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Gabrielle Union: A force in front of and away from the camera

December 27, 2016 1 comment

On a per capita basis, Nebraska has been sending oodles of talent to Hollywood from the start of the industry through today. Then and now that talent has been variously expressed in front of the camera and behind the camera. While there are many name actors from the state, past and present, actresses from here who’ve made a splash in film and television are a rarer commodity. The few really big name and familiar face actresses with strong Nebraska connectiosn include Dorothy McGuire, Sandy Dennis, Inga Swenson, Marg Helgenberger, Stephanie Kurtzuba and Yolonda Ross. In terms of pure popularity and exposure though I’m not sure any of them compare with Gabrielle Union,, whose movie and TV work extends over nearly 25 years now. In addition to a very large, active body of work as an actress, she’s lately moved into producing and she’s always made a mark as a beauty pitchwoman, as an outspoken advocate, as a talk show guest and as the subject of countless glam and profile spreads in major magazines. Of course, she gets added fame and attention for being one half of a celebrity couple – her husband is NBA champion and future Hall of Famer Dwyane Wade. Like many peer actresses sharing Nebraska roots, she’s maintained close ties to her home turf. I touch on a variety of these and other things paramont in her life and career in this new Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/) piece I wrote about Gabrielle. I’ve been covering her for 15-plus years and it’s been fun to see her development.

You can link to my other Gabrielle Union stories at–
https://leoadambiga.com/?s=gabrielle+union

 

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Gabrielle Union

A force in front of and away from the camera

December 22, 2016
Photography by Contributed
Appearing in the Jan/Feb 2017 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)

Actress Gabrielle Union projects her natural intelligence and feistiness in whatever role she undertakes. The Omaha native is never at a loss for words or opinions. She decries Hollywood’s male-dominated, white-centric ways and lack of opportunities afforded to women of color. She recounts her experience as a rape survivor and preaches the need for women to speak up against violence.

It took Union a while to be regarded a serious artist. Early roles included that of a wealthy suburban teenager in 10 Things I Hate About You, followed a year later by a role as a cheerleader in Bring It On. Twenty years later she’s matured into a real force both in front of and behind the camera. She expertly balances being a fashion- and fitness-conscious celebrity, the wife of NBA superstar Dwyane Wade, and a mother, actress, producer, and activist.

It is not surprising that as her life has broadened, so has her work.

Ambitious projects such as Think Like a Man and Top Five find her giving deeper, more complex performances or satirizing her own mystique. Today, as the star of the popular and critically acclaimed BET series Being Mary Jane, she represents the modern American black woman navigating her way through personal and professional relationships. In mid-October, the actress sued for breach of contract and negligent misrepresentation, claiming the network is combining seasons four and five to lower her pay and extend her contract.

Further proof of her take-no-prisoners attitude was her role in one of the most talked about films of 2016, The Birth of a Nation.

The film dramatizes the historic Nat Turner-led slave revolt, a subject of interest for Union that goes back to her Omaha childhood.

“It was a story my mom made sure I knew about. I remember going to the library and her telling me to do research on him. It wasn’t until later I realized my mom had noted I was very passive in the face of adversity and injustice, and I wasn’t willing to speak up, not only for myself, but for anyone else. She thought I might need some additional heroes to look up to and she introduced me to the story of Nat Turner,” Union says.

The interest in Turner continued for years.

“In college I learned even more about Nat Turner and I was drawn to the sense of pushback against oppression–the idea that there are stories situated in slavery where we are not waiting for someone else to save us but that we were actively trying to save ourselves. Really the story of black resistance and black liberation, I’ve always been drawn to.”

gabrielleunion2When the script first came to her attention, she says she determined that, “I had to be a part of telling this incredibly powerful chapter of American history.”

That chapter took years to produce. The film’s producer-writer-director, Nate Parker, who also portrays Turner, had a hard time getting financing for the project.

“There’s a reason the Nat Turner story has never made it to the big screen [before now],” Union says. “There’s a lot of fear of black resistance and black liberation. We see that with what’s happening with Colin Kaepernick and the rest of the professional, college, and high school athletes who are taking a knee to combat and shed light on racism, discrimination, police brutality, inequality, oppression everywhere. We see the pushback, we see people protesting [being] labeled as unpatriotic. I feel quite the opposite. I don’t think there’s anything more American or patriotic than resistance to oppression.”

With such a struggle ongoing, Union says, “I think there’s never been a better time for The Birth of a Nation to come out.”

Union plays an unnamed character who does not speak. The part was written with dialogue but she and Parker decided the woman should be mute.

“I just felt it would be much more symbolic and realistic if we stripped her of her voice, of the ability to speak, of the ability to have power over her own body and over the bodies of her family and her community,” Union says. “That was true for black women during slavery, and it’s still true for so many women, specifically black women, who are voiceless and powerless at the hands of oppressors. Sexual violence and racial inequality have always existed for black women at that very crucial intersection.

She says it was liberating to play a background character.

“Part of that was just being much more committed to the character than when I was younger. When you’re starting out, you want to stand out in every single role. I’m not as concerned about that anymore. I have enough projects where my face is recognizable and my name is out front…I’m much more interested in being fulfilled creatively.”

The film was shot on an actual Georgia plantation that stood in for the site where the historical events took place in Virginia. The dark spirit of the plantation’s past weighed heavy on Union and company.

“Every actor of color on that set felt the pain and the horror that our ancestors felt. It’s in the soil, it’s in the air. You can’t escape it, you really can’t escape it.”

She is offended that the former plantation used in the film is rented out for weddings and parties.

“It’s unfathomable,” she says.

She considers the conversations she and Wade must have with their boys about the threats facing young black males “infuriating.”

“How do you explain that to children?”

She’s banking on Birth to trigger change.

“What we keep saying is, it’s not a movie, it’s a movement. No one I know who’s seen the film is unmoved and unchallenged to re-examine everything. So I hope people walk out of the theater energized and inspired to do better, to really identify oppression and to fight back against it.”

Visit bet.com/shows/being-mary-jane for more information.

 

Gabrielle Union having it all between her own series, new film, producing, marriage and family

December 10, 2014 2 comments

Native Nebraskans own many Hollywood-made-good stories. One of the best belongs to Gabrielle Union, who sort of fell into acting by way of modeling and hasn’t looked back since in building a significant career in television and film that shows no signs of slowing down and that in fact appears to be getting richer and deeper with time. Here’s a preview of my new story about her for The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/). It will hit newsstands and the paper’s website Dec. 10-11. The Being Mary Jane star talks about her popular BET series, the hot new Chris Rock film Top Five she has a supporting role in, an upcoming Lifetime movie she produced, the impactful documentary series Half the Sky she participated in. Now married to longtime boyfriend NBA superstar Dwyane Wade, she is loving being a step-mother in addiiton to being a doting daughter and sister. You can find on my blog my earlier stories about Gabrielle, whom I’ve been covering since the early 2000s.

 

 

Gabrielle Union having it all between her own series, new film, producing, marriage and family

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

My, how time flies. It seems only yesterday Omaha’s own Gabrielle Monique Union first caught our attention on the big screen with her scene-stealing turn as the diva rival to Kirsten Dunst in the wickedly funny high school cheerleader comedy Bring It On.

Hard to believe that was 15 years ago.

