and “a better life.”

Celebrating a fresh start and keeping track of an ever-expanding legacy is what compelled the family to start the reunion in the first place, said Rev. Robert Holt, who came in for the affair from California. The reunion can be traced to Moses Union and Georgia Ewing, who, in around 1928, “decided they would bring the family together so there would be no intermarriage. It started out with about 10 people and it grew. We’ve had as many as 2,000 attend. I don’t care where it is, I go.”

As Rev. Frank Likely of Gethsemane Church of God in Christ said in his invocation before the family fish fry on Friday, the reunion is, in part, a forum for discovering “family members we didn’t even know we had.” Then there’s “the chance to meet people I haven’t seen in 40 or 50 years,” said Rev. E.C. Oliver, pastor of Eden Baptist Church. “That’s what it means to me. A lot of them, I’ve wondered, ‘Were they still alive? What were they doing?’ It’s a good time for catching up and for fellowship,” said Oliver, who arrived from Evergreen without “a dime in my pocket.”

Clinton Nared‘s taken it upon himself to chart the family tree. Reunions, he said, reveal much. “Each year I come, I get more information and I meet people I never met before,” he said. “There’s so much history here.” Niece and fellow New Yorker Heather Nared said, “Every year I find out something different about the family.”

Of Richard Nared’s three daughters — Debra, Dina and Dawn — Dina’s been inspired to delve into the family’s past. “I needed to meet my people and to know our history,” she said. “I’ve been to more reunions than the rest of them. I even went to Evergreen. I thought it was beautiful. I loved the South. Before my oldest relatives died off, I got to sit and talk to them. It was fun. We had a good time.”

Over generations the family line spread, and offshoots can be found today across the U.S. and the world. But in the South, where some relatives remain, the multi-branched tree first sprouted in America. “We live all over. Now and then we come back together,” Richard Nared said. “But Evegreen’s where it all began. They used to call it Big Meeting.”



Gabrielle Union



Held variously in Detroit, Nashville, Evergreen and other locales, the reunion enjoys a run nearly rivaling that of the Bryant-Fisher clan, an old, noted area black family related by marriage to an Evergreen branch, the Unions, whose profile has increased due to the fame of one of its own, film/TV actress Gabrielle Union. A native Omahan hot off The Honeymooners remake and an Ebony cover and co-star of the upcoming ABC drama Night Stalker, she made the rounds at The Days and reunion, causing a stir wherever she went — “You seen Gabrielle? Is she here yet? We’re so proud of her.”

A display of how interconnected Omaha’s black community remains were the hundreds that greeted the star at Adams Park on Friday afternoon, when a public ceremony naming the park pond after her turned into — what else? — a reunion. Her mother, Theresa Union, said of the appreciative throng, “Most of these people, believe it or not, are her relatives, either on my side or on her father’s side. We are a very big part of North Omaha’s population.” Gabrielle’s father, Sylvester Union, said his famous daughter comes to the family galas for the same reason everyone does: “It’s a legacy we’re trying to keep going,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to communicate and share and stay in touch. To me, that’s what it’s about — bonding and rebonding.”

The actress wasn’t the only celebrity around, either. Pro football Hall of Famer Gale Sayers and Radio One founder Catherine Liggins Hughes were out and about, meeting and greeting, giving props to their hometown, family and fellow natives. This tight black community is small enough that Sayers and Hughes grew up with the Unions, the Nareds and many other families taking part. They were among a mix of current and former Omahans who gave it up for the good vibes and careers of 40 musicians inducted into the Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame at an Aug. 4 banquet. The Days is all about paying homage to Omaha’s great black heritage. As Sayers said, “People in Chicago and different places I go ask me where I’m from and when I say, ‘Omaha, Neb.,’ they look at me like I’m crazy. ‘You mean there’s blacks in Omaha?’ I explain how there’s a very rich tradition of African-Americans here, how we helped develop the city, how there’s a lot of talent that’s come out of here, and how proud of the fact I am to be from Omaha, Neb.”