Now 42 and firmly established as a Black Hollywood star, red carpet fashion plate and natural beauty spokesperson, Union’s at a career apex few native Nebraskans ever reach in the business. In 2014 alone she starred in her own hit BET series, Being Mary Jane, co-starred in the successful film Think Like a Man Too and produced a Lifetime movie. Oh, and on a personal note she married longtime boyfriend, NBA star baller Dwyane Wade in an American royals-style wedding.

A definite presence at her hubby’s Miami Heat games, she caused a buzz when she jokingly interrupted a recent live post-game interview Fox Sports did with him. He’d returned from the injury list to score 27.

“It was OK,” she deadpanned about his performance to the bemused sideline reporter and to viewers, while styling a black fedora over her long black locks to match her basic black dress. “I mean, a hamstring pull, wow, to come back with 27 points. We’re going to talk about the free throws (he was 5 for 9) later. But he did good for an old geezer.”

Wade appeared to take the upstaging and teasing in stride.

 

 

 

 

She’s lately been propping her new film, the acclaimed Top Five from Chris Rock. which has opened to strong box-office.

“I shot that movie last summer in New York right after we did Think Like a Man Too,” she says.

Originally titled Finally Famous, its story centers on Rock’s character Andre Allen, a standup comic-turned actor who, ala Joel McCrea’s idealistic director in the Preston Sturges classic Sullivan’s Travels comes unhinged after going all serious. With Allen’s pretentious new film a dud, he feels dislocated from his true identity. The recovering addict feels pressure, too, from a reality TV crew covering him and his celeb fiance Erica, played by Union, as their planned televised wedding draws near. Then there’s his instant relationship with a reporter, Chelsea (Rosario Dawson), with whom he finds In the space of a few hours more truth than the surreal media circus his life’s become.

“It’s really the story of the upside and the downside of fame and chasing fame,” says Union, who sports blonde hair, big glasses and gaudy bling in the role. “The story follows a day in the life of Chris’ character and it just happens to be when he’s got to kind of look at some hard truths and decide how does he really want to live and why that is and he kind of gets lost in himself.

“It sounds really deep and at times I think it very much is but it’s also really, really funny.”

 

 

 

 

Tracy Morgan and Cedric the Entertainer co-star and Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandler and Whoopie Goldberg make cameos.
Despite going way back Union and Rock never worked together before the project.

“I mean, Black Hollywood is pretty small, so we all kind of run into each other and know each other and definitely Chris and I do. With him being such a huge Knicks fan I’ve run into him many times over the years (at Heat games). We have a lot of mutual friends as well,” says Union, who among basketball wives is the queen bee now that Eva Longoria and San Antonio Spurs star Tony Parker have split.

Seeing Rock at work on the set gave Union a new appreciation for him.

“Chris was not only acting but he wrote it and directed it as well, so watching him put all those hats on was amazing and very inspiring. But honestly I felt bad for the man because it’s like he never got off work. But he handled it all very, very well.”

She says the the spirit of Rock’s free-wheeling, anything-goes standup act infuses the film, which has received glowing reviews since its September Toronto International Film Festival premiere.

“I think people are going to be surprised. It’s a different kind of role for him, even though it might seem playing a standup comedian would be easy for him. But I really watched him blossom as an actor and as a director as well on the set.”

She feels he brought out in her emotional notes and layers she hadn’t accessed before on screen.

“Sometimes when the leader’s been where you’ve been as an actor they know the right things to ask, they know how to finesse a situation, they know how to get the best out of you as an actor because they’ve been an actor. That’s really what Chris was able to bring to me that was unique from other directors. He had a different perspective of each scene I found very, very helpful. He also challenged me in a way other directors haven’t.”

Just as Rock didn’t need to research the capricious nature of fame, neither did Union. They both live it. The heat of celebrity for her is more intense than ever now that she and Wade are married. Just last summer, while the couple honeymooned, nude pictures of her and other female celebs were hacked and posted online. Where she’s taken a diplomatic stance about intrusions of privacy, she’s gone on the offensive this time. She penned a Cosmopolitan essay equating the pandering and profiteering of private nude images to sex crimes and called out feminist groups for not protesting their release. “The silence has been deafening,” she recently told Meredith Vieira, adding that celebs like her are subject to “victim-shaming,” something she can’t abide having survived rape as a college student.

Much like the characters she plays, Union can be bold in speaking her mind. Mary Jane Paul is very close to her in that way. In season one  the trials and tribulations of her title character – a successful single black female struggling to balance work demands and romance issues – became the stuff of countless Tweets, chats, blog posts and Facebook shares. After a 5 million viewership pilot debut and consistently strong ratings over its 12-episode run, BET recently renewed the series. Season two premieres February 3.

“I couldn’t ask for a better reception to be honest,” Union says. “We knew we did great work but it doesn’t always translate and to have the audience respond so well and to basically blow up social media every week was awesome.”

Mary Jane’s the latest in a long line of strong, smart, confident characters played by Union, who is a women’s rights advocate.

University of Nebraska at Omaha dean and professor of communication Gail F. Baker says, “Gabrielle Union occupies a unique position among African-American women in media – one she has carved out for herself. She has ‘quietly’ established an exceptional career across myriad platforms – movies, television, advertising – while playing a smart and independent woman. Union brings a special blend of savvy and sophistication to each role. She¹s a trailblazer on many fronts.”

Those qualities are precisely the ones Union says her mother, Theresa Glass Union, instilled in her and her two sisters.

“Having three highly successful daughters is a testament to the job she did,” she says.

Union enjoys how Mary Jane’s story speaks to her own life and the lives of many women she knows. Just like her character, Union knows what it’s like dealing with family pressures and expectations, the ticking biological clock, the dating scene, romantic commitment and standing firm to do the work and to follow the path you want, not what others want. Making the show relevant means a lot to her.

“I’m proud of it,” she says. “It’s the most I’ve ever worked in my life being the star of the show and having lots of other responsibilities but I love it, and I love doing it. I love the writing, I love the direction, I love how it looks stylistically. I’m really pleased.

“For us being their (BET’s) first original dramatic series we’re all sort of learning together and it’s been a great partnership. It’s not my way or the highway, it’s very much a collaborative effort and BET’s been pretty patient in launching this as their first dramatic series. So I think we’ve all kind of handled it well.”

She’s glad to portray a character and front a series that transcend black women stereotypes, which she feels have limited opportunities for female artists of color on screen and behind the camera  She acknowledges “we’ve seen improvements,” noting the breakout success of Shonda Rhimes, producer-creator-writer of mega-hits Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice and Scandal. But, she says, “it goes in waves,” adding, “Like right now we’ve got a lot of women heading up their own shows” – herself, Kerry Washington, Viola Davis, Jada Pinkett Smith, Taraji Henson – “so it’s improving, but if any of these shows fail then next year we’ll kind of be back at the drawing board.”

Mary Jane marks a major step for Union. For starters, its powerhouse creators Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil (The Game) developed it for her. Now that she and that husband-wife producing team have a popular series together they’re likely to collaborate again. Next, the show gives Union her first successful starring platform on TV after the misfire of her previous (ABC) series Night Stalker, in which she co-starred with Stuart Townsend, and her recurring roles in the equally short-lived Life and Flash Forward.