Gale Sayers



This outpouring of pride and affection links not only individual families, but an entire community. “Family ties is one of the most powerful things in black history. It runs deep with us,” Richard Nared said. During The Days, everyone is a brother and a sister. “We’re all one big family,” Omahan John Butler said.

Helping host the 2005 Evergreen affair were the Nareds, whose sprawling Pee Wee’s Palace daycare at 3650 Crown Point Avenue served as the reunion registration center and fish-fry/social-mixer site. Born in Evergreen with his two brothers, William and John, Richard Nared is patriarch of a family that’s a pillar in the local black community. The Nareds were instrumental in starting the Bryant Center, once Omaha’s premier outdoor basketball facility now enjoying a revival. Richard helped form and run the Midwest Striders track club. William was a cop. John, a rec center director. Richard’s sister-in-law, Bernice Nared, is Northwest High’s principal. Daughter-in-law Sherrie Nared is Douglas County’s HIV Prevention Specialist.

The Friday fry event broke the ice with help from the jamming funk band R-Style. Some 300 souls boogied the night away. “More than we expected,” Debra Nared said. About 50 folks were still living it up on the edge of dawn. As adults conversed, danced and played cards, kids tumbled on the playground.


The family made its presence known in the Native O parade the next morning with a mini-caravan consisting of a bus and two caddies, adorned with banners flying the family colors. T-shirts proclaimed the family’s Evergreen roots. A soul-food picnic that afternoon at Fontenelle Park offered more chances for fellowship. Gabrielle and her entourage showed up to press the flesh and partake in ribs, beans, potato salad and peach cobbler. She posed for pictures with aunties, uncles, cousins. A weekend limo tour showed out-of-towners the sights. A coterie of relatives strutted their stuff at the big dance at Omaha’s Qwest Center that night. A Sunday church service and dinner at Pilgrim’s Baptist, whose founders were family members from Evergreen, brought the story full circle.

Heard repeatedly during the reunion: “Hey, cuz, how ya’ doin’?” and “You my cuz, too?” and “Is that my cuz over there?”

Annette Nared said, “There’s a lot of people here I don’t know, but by the time the night’s over, I’ll meet a whole lot of new relatives.” Looking around at all the family surrounding her, wide-eyed Dawn Nared said, “I didn’t know I had this many cousins. It’s interesting.” Omahan Sharon Turner, who married into the family, summed up the weekend by saying, it’s “lots of camaraderie. It’s a real good time to reconnect and find out what other folks are doing.”

For Richard Nared, it’s all about continuity. “Young people don’t know the family tree. They don’t know their family history unless someone old enlightens them,” he said. “Kids need to know about their history. If they don’t know their history, they’re lost anyway.”

It’s why he called out a challenge to the young bloods to keep it going. “This is a family affair,” he said. “I want the young people here to carry things on. Let’s come together. Let’s make this something special from now on.”

Writers Joy Castro and Amelia Maria de la Luz Montes Explore Being Women of Color Who Go from Poverty to Privilege

The story below is an example of broadening my horizons as a journalist and finding subjects to write about I might not ordinarily if I stayed in my comfort zone.  The more I’ve contributed content to El Perico, a dual English-Spanish language newspaper in Omaha allied with The Reader (, the more I’ve sought out stories with Latino themes. Thus, I stumbled upon a mention in the local daily about two University of Nebraska-based Latino authors and scholars published in an anthology, and before I knew it I was reading essays by Joy Castro and Amelia Maria de la Luz Montes and thoroughly enjoying their work.  I know you will, too.

Joy Castro



Writers Joy Castro and Amelia Maria de la Luz Montes Explore Being Women of Color Who Go from Poverty to Privilege

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in El Perico

Two University of Nebraska-Lincoln scholars and authors, one Mexican-American, the other Cuban-American, contributed pieces to a new anthology of essays by women, An Angle of Vision (University of Michigan Press).