Then there’s the fact Union clearly carries this series. Its success rides almost entirely on her performance and on the writing.

“It’s tough to turn out 12 episodes of exciting, engaging material and we absolutely have done that. It’s been looking good and I’m pleased with the writing for sure.”

 

The key to any episodic series enduring is developing different, deeper shades of its main characters. Union’s satisfied she’s getting to plumb the depths of one complex sister in Mary Jane, whose tough as nails exterior covers a fragile interior.

“The writers have been absolutely brilliant at pushing her buttons. They give me a lot of different places to go with the character. She’s definitely not Johnny-One-Note, which I’m excited about.”

Now that Union’s proven she can hold an audience week after week network and studio execs may be more willing to have her head-up a future series or movie. That’s important because until Mary Jane it’d been a while since she got top billing. She’s at an age, too, when actresses get passed over for younger women, though her youthful, glam looks – she’s fronted several beauty brands – are an asset.

It doesn’t hurt being part of a power black couple who by making it official in August consolidated their mad pop culture currency. During her series hiatus Union and Wade said their I-dos at a lush outdoor ceremony in Miami that saw John Legend perform. A much-seen photo released by the couple, who began seriously dating in 2009, pictured them with his two sons from his first marriage, Zaire and Zion, and a nephew, Dahveon, he’s been raising. They looked every bit a family.

Wade authored the 2012 book, A Father First: How My Life Became Bigger Than Basketball. He supports numerous programs for kids and families. Union wrote the foreword to Hill Harper’s 2008 book Letters to a Young Sister: Define Your Destiny. With both acutely conscious of their role model status, their party days may not be completely behind them but when not working these two are domestics focused on family.

 

 

 

 

After taking a time-out in their relationship a year ago or so, the couple worked it out and things culminated in the wedding Gabrielle’s mother describes as “wonderful, beautiful and poignant – full of both loving personalities,” adding, “I was happy that Gabrielle was happy.” Long before the marriage, Theresa saw her daughter’s maternal instincts kick-in:,

“Gabrielle has embraced the role of the adult female in Dwyane’s household to his two sons and to his nephew.” Now that Nicki, as her family calls her, is married, Theresa says, “I feel she has taken to parenting as the capable person I know her to be.”

Union had no children with her ex, former NFL player Chris Howard. Union’s hinted she and Wade plan having a child together.

Besides being a wife and mom, she’s branched out into producing. Her first project as an executive producer is the upcoming Lifetime movie With This Ring. Jill Scott, Eve and Regina Hall play three single friends who vow to get hitched after attending the wedding of a mutual friend. The movie’s adapted from the book The Vow, which Union optioned five years ago and sold to Sony Pictures Television for Lifetime.

After a long wait to get it made, she found the producing role fulfilling.

“I mean, to finally get things off the ground is very satisfying. Being able to be in a position where you can put talented people to work is incredibly satisfying. It’s just a different struggle as a producer than it is as an actor. It’s a different conversation. I’m still learning, I’m a novice, so I’m trying to say less and learn more.”

Union anticipates developing more projects, perhaps ones to star in. She’s only prepared to wear so many hats behind the camera though.

“I absolutely don’t want to direct. I want to produce though for sure. I’m definitely going to be up for opportunities that challenge me and inspire me and tickle my fancy. So maybe a year from now after we’re (Mary Jane) syndicated I can think about trying my hand at something else.”

Besides being well-liked in the industry, Union’s well-connected. In addition to her association with the Akils, she’s aligned herself with another major industry player, Tyler Perry, two of whose franchise films, Daddy’s Little Girls and Good Deeds, she’s appeared in. Her best friend in the business is actress Sanaa Lathan, Then there are all the ensemble pieces she’s been in with Morris Chestnut, Regina Hall, Taraji Henson and Kevin Hart from the Think Like a Man movies.

Union says it’s a bonus “anytime you can work with your friends and we’ve been friends, the vast majority of the cast, like for well over a decade. We just have a lot of fun. To get paid to do what we want and to hang together, well, it’s like stealing from the studio.”

In 2012 she stretched herself to serve as a celebrity advocate for the multi-platform PBS documentary series Half the Sky that examined the oppression of girls and women in developing nations.

The title came from the best selling book by New York Times journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sherly WuDunn.

 

 

 

Union spent two weeks with Kristof and executive producer and director Maro Chermayeff for a segment set in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. The actress got close with two girls there, Duyen and Nhi, both of whom contend with barriers to try and further their education.

“Their stories are amazing and their overcoming adversity kind of puts everything in perspective,” says Union.

The actress got especially close to Nhi, whose father forced her to sell lottery tickets, a time consuming job that interfered with her education. Union came away inspired by “the perseverance of these young girls, who move hell and high water to get an education. If that means paying for it themselves, they pay for it themselves, if that means living away from their families they do that.”

She’s discovered that her segment made an impression on people and she leaves no doubt the impact it made on her.

“When people come up to you you never know what part of your work kind of resonates with them or that they connect with. But I’m always pleasantly surprised when people ask me about Half the Sky. They’re usually interested in if I know whatever became of any of the subjects. Since I left Vietnam Dwyane and I have sponsored Nhi’s education. I know you’re not supposed to get personally involved with the subjects but we couldn’t help ourselves. There was no way I could leave Nhi there with her dad, so Dwyane and I pay for her schooling.

“She’s a bright girl and she’s doing well, she’s thriving. We’re happy about that.”

Union’s passion for children extends to the new siblings she gained a few years ago when her mother adopted three children a relative could not care for herself. Keira (8), Miyonna (6) and Amari (4) are being raised by Union’s mother, who recently moved with the kids from Omaha to Arizona, where one of Gabrielle’s sisters lives and where more Union family members have since moved. Gabrielle’s enjoying the new family dynamic.

“It’s like we’re starting over and I’ve kind of come back to be in big sister mode again, trying to get another set of young people and mold them and try to provide as much as we can. It’s kind of like we’re going back in time and we get to do it over and fix some of the mistakes we made in the past. My mom very much believes in we are our brother’s keeper and you’re only as strong as your weakest link, and she refuses to let our family down. Where other people might say that’s the next man’s responsibility my mom feels like our family is our responsibility and you try to do your best for your family.”

 

 

 

 

Union admits she enjoys spoiling her little sisters and brother.

“The gifts arrive and then my mom kind of filters them out, not as they arrive but sort of as good behavior happens, so they’re not fully getting all of my spoiling. They’re great kids, I really love them.”

About her daughter’s generosity, Theresa says, “She does a lot for us as a family. She has smanaged to make the birthdays for each child special. My daughter gave me the Kentucky Derby one year as a birthday present. That is the most marvelous party in the world.”

Now that her mother’s no longer living in Omaha, it’s an open question when Gabrielle might next make it back for the biennial Native Omaha Days or the annual Bryant-Fisher family reunion and its Dozens of Cousins. Union’s ridden in the Omaha Days parade. Union and Wade showing up, as they’ve done, would cause a stir. She says no matter how famous they get though it doesn’t change how they roll.

“Not to us, maybe for other people who aren’t expecting to see us at a restaurant or something. I’m lucky that my family’s really down to earth. They know that when we come to Omaha we don’t want to be treated any differently than any of the other cousins. I think it’s more how other people perceive us. But for us it’s just nice to get out and see family and catch up. We’re definitely not trying to make spectacles of ourselves by any stretch.”

Gabrielle Union takes serious turn in BET drama “Being Mary Jane” and PBS documentary “Half the Sky”

September 29, 2012 5 comments

Gabrielle Union.  She’s hard to ignore because of her beauty, intelligence, confidence, grit, and good heart.  All those qualities and more are on display in a new PBS documentary event, Half the Sky, premiering Oct. 1 and 2 that features her as one of six celebrity  advocates who travel to different corners of the world to explore women and girls overcoming oppression.  Those traits are reportedly also on display in her title role performance in the new BET movie, Being Mary Jane, that’s set to premiere early next year before developing into a series.  My cover story on Union below is the latest among three cover stories I’ve done on the actress over the years.  You can find the previous stories on this blog as well.  I expect I’ll  file more Gabby stories in the future as well.

 

 

 

 

  • 'Being Mary Jane' Season 2 TEASER REVEALED, Mary Jane Completely ALONE in New Season? FIRST LOOK, Who's News Anchor's New Love Interest? [WATCH] : The Eye : Fashion & Style:

 

 

Gabrielle Union takes serious turn in BET drama “Being Mary Jane” and PBS documentary “Half the Sky”

by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Gabrielle Union has reached a point in her film and television career where she’s doing more meaningful projects. Not by accident either. The maturing actress known for her assertive persona and frank views has been ever more deliberate about her personal and professional choices.

“Probably since 2006 I’ve been concentrating on making sure I’m happy and doing things for the right reason and surrounding myself with good, positive people and eliminating the rest,” says the Omaha native with mega family and friends here. “I’ve got a peace of mind I’ve never had and I’m just really happy.”

It seems hard to believe but this glam goddess is 40 now. She’s still enough of a pop culture presence and sex symbol to grace the cover of the new EBONY magazine. She’s the perfect age, too, for the driven title character she plays in the new BET movie Being Mary Jane. The drama, slated to air in early 2013, is leveraged to become the network’s first original dramatic series.

The movie premiered at the recent Urbanworld Film Festival in Manhattan.

Her character Mary Jane Paul is a smart, popular Atlanta TV host striving to have it all in a male-dominated field while her biological clock ticks.

It might as well be describing Union’s real life as a single black female juggling career, family, living large and causes. Mary Jane’s another in a long line of her together black women roles. As she puts it, “I don’t mind creating positive images for women of color.” She says she and her two adult sisters, both successful in their own right, are confident, capable people today in large measure because of her mother, Theresa Glass Union, a former social worker and corporate manager.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gabby’s no stranger herself to career and relationship issues. After her marriage to former NFL player Chris Howard ended in divorce she was a free agent. Then she met NBA icon Dwyane Wade, whose own marriage dissolved. Since finding each other on the rebound they’ve become a favorite power couple in celeb circles.

But it’s a project that didn’t require Union to do any acting that may make her most enduring impression. She’s one of six celebrity advocates in the new PBS transmedia documentary series Half the Sky. It premieres October 1 and 2. Union and Co. serve as witnesses and guides for this sprawling, multi-continent media event that examines the oppression of girls and women in developing nations.

The despairing realities revealed are offset by the courageous actions of individuals and organizations, so-called agents of change, working to improve conditions on the ground.

The title comes from the best selling book by noted New York Times journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sherly WuDunn. The series explores how girls and women in poverty become trapped in family-society restraints that limit opportunities and enable abuse, servitude and discrimination. The film finds education the most powerful liberating force for freeing people from bondage.

Girls are often discouraged from completing their education and even if they do they must still confront serious obstacles. Some do. Many don’t.

Producers invited Union to participate along with fellow actresses Diane Lane, Eva Mendes, Meg Ryan, Olivia Wilde and America Ferrera. Each was assigned to travel to a separate developing nation (Liberia, Sierra Leone, India, Pakistan) with Kristof. Their mission – to investigate what problems females face and report on proven remedies. Union and her peers acted as citizen journalists – their curiosity, empathy and questions complementing the professional reporter’s work.

Having a celebrity tag along is nothing new for Kristof.

“Nick has a history of engaging witnesses in his travels as a reporter,” says Half the Sky executive producer and director Maro Chermayeff. “He does his yearly Win-a-Trip where readers apply to go on an extensive journalist’s trip with him and he’s also traveled with Angelina Jolie and George Clooney (the actor intros the series). He has a very hard core following and what he’s often said about that is he wants to ‘bring fresh eyes.'”

In whatever corner of the world the celebrities, Kristof and filmmakers went they met females in distress as well as advocates working on their behalf. Chermayeff  profiles select girls and women, whose stories become the prism through which we view the problems and solutions.

Union spent two weeks with Kristof and Chermayeff for a segment set in Vietnam‘s Mekong Delta. The actress got close with two girls there, Duyen and Nhi, both of whom contend with barriers to try and further their education.

“Their stories are amazing and their overcoming adversity kind of puts everything in perspective,” says Union.

During her Delta stay she met John Wood, co-founder of Room to Read, an NGO providing books and support to millions of children worldwide. It got its start in Vietnam. Duyen and Nhi are both Room to Read scholars. She also met a pair of Vietnam nationals who work as program facilitators with the girls and their families.

Half the Sky promotional materials brand the project’s ambitious aim as “turning oppression into opportunity” through programs and efforts that “seek to engage, educate and motivate the world to action.”

Union says the experience opened her eyes to the “very skewed idea Americans have of Vietnam.” She says she went “open to hearing the stories from the war and the rebuilding that happened after the war.” She adds she was most surprised by how “for the most part the Vietnamese are very openly welcoming of Americans.”

Chermayeff, who made the HBO doc The Kindness of Strangers in Omaha, says some colleagues questioned using celebrities

“But we knew celebrities could do two things. They could be fresh eyes and they could also shine a light, bounce a little bit of their ability to draw in a different audience on these very important issues.”

At a screening of the finished film she says skeptics acknowledged how effective the advocates are as “a bridge between the audience and the experience.”

“We knew we didn’t want the talent to distract from the stories or to be playing the role of an expert. They’re not experts. But we knew we were reaching out to women who were socially engaged, who had walked this walk and talked this talk before. They were working in this space. Gabrielle Union’s done extensive work with young women and girls on gender based violence in the States.”

Union’s heavily involved in supporting rape victims and raising money for cancer research. While a student at UCLA she was raped at the job she worked. From the time her film-TV career took off in the late 1990s she’s spoken candidly about what happened and she encourages victims to become survivors whose voices are heard. After close friend Kristen Martinez died of breast cancer Union devoted herself to spreading the word about the need for breast cancer screenings, which she does as a Susan G. Komen for the Cure ambassador.

When asked to carry her activism to Half the Sky she balked at first, only because she was coming off an especially busy period, but after seeing how it aligned with her own values and interests in empowering females, she signed on.

“I just couldn’t say no. i just wanted to be part of telling the story. It was incredibly humbling. I mean, I do a lot of work for women and girls on behalf of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure, Planned Parenthood, the UCLA Rape Crisis Center. I lobby state legislatures and the U.S. Senate and Congress to create funding for rape crisis centers. I’m on the President’s Committee to stop violence against women.