The book derives its title from the essay by Joy Castro, an associate professor in the Department of English at UNL and the author of a 2005 memoir, The Truth Book (Arcade Press). Her colleague, Amelia Maria de la Luz Montes, is an associate professor of English and Ethnic Studies and director of UNL’s Institute for Ethnic Studies. Montes penned the essay “Queen for a Day.” She’s also edited a new edition of a 19th century novel written by a Mexican-American woman. The book, Who Would Have Thought It? (Penguin Classics), is a satiric look at New England through the eyes of a teenage Latina.

All the authors in Angle of Vision hail from poor, working-class backgrounds, a counterpoint to the privileged lives they lead today in academia and publishing. As Castro said, “when you see from a different angle, you notice different things.” The authors use the past and present as a prism for examining class, gender, ethnicity and identity. Each navigates realities that come with their own expectations and assumptions, making these women ever mindful of the borders they cross.

Montes and Castro are intentional about not diminishing their roots but celebrating them in the various worlds they traverse — higher education, literature and family.

Said Castro, “Getting out of poverty, through effort and luck, has never felt like permission to say, ‘Whew! Now I can kick back and enjoy myself.’ Acknowledging my background means that much of my work, whether it’s the short stories and essays I write or the working-class women’s literature I teach, focuses on bringing attention to economic injustice as well as racism and sexism.

“Latinidad is hugely important to me, and it is definitely connected with class and gender. Because of the great wave of well-to-do Cuban immigrants who came to the USA when Fidel Castro took power, many people assume all Cuban-Americans are wealthy, right-leaning, and so on. That wasn’t the case for my family, who had been in Key West since the 1800s and were working-class and lefty-liberal. In a forthcoming essay, ‘Island of Bones,’ I explore that little-known history.”

Castro embraces the many dimensions of her ethnicity.

“Mostly, my Latinidad has been a source of strength, comfort and great beauty throughout my life. It means food, music, love, literature, home. I’m proud to belong to a rich, strong, vibrant culture, and I love teaching my students about the varied accomplishments and ongoing struggles of our people.”

Being a person of color in America though means confronting some hard things. She said her father’s experience with racism and police abuse caused him to assimilate at any price. “For my brother Tony and me our father’s life is a cautionary tale about the costs of shame and of trying to erase who you are.”

By contrast, she said, “We raised our children to be proud of their heritage. My son is fluent in Spanish, which my father refused to speak at home.”

Complicating Castro’s journey has been the aftermath of the abusive childhood she endured, a facet of her past she long sought to suppress.

The past was also obscured in the Montes home. Her Mexican immigrant mother endured a bad first marriage. Amelia didn’t find out about her struggles until age 25. It took another 25 years before she felt mature enough to write about it.

“I do think the experience of coming from a working class family and being a minority we have certain pressures in society,” said Montes. “In order to be successful or in order to assimilate as my mother worked hard to do you had to not let on the oppressions infringing on your own spaces. You processed them in other ways, but outside of the house or outside your own private sphere you made sure you’re presenting a suitable facade.

“It is a survival mechanism. At the same time one must be careful because if you let it encompass you, then the facade overtakes you and you lose who you are.”



Amelia Maria de la Luz Montes



Being a lesbian on top of being a Latina presents its own challenges. Montes said in fundamentalist Christian or conservative Catholic Latino communities her sexual identity poses a problem. She’s weary of being categorized but said, “Labels are always necessary when there’s inequality. If there wasn’t inequality we wouldn’t need these labels, but we need them in order to be present and to have people understand. I always tell my students that just because I’m Latina does not mean I represent all Latinas or all Latinos, and that goes for lesbians as well.”

For Montes, with every “border fence” crossed there’s reward and price.

“There’s success, there’s achievement,” she said, “but there’s also loss because once you cross a fence that means you’re leaving something behind. There is a celebration in knowing my mother is very happy I have succeeded as a first generation Latina. I will never forget where my mother came from and who she is, even the sufferings and difficult times she journeyed through.”





Montes is now writing a memoir to reconcile her own self. “In looking back I’m processing what happened in order to better understand it and to also claim where I come from, so that I don’t hide I come from a working class background, or I don’t only speak English, but make sure I continue to practice my Spanish.”

Castro found writing her memoir liberated her from the veil of secrecy she wore.

“Having my story out there in the world helped me let go of the impulse to hide the truth of my life. I’m still pretty shy, perhaps by nature, but disclosing my story helped me let go of shame. And I was hired at UNL ‘because’ of my book, so everyone knew in advance exactly what kind of person they were getting. What a relief. It’s easier to live in the world when you can be free and open about who you are and where you come from. You can breathe. You’re not anxious. You’re not trying to perform something you’re not.”

She said the project helped her appreciate just how far she’s come.

“Laying it all out in book form, I came to respect the difficulty of what I’d had to navigate. In some ways, my journey was as challenging as moving from one country, one culture, to another. All the new customs have to be learned. Also, another great benefit was that writing it down…shaping it into a coherent narrative for readers helped me gain objectivity and distance on the material. It became simply content in a book, rather than a terrible weight I carried around inside me.”

Castro said her experience made her sensitive to what people endure.

“We never know what other people are carrying. In fact, sometimes they’re going to great lengths to conceal their burdens, to pass as normal and okay. Remembering that simple truth can help us be gentle with each other.”

Castro and Montes know the emotional weight women bear in having to be many different things to many different individuals, often at the cost of denying themselves . Each writer applies a feminist perspective to women’s roles.

“I’m glad to say things are changing, but despite many advances in women’s rights, Latinas are often pushed, even today, to put men first, to have babies, to love the church without question, to be submissive and obedient to authority,” said Castro.” “It took me a long time to crawl out from under the expectations I was raised with.”

“It seems to me in the early 20th century there was a big push, a big advancement, then we fell off the mountain in the ’40s, ’50s, 60s, then came back in the ’70s and ’80s. and right now I think we’re retreating backwards again,” said Montes. “The vast majority of people out of work and homeless are women and children. I’m heartsick about what’s going on in Calif. and other parts of the country concerning education and how more and more the doors of education are closing to working class people and to out-of-work minorities because of the hikes in tuition, et cetera.”

Montes concedes there’s “a lot of advances, too,” but added, “I’m always wanting us to keep going forward.”

Castro feels obligated to use her odyssey as a tool of enlightenment and empowerment.  “I’m lucky and grateful to be someone who has made it out of poverty, abuse and voicelessness, who has made it to a position where I have a voice. It’s an important responsibility. My own published fiction, nonfiction and poetry all concern issues of poverty. I make a point of teaching literature by poor people in the university classroom, where most of my students are middle-class.”

She’s taught free classes for the disadvantaged at public libraries and through Clemente College. For two years now she’s mentored a young Latina-Lakota girl born in poverty. “In choosing to mentor, I wanted to keep a strong, personal, meaningful connection to what it means to be young and female and poor. I wanted to be the kind of adult friend I wished for when I was a girl,” said Castro.

Both authors were delighted to be represented in Angle of Vision. “It was a surprise and a great compliment,” said Castro. “It’s such a good book with so many wonderful writers.” “The resilience and strength of these writers in navigating through difficult childhoods really comes out. It’s amazing,” said Montes. Both have high praise for editor Lorraine Lopez. The fact that a pair of UNL friends and colleagues ended up being published together makes it all the sweeter.