“I was happy to do be asked to take part in such a huge project as Half the Sky in bringing awareness to the issue of girls and women living in oppression.”

The much-anticipated series is the kind of prestige, serious endeavor that might gain her a whole new following. Most of her recent film work has been in black-themed soap operas featuring her niche as a sharp-tongued shrew with a heart-of-gold (Deliver Us From Eva, Think Like a Man, Tyler Perry’s Mr. Good Deeds) though those pictures do have wide crossover appeal.

While not apparent at first there’s a thruline from Half the Sky to Being Mary Jane to other work she’s doing because they’re all projects that matter to her.

Mary Jane is produced by Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil, the hot writer-director team whose BET series The Game is a phenomenon. They’ve also collaborated on the network’s Girlfriends and the feature Sparkle.

 

 

 

 Nat Turner: Birth of a Nation

 

 

Mary Jane Paul may be no stretch for Union, whose real life intelligence, strength and independence have sustained her in a rough business, but it represents one of the few times she’s gained the lead in a straight dramatic role. The Akils promise to give her more to work with than the bitchy divas she initially drew attention with or the stalwart, largely thankless wifely supporting parts she’s lately assumed.

She says she’s long wanted to work with the couple and recalls a conversation she once had with Mara Brock Akil about the types of roles and projects she desired. Ones with substance and relevance. She feels Mary Jane realizes those aspirations, saying it’s the best TV pilot script she’s read since Scandal, the ABC thriller series she wanted but didn’t land (Kerry Washington got the lead).

Besides the creative team behind it Union says what ultimately sold her on Mary Jane is its very real, true depiction of aspirational single black women just like herself and her friends. The dramatic situations, whether with family or romantic relationships or work dynamics, seem drawn from her and their own lives.

Not surprisingly, she often calls actor friends for feedback when weighing a possible career-changing role.

“Anytime I have a question about acting and should I do it, should I not do it, I call Sanaa Lathan (the star of Something Different).”

Mary Jane was such a natural fit Union didn’t necessarily need her friend’s counsel this time. She did on the underrated and undersign Cadillac Records (2008).

“I asked Sanna about it and she said, ‘Baby, if it doesn’t scare you, you shouldn’t do it.’ And if you look at her choices she definitely lives by that and I’ve tried to incorporate more of that. Even auditioning for things where I’m like, ‘Oh, gosh, there’s no way in hell I’ll get that,’ and most often I don’t but to even put myself in a position of trying and to stretch myself as an actor and to put myself out there as an actor and to take more risks feels pretty good.”

Union’s embraced her share of risks, too. In Neo Ned (2005) her character and a neo-Nazi played by Jeremy Renner fall hard for each other in the confines of a psych ward.

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the surface her Cadillac Records part as Geneva Wade, the girlfriend of Muddy Waters, may seem safe but she says it was a stretch because, “one, there was no glamour to it, and two, there was no humor.” Thus, it exposed her. “Yeah, it’s scary to not be able to have a lot of hair and makeup and to not look glamorous and to not always get the punchline, so it was a little nerve wracking for me.”

“And if you’re going to put people in victim or hero mode she was a bit of a victim of Muddy Waters,” says Union. “She took a lot of grief, she was the long-suffering partner but she stood by him and she supported him and she dealt with whatever came her way and she did it with quiet dignity and class.”

Union says, “It reminded me so much of my mother’s story and so many women of that generation or now who deal with that same thing, and I tried to portray it with as much respect as I could.”

The star’s parents divorced years ago.

 

 

 

 

 

Half the Sky took Union out of her comfort zone again. Minus a  script. she wasn’t asked to be anyone but herself. No where to hide. Minus a wardrobe of styling outfits, she wore practical casuals for negotiating dikes and roadways and coping with rainy season downfalls and repressive tropical climes.

Chermayeff admires that Union threw herself into this immersion experience with poor working class families living on dikes in the delta.

“I love her, she’s a great girl.”

Dueyn’s family lives in a makeshift tent after their shack was flooded. Just to get to school is an epic journey for the girl, who must cross waterways in boats and then make a 17-mile trek by bike, each way. To appreciate how much effort all that takes Union retraced the route alongside the girl, including making the bike trip.

 

 

 

As Kristof shares in a voice-over, “Duyen is kind of a classic situation in rural areas where you have a girl who’s so bright and so capable but she’s a long way from any school…and that is far from unique in the developing world.”

Union explains in her own voice-over, “I think I realized just how long, how lonely her journey home is. Crap roads, crazy vegetation where anyone can hide. Anything could happen to her in 17 miles, and she’s just rolling by herself. I asked, ‘Does anyone ever bug you as you’re riding home?’ and she said, ‘Oh yeah… men have stopped me before.'”

Human predators prey on targets like Duyen. In certain parts of the world it can mean being sold or kidnapped into the sex trafficking underworld.

Sometimes the abuser’s right inside the family. Nhi is forced to sell lottery tickets by her father, whom, she reveals, beats her when she doesn’t sell her entire allotment.

“It’s probably a lot worse than even what she’s shared because she can’t control it,” Union tells the Room to Read facilitator. “With Nhi everything she’s feeling you can see. She’s trained by her father you don’t tell the neighbors what’s going on, you don’t tell your teachers, you don’t tell anyone what happens in this house but her emotions are betraying her.

“For a lot of children in disadvantaged situations and households education’s a safe haven. (School’s) a place where for the most part you can trust the people there and it’s a few hours every day where you are physically safe and good things are happening.”

“That’s a story that was very, very close to Gabby’s heart because Nhi was really working and struggling,” says Chermayeff.

 

 

 

Maro Chermayeff, Executive Producer and Director

 

 

 

As Union tells the facilitator, “When I was 19 and I left home I ended up getting raped…When you’re raped it’s the absence of control, so the one thing I could control was school and I just dove into my school work and I became an amazing student. So I can relate to Nhi being so driven in school and I just wish for girls who have to go through any kind of adversity that they have education as an outlet for healing.”

The actress says she came away from Vietnam inspired by “the perseverance of these young girls, who move hell and high water to get an education. If that means paying for it themselves, they pay for it themselves, if that means living away from their families they do that.” She says Nhi’s situation so moved her that she and Dwyane Wade have set up a scholarship fund for Nhi to complete her studies.

Union’s helping Wade raise his two sons and a nephew. She has three new young siblings to dote on now, too, since her mom, who lives in Omaha, recently adopted three pre-school aged children. The children’s biological mother is a niece to Glass and a cousin to Union.

“It’s like we’re starting over,” Union says . “I’m coming back in big sister mode trying to mold a set of young people and provide as much as we can. It’s kind of like we’re going back in time and we get to do it over and fix some of the mistakes we made in the past. My mom very much believes in we-are-our-brother’s keeper and you’re only as strong as your weakest link, and she refuses to let our family down.”

For more on the documentary, visit http://www.halftheskymovement.org.

 

 

The Gabrielle Union chronicles

August 21, 2010 1 comment

Gabrielle Union at the San Francisco Blackberr...