To find more works by them visit their web sites: and

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OLLAS, the Office of Latino and Latin American Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, A Melting Pot of Latino/Latin American Concerns

May 12, 2011 5 comments

As Nebraska‘s Hispanic population has grown significantly the past two decades there’s an academic-research-community based organization, OLLAS or Office of Latino and Latin American Studies, at the University of Nebraska at Omaha that’s taken a lead role in engaging policymakers and stakeholders in Latino issues and trends impacting the state. I’ve had a chance the past two years to get to know some of the people who make OLLAS tick and to sample some of their work, and the level of scholarship and dedication on display is quite impressive. The following story for El Perico gives a kind of primer on what OLLAS does.  Increasingly, my blog site will contain posts that repurpose articles I’ve written for El Perico, a dual English-Spanish language newspaper in Omaha and a sister publication of The Reader (  These pieces cover a wide range of subjects, issues, programs, organization, and individuals within the Latino community.  It has been my privilege to get to know better Omaha’s and greater Nebraska’s Latino population, though in truth I’ve only barely dipped my feet into those waters.  But it’s much the same enriching experience I’ve enjoyed covering Omaha’s African-American and Jewish communities.





OLLAS, the Office of Latino and Latin American Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, A Melting Pot of Latino/Latin American Concerns

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in El Perico

Despite an ivory tower setting, the Office of Latino/Latin American Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha is engaged in community from-the-grassroots-to-the-grasstops through teaching, research and service.

The far reach of OLLAS, established in 2003, is as multifaceted as Latino-Latin American cultures and the entities who traverse them.

“We work very hard to bring to the table the different voices and stakeholders that seldom come together but that must be part of the same conversations. We do that very well,” said director and UNO sociology professor Lourdes Gouveia.

“We’ve been able to construct a program around this very out-of-the-box idea” that academia doesn’t happen in isolation of community engagement and vice-versa. Instead, she said these currents occur together, feeding each other.

“The impetus for creating this center was driven by what informs everything in my life, which is intellectual interest right along with an interest in addressing issues of inequality and social justice and making a difference wherever I am. So, for me, OLLAS was a logical project we needed to undertake.”



Lourdes Gouveia



At the time of its formation Gouveia was researching immigration’s impact in Lexington, Neb. “It was clear to those of us witnessing all the changes going on we needed a space in the university that addressed those changes with kind of freshened perspectives very different from the old models of ethnic studies.”

Assistant director and UNO political science professor Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado said, “We very intentionally created something that would have a community base and not talk down to it, but try to make it a part of what we do. We wanted our work to be not only politically but socially relevant and that has been the basis for the outreach projects we’ve undertaken. OLLAS has been central to helping me live out what I do in my community.”

OLLAS produces reports on matters affecting Latino-Latin American segments in Nebraska, including the economic impact of immigrants, voter mobilization results and demographic trends. Gouevia said the office takes pains to distinguish the Guatamalan experience from the Mexican experience and so on. She said it can be daunting for Individuals and organizations to navigate the rapid social-political-cultural streams running through this diverse landscape of highly mobile populations and fluid issues. OLLAS serves as an island of calm in the storm.

“I think people take solace in the fact that when things get too muddled and when things are going too fast ,” she said, “they can turn to us, whether as an organization or as individuals, and say, What do you think of this?”

“We’re a resource for the community. When it needs perhaps more academic analysis of something, they look to OLLAS for that,” said Benjamin-Alvarado. “I think one of the other things people see us as is a real resolute voice — not that we’re going to go out and be the advocates — but when they’re involved and things get crazy, they’ll call us here and say, ‘Are we doing the right thing?’ People look to us for guidance and support as they’re trying to build a foundation.”

Helping build capacity within Latino-Latin American communities is a major thrust of OLLAS. No one at OLLAS pretends to have all the answers.

“We recognize that while we may be able to provide some reflection, we’re not the complete experts about what goes on in this community. We learn an enormous from our community work,” Gouveia said. “We engage on a very egalitarian basis with community organizations and treat them with the respect they deserve as the fonts of knowledge they bring to the realities.”



Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado



“We’re actually very intentional about not assuming we know everything and that we have to lead everything,” said Benjamin-Alvarado. “For example, we often don’t lead the community meetings, we sit in the back of the room and let others assume those roles of leadership because they have been leading. I think the fact we treat others as equal and we’re willing to listen to them has engendered genuine partnerships in the community.’