Image via Wikipedia

My first couple  interviews with Gabrielle Union were by phone.  She was smart, funny, gracious, and generous with her time. My last couple interviews have been in person, and I found her exactly the same. She’s a sweet person.  Yes, her beauty leaves you breathless and is a bit distracting at first, but she’s completely down to earth and after awhile you don’t focus on her looks, you focus on what she’s saying and what she’s about.  This article for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared about five years ago, and in it she speaks extensively about some things she’s passionate about, including the difficulties that actresses of color have in finding suitable subject matter and her efforts to try and change that.  More recently, the formation of her new production company, Stew U, with Nzingha Stewart, finds her really taking matters into her own hands.

In the last couple years, she’s made as much news off the screen as on it due to her relationship with NBA superstar Dwyane Wade.  The couple have been to Omaha, where Gabrielle’s from, and they caused quite a stir here as you might imagine.  I wouldn’t be surprised if they become regular fixtures her before too long, at least during Native Omaha Days.  I hope to catch up with Gabrielle again in the near future.

 

The Gabrielle Union chronicles

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

Let’s face it, the girl can’t help it. With a to-die-for combo of beauty and attitude, Omaha-born and bred actress Gabrielle Monique Union embodies what it means to be fabulous. The It Girl’s parlayed early television-film roles as the sharp-tongued foil and love interest babe into a regal-like, real-piece-of-work brimming with confidence, intelligence and class. This enticing package of goodies makes her a presence in the Hollywood glam machine. Despite The Honeymooners fizzle, her profile is about to explode owing to her work in a handful of new feature films awaiting release that show her in a new light and a starring role in the new ABC series Night Stalker that premieres September 29.

“I’ve been trying to branch out and do different kinds of projects people wouldn’t necessarily expect me to do, and I’m very proud of the work coming out” she said, while in town for Native Omaha Days, looking absolutely fabulous despite no sleep after wrapping Night Stalker that same morning and catching a red eye to O.

Yes, the many sides of Gabrielle are showcased these days. She recently shared the cover of Ebony with Honeymooners’ co-star Cedric the Entertainer, doing her best Alice Kramden domestic next to his Ralph Kramden bombastic. Depending on the gig, she’s whatever she wants to be. But no matter how much she appears all-together, she confided to The Reader some of the anxieties attending stardom and some of the frustrations that go with being black in a white-dominated field. Partly to determine her own fate and image, she’s about to start producing her own projects. Meanwhile, she plays the game, transforming herself into our fantasies.

When on the red carpet-runway circuit, she’s the preening diva in designer wear, perfect makeup and flawless hair who flashes I-love-my-public smiles and blows kisses in classic movie star fashion. In those Nutrogena TV spots, she’s the oh-so-fresh-and-so-clean girl-next-door of our dreams. For magazine spreads, she projects the epitome of style and elegance. She plays it sultry-urban-cool guesting on shows like BET’s Rap City: Tha Bassment, or turns on the charm chatting it up with Jay or David or Jimmy or Regis. She turns serious young artist at events like the NAACP Image Awards. On the big screen, she’s the hottie object of desire of LL Cool J, Jamie Foxx and Will Smith. Lately, she’s taking parts that don’t so much exploit her head-turning attributes and sex symbol defying smarts as display her acting depth.

 

 

 

In the drama Neo Ned, fresh off rave reviews at the 2005 TriBeca Film Festival, her disturbed character gets involved with a fellow patient at a mental health hospital. She’s a victim of abuse somehow under the delusion she’s Hitler. He’s a neo-Nazi hater of blacks and Jews. Upon recovery and release, this odd pair still try forging a life together. InConstellation, which beat out both Hustle and Flow and Crash for the Audience Prize at the Urbanworld film fest’, she’s the matriarch of a troubled Southern family whose secret legacy leads back to her own private crucible. In Running with Scissors, the much-awaited adaptation of Augusten Burroughs’ tell-all book, she’s the possessive lover of Annette Bening, whose messy life she makes messier. In Night Stalker, an update of a 1970s show, she’s part of an investigative reporting team examining unexplained homicide cases. With a creative staff from The X-Files, it’s not surprising Stalker casts Union as Perrie, a skeptic trying to rein-in her overly curious partner Kolchak (Stuart Townsend), who suspects the supernatural, paranormal or extraterrestrial in every unsolved murder. Sound familiar? Union was sold on the show, despite “not being a fan of the genre,” by the quality of the scripts and the chance it offered “to grow with my character.”

All this comes on the heels of her small but weighty appearance in the Emmy Award-winning HBO drama, Something the Lord Made, her first period piece.

Ten years after breaking through, she’s sufficiently got-it-going-on to be in the  select company of such single name Star Sistas as Halle, Queen, Beyonce, Angela, Oprah and Vivica — adding flava to an otherwise bland look-alike white girl scene.

But a rising career for a black or Latina actress, no matter how talented or lovely she is, is not the same as it is for a white actress. Union bristles at the inequity that gives a Reese Witherspoon or Cameron Diaz carte blanch when she’s restricted from certain roles due to her race.

“It’s the option of doing different kinds of things,” she said. “They have the option of doing any kind of movies they want. Anything that could possibly pop into their head, that kind of script is there for them. Whereas with me, I’m offered the same exact things over and over and over again.”

This relative lack of choices, she said, not only means a more limited artistic palette to pick from, but a smaller financial reward, too. “There is a financial reality in what we do. Those bills, darn it, pop up every month. That dang mortgage has to be paid. You can pass, pass, pass, pass pass and hope for better material, but when it’s just not coming, at a certain point you end up doing the same sort of material. As actors of color we don’t have the same luxury and we’re certainly not paid anywhere close to what they (majority actors) get paid,” Union said.

Then there’s industry-wide casting practices that unfairly limit actors of color. Producers often can’t or won’t hire blacks and Hispanics for non-race specific roles because the suits’ experience/perception of the world doesn’t include racial-ethnic minorities in certain guises, especially opposite whites.

“That just happened last spring. I was told, ‘Gabrielle, you gave the best read. If we decide to go ‘black,’ you’re at the top of the list.’ It’s still a big fight to get people to think someone like me could be the friend or colleague of a white character, male or female. I’m not even talking about trying to convince somebody I could be Angelina Jolie’s sister or something like that. I’m talking about being her friend or associate or whatever. It’s the nature of the business” to stereotype us, she said.

But as her slate of new projects attests, Union’s not backing down or giving up. She’s a fighter and a survivor, instincts that helped her run-off the armed man who raped her in the early 1990s and cope with the trauma of that attack. A former competitive athlete, Union’s lately redirected her fire to her career, where she aggressively pursues the kinds of parts traditionally reserved for her white counterparts. She’s landing some of these jobs, but she wants more.

“You have these little victories and you hope to spin these little victories into a bigger victory,” she said, “and that’s just kind of been the basis of my career. I’m still waiting to sort of win the battle. But I’ve had a lot of fun on the path. Some of the battles I have lost have taught me so much about myself and about my inner resolve and who I am, and the fact that I don’t lay down and just die when I don’t get what I want. I learn to kind of regroup and fight harder. There’s nothing else I can do but stay prepared and stay ready for that opportunity. And I am prepared.”

 

 

 

 

Far from passively sitting by waiting for that breakthrough role to plop in her lap, she’s actively looking to develop properties and projects via a talent/marketing consulting agency now expanding into film production, Prominent Enterprises. The company is in the family, so to speak. It’s owned and managed by Union’s husband, Chris Howard, an ex-NFL player, in partnership with her former publicist, Alejandra Cristina. Although a new player in Hollywood, Prominent’s raising a sizable film fund to finance productions for Gabrielle to produce and/or star in.

“They’ve put together an investment group that’s put up $20 million to make anywhere from one to five films, so we’ve been poring over scripts. Nothing I’m going to star in yet, but I’m definitely going to produce,” she said. “The investment group has the capability of distributing and marketing a film, all in-house, so we don’t have to go pander our films to a studio to get distribution. I’d rather learn producing through my husband’s company than out there alone. We’ll definitely be putting our friends to work and you’ll be seeing people in roles that you would never anticipate them in. I’m excited about getting to work with my friends. It’s all happening very quickly. A lot quicker than we anticipated.”

Taking charge of her career is nothing new for Union, who’s taken pains in recent years to control her image by virtue of the parts she chooses and the type of pub she does. For her, not doing nude scenes, for example, is not so much about protecting her good-girl persona in the industry as it is honoring her family.

“I think it’s the respect I have for my parents and the respect I have for my husband. It’s also been a learning process. I’ve taken jobs and I’ve done photo spreads in the past I wouldn’t necessarily do now — understanding the reaction and aftermath that follows. My parents are alive and a part of my life and I’m not estranged from anybody. My husband has to go to work and face people. It’s just not worth it to me to do things that are going to embarrass them. My folks raised me to be a certain kind of person and I want my roles to be reflective of that and I want the kind of press I do to be reflective of that. Sometimes I stray, but it’s all a learning curve, and I’m learning I have the power to say no and the world’s not going to end and my career’s not going to stop.”

An example of her emancipation came during her recent Omaha visit, when she refused agent-publicist entreaties to fly her out of town for an ABC affiliate appearance. Instead, she opted to party-on-down with family and friends at the Native Omaha Days festival, where befitting her status, everywhere she and her small entourage went caused a stir. Just the rumor she might show some place got joints jumping and crowds buzzing. Hundreds attended a ceremony naming the Adams Park pond after her. The fans, many of them relatives from her large extended family on both sides, crowded inside the rec center for an autograph or some piece of their “Nikki.” Her appearance marked the first time “when everybody sort of came together since my wedding. They’re all here. More than I expected. People I didn’t even know came back. It’s exciting,” she said.

With such “a big family” and her “time always so limited” when in town, there’s added pressure to please everyone, so they don’t feel “cheated.” It’s also a reality check, not that her parents or sisters would let her get away with a big head. Her folks, Theresa and Sylvester Union, who are divorced, both said their star daughter is amazingly “grounded.”

Besides being selective in how she represents herself, there are the meatier roles Union’s been holding out for. Where she can coast playing brassy characters “cut from the same cloth that I’ve been cut from,” she has to stretch when cast in roles far from herself. “It’s a lot easier to play when the part’s close to who you are.” she said. “I take pride in bringing strong depictions of women to the screen.” With more substantial roles come more challenges.

Although she’s used to playing characters who are hell-on-wheels, Union’s part in Running with Scissors is a departure in that she portrays a drugged-out gay woman. “She’s a lesbian, a speed freak and a psychologically touched young woman who falls in love with Annette Bening’s character and disrupts her life. It’s a great kind of crazy character that’s really challenged me in new ways, and I just had a ball doing it. I think my mom is still getting used to the idea of me being a lesbian, but as long as Annette Bening is my girl friend, she’s OK with it,” Union said, laughing.

“To tackle” the role of an abused woman in Neo Ned, Union reopened the wounds of her own rape by going “back through my journals and to times when I was in therapy and to times when I was completely out of sorts and out of control. I was able to convey certain aspects of my own experience into the character’s, but at the time I wasn’t sure I’d be able to do it without going nuts.” She made it through OK, but she said far from being cathartic, reliving her own trauma was harrowing.

“It was only afterwards I found it therapeutic, when at the Q & A that followed the film’s opening, people were saying — and it always happens — ‘Me too, me too.’ It’s always comforting for me and others to know — I’m not alone in my experience. I’m not alone in my surviving and in being able to still lead a decent, functional life. That these obstacles are surmountable.”

Union has long used her celebrity to openly discuss her rape and recovery and to advocate for victims’ rights and the importance of counseling, which she received.

As much as she enjoys educating people about empowering themselves, she realizes she’s still learning both her craft and this whole business of being a star. Therefore she seeks out mentors to school her in acting and in managing fame. Diva soul singer Patti LaBelle is among those who’ve taken Union under their wing, teaching her how to stay “who she is” and keep “what she stands for” amid the hoopla. The more high profile projects Union does, the more seasoned veterans she calls on.

“It’s the only way you’re going to get better. Unfortunately, a lot of young people in our industry lack humility. That whole idea of wanting to be the biggest fish in the pond doesn’t appeal to me. You can learn so much more if you just shut up and watch, which is what I do. I don’t know enough to keep talking. I watch the masters work and try to absorb as much as I can about how they work and how they handle different situations. That’s been the biggest help to me and my career — being able to watch what to do and what not to do.”

Asked if working with a Bening in Scissors, Alan Rickman in Something the Lord Made or Billy Dee Williams in Constellation obliges her to raise her own level, she answered emphatically, “Oh, hell, yes. They make you step up your game. And especially as I’m not formally trained, I don’t have that wealth of knowledge to fall back on. I have to learn from my co-workers.”

To help prep for difficult parts, she works with acting coach Dennis Lavelle, an actor/director who gets her to “fine tune stuff,” like nailing a Nashville accent for Something, and “on point” for portraying characters undergoing emotional crisis.

 

 

 

 

She’s still insecure and starstruck enough that she gets tongue-tied around her idols, such as Diahann Carroll, whom she “chickened out” meeting. On the set of Constellation, she lost her composure working alongside icons Williams and Rae Dawn Chong. “I got intimidated. I didn’t know where to begin the scene — to not be buried,” she said, “because they were all bringing it.” She uses the work ethic of fellow pros to motivate herself. “When I see them doing their homework, running lines or doing theater, I’m like, I need to go home and study more. The people I look up to never stop growing…never stop working. So, I need to step it up.”

To her surprise, serious theater offers have come her way. Thus far, she’s passed, admitting she feels out-of-her-depth there.

“I’ve been offered things I have no business being offered. I mean Broadway productions — all off the strength of something like Bring It On. But I have too much respect for the craft and for the theater to take a job I’m not ready for and to bring down a whole production. I have too much respect for the amazing talent that’s underemployed to take a job I don’t deserve and I haven’t earned — just because I can. I don’t want that on my shoulders.”

The props, the perks, the offers, the adoring crowds, the intrusive fans and the unwanted stares are all part of the bargain, good and bad.

“It’s weird. I don’t feel worthy of that sort of adoration. Ultimately, it’s nice that people appreciate what you do and to know your work is not in vain,” she said.

Negotiating fame is a-work-in-progress for her and husband Chris Howard. “It’s been a long path to kind of figuring that out,” she said. “When we want a fun, cool time, either with him and I or with our friends, we don’t do it at premieres or parties. We do it at our homes. We keep it private. So that whatever we’re doing or talking about or wearing or not wearing, no one’s going to know about it except for us. That’s how we stay strong.”

Careerwise, she has her thing and he has his. Even with the overlap from Prominent Enterprises, she’s the one out front. He’s in the background, where he prefers it. It’s their way of maintaining separate identities. “When I do travel for work and go to premieres or parties, he doesn’t always come,” she said. “He’s like, ‘That’s your life. I don’t want to stand around and hold your purse. I have my own career and a whole life outside yours.’ And that’s made it a lot easier.”

Being the center of attention, she said, “sometimes is a drag.” Having to look gorgeous, smile, press the flesh, sign the stills, pose for pics, answer questions. Her well-known penchant for slumming at Target has even gotten problematical, with shoppers and clerks wanting to stop and talk. “There’s times you just don’t feel like it. You’re tired. You just want a quiet evening with family. You just want to be. But when they don’t fuss over you, that’s when you go, What happened?”

The spotlight will only get hotter once her new films break and Night Stalker, airing Thursdays at 9 p.m. (CST) on ABC, debuts. There’s also two more features, Donut Hole andSay Uncle, in the can and still another, 32 and Single, in development.

Inking the deal for Night Stalker, which she wanted against the advice of her management, was done partly to get more “alone time with my husband,” she said. “Now that I’m home in L.A. shooting the series, even though the hours are crazy, we have a little bit more time together. It almost feels like we’re starting over because I’m home now.” Starting a family is not a priority yet. “I don’t want to be jealous of a child for taking me away from my man. Once we get enough alone time and we travel and we do all the things we want to do, than we’ll expand.”

Gabrielle Union: A Star is Born

August 21, 2010 2 comments

Cover of

Cover via Amazon

I have to believe that some folks are surprised to discover that the stunning actress Gabrielle Union is from Omaha, Neb. That’s because a large chunk of America either draws a blank when the city and state are mentioned or else conjure up images of corn fields and small towns devoid of black people.  Well, it is true that most of Nebraska is crop and range land. This is a Great Plains agricultural state after all, and agriculture is what drives the state’s  economy.  It is also true that most of the communities dotting the state’s wide expanse are small towns that generally do have few residents of color, particularly African-Americans, although some  have large Latino populations. But Nebraska also has two large cities in Lincoln and especially Omaha, and while the black population in Omaha has never been huge, its always been significant, in the tens of thousands, and African-Americans here own a long and rich heritage of cultural and intellectual achievement. She belongs to a large and prominent extended family whose annual reunion is more than a hundred years old and draws hundreds from all over the region and the nation.  Gabrielle is proud of her roots and she usually makes it back for that reunion, particularly when it coincides with the biennial Native Omaha Days, a week-long black heritage celebration.

So, when you know the facts, you realize Gabrielle hails from an urban African-American environment here not so dissimilar from those in cities with major black populations, and through all her success she’s remained fiercely loyal to this place and the old haunts in the inner city.  The following is the first of two cover stories I did on her for The Reader (www.thereader.com).  This piece appeared just as she was breaking big on the national scene.  Just as she’s done with other journalists, she spoke thoughtfully and candidly with me about a whole range of subjects, including her family, her growing up here, her surviving an assault, and her forging a career.  Although she’s enjoyed a nice long run in film and television, I’m not sure she’s quite reached the heights that she or others saw ahead.  But she’s still young, still fabulous, and still working hard to develop projects that provide positive images of African-Americans and that put her and other African-Americans in control of those images.  To that end, she and director Nzingha Stewart have formed their own production company, Stew U.  Good luck with it, Gabrielle, you are a face of poise, beauty, and strength for many females who see you as a role model.  You also give America and the world a whole other idea of who lives in Omaha.

Look for my followup story about Gabrielle on this same site.

 

Gabrielle Union wedding beauty

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

The next Halle Berry?

If, as some predict, Gabrielle Union, co-star of the new action sequel Bad Boys II, is poised to be the next ebony screen idol, then don’t expect the rising young actress with the suave sultriness of a classic Hollywood siren to do any cartwheels in anticipation of It happening. Not that the hard-bodied ex-athlete — she competed in track, soccer and basketball while growing up in Omaha and Pleasanton, Calif. — couldn’t do a flip if she wanted. It’s just that this sophisticated lady, who first made an impression playing smart, sassy babes in the teen comedies Bring It On and She’s All That and who more recently revealed a deeper dramatic range as a hard-boiled seductress in Welcome to Collinwoodand as a meddling man-hater tamed by Mr. Right in Deliver Us From Eva, remains firmly grounded. After all, she well recalls the vagaries of her unexpected cinema ascent, which soared despite no formal acting training. Unlike some stars to whom success comes early on, she’s savvy enough to seek advice and hungry enough to hone the craft that first chose her. Sweet.

“I have no problem humbling myself and asking a lot of stupid questions of veteran actors and of people who’ve been there-done that. I’m not into taking myself so seriously that I can’t go, I’m in a little over my head — can you help me out here? Yeah, I think a director would rather have you ask questions than waste takes. Luckily, people have taken me under their wing and helped me along the way. I’ve found really great mentors the last couple of years who’ve helped me sort of deal with my insecurity and say, Obviously you’re doing something right — you’re working, so whatever it is you’re doing don’t stop that, but also don’t stop asking questions,” she explained by phone from the Los Angeles area home she shares with husband Chris Howard, a former University of Michigan and NFL football player.

One reason Union doesn’t think she’s all that is because she views her film career as a kind of fluke. Not so long ago she still held out the possibility of falling back on her sociology degree if this movie thing didn’t work out (Her mother and two aunts have worked as social workers.). You see, the UCLA grad stumbled into acting only when her striking good looks and poised manners got her mistaken for a model at an agency where she interned. Before she knew it she found herself going up for and landing parts in ads and then television shows, debuting on Moesha, doing guest spots on ER and Steve Harvey and nabbing recurring roles on Sister Sister7th Heaven and City Of Angels. A year ago she was just another fetching supporting player in a string of moderately successful films, but was still best known as the first African-American love interest on the hit NBC series Friends. It was really the buzz behind her Friends guest shots, combined with her scene-stealing turn as a diva head cheerleader in 2000’s Bring It On and her portrayal of a tough yet tender sista in 2001’s The Brothers that added steam to the career she never intended.

2003 is shaping up as a breakout year for Union between her performances in the already released  AbandonCradle 2 the Grave and Eva and her featured appearance opposite Will Smith and Martin Lawrence in Bad Boys II. In the expected summer blockbuster she plays the vexing Syd, a woman raising the heat and danger for Miami police detectives Mike Lowrey (Smith), who falls for her, and Marcus Burnett (Lawrence), her half-brother. She may really turn heads with her on-the-limb portrayal of a disturbed mother in the now-under-production Neo Ned, a gritty project by indie director Van Fischer (Blink of An EyeUrban Jungle). Her persona as a beautiful, brainy, brassy black woman coincides with the growing crossover appeal of women-of-color artists — from Jennifer Lopez to Beyonce Knowles to Halle Berry — whose urban, hip-hop vibe is redefining the image of female sex symbols. Where, only a few years before, Union doubted if she even belonged, she’s paid her dues and now finds herself on the verge of A-list status. Not coincidentally, she’s since fallen in love with acting.

 

 

 

 

“I have, actually. Certainly after working on Welcome to Collinwood with Joe and Anthony Russo — who are very much actors’ directors — they really made it a different kind