One of those strong partnerships is with the Heartland Workers Center, an Omaha nonprofit that helps immigrant laborers deal with the challenges they face. The center teaches workers their rights and responsibilities.

Benjamin-Alvarado said far from the patriarchal, missionary approach others have traditionally taken with minority communities, OLLAS looks to genuinely engage citizens and organizations in ongoing, reciprocal relationships.

“We don’t go in and bless the community and come back, Oh look how good we have done, because that would be the wrong message. That has been the model that’s been utilized in the past by a lot of academic institutions in response to these types of communities, and they resent it greatly. They’ve been burned so many times in the past. We make sure what we do is interactive and iterative, and so it’s not a one-off. It’s something we continue to go back to all the time. It’s this constant back and forth, give and take.”





He said he and Gouveia recognize “there are other people in the community with immense knowledge who can articulate the issues in a way that resonates with the community more than we as academics could ever do.”

OLLAS also reaches far beyond the local-regional sphere to broader audiences.

“Something I think people are surprised about is how globally connected we are,” said Benjamin-Alvarado. “We are one of the major nodes of a global network on migration development both as scholars and ambassadors of the university. We’re all over the planet. It’s a demonstration of just how deeply connected we are.”

Gouveia said the May 14-15 Cumbre Summit of the Great Plains, which OLLAS  organizes and hosts, “fits very well” the transnational focus of OLLAS. The event is expected to draw hundreds of participants to address, in both macro and micro terms, the theme of human mobility and the promise of development and political engagement. Presenters are slated to come from The Philipines, Ecuador, Mexico, Ireland, South Africa and India as well as from the University of Chicago and the Brookings Institution in the U.S.

A community organizations workshop will examine gender, migration and civic engagement. Representatives from social service agencies, the faith community, education, government and other sectors are expected to attend the summit, which is free and open to the public.

“We work with all these publics very carefully so that the community feels really invited as co-participants in these discussions, not simply as spectators or a passive public,” said Gouveia, who added the programs are interactive in nature.

“We put local people with the sacred cows, we mix and match, and the panels take on a life of their own,” said Benjamin-Alvarado. “An academic will be talking about something and a local will say, ‘Thats’ not the way it happens,’ and to me that’s music to my ears.”

Another example of the international scope of OLLAS is the summer service learning program that takes UNO students to Peru. Benjamin-Alvarado said the experience offers participants “an interesting perspective on urban Latin America. All of them come back completely motivated and transformed by what they learn and how they utilize their classroom lessons. These are not summer fun trips. the students work the whole time in a shantytown in Lima.”

This summer he’ll be a International Service Volunteers program faculty adviser/coordinator in either Ecuador or the Dominican Republic. He said the research and engagement he and Gouveia do abroad and at national conferences increases their knowledge and understanding, informing the analysis and teaching they do.

“Our college has said we’re a prime example of what’s now called the leadership of engagement,” said Gouveia. She added that the broad perspective they offer is why everyone from educators to elected officials to the Chamber of Commerce look to them for advice. “I’m very proud of how many people contact us. It’s a great feeling to know that we do fill a major void in this whole region to do this very unique combination of things,” she said.

Opening new spaces for learning is another mission objective of OLLAS. It has sponsored a cinemateca series at Film Streams featuring award-winning movies from Spanish-speaking countries. It’s involved in an outreach program at the Douglas Country Correctional Center, where UNO faculty provide continuing education to immigrant inmates. Gouveia and Benjamin-Alvarado said it’s about bringing compassion and humanity to powerless, voiceless people whose only crime may be being undocumented and using falsified records.

The scholars are satisfied that anyone who spends any time with OLLAS comes away with a deeper appreciation of Latino-Latin American cultures, history, issues. Benjamin-Alvarado said OLLAS grads are today teaching in classrooms, leading social service agencies, working in the public sector, attending law school. He fully expects some to hold key elected offices in the next 10 years. He and Gouevia feel that a more nuanced perspective of the Latino/Latin American experience can only benefit policymakers and citizens.

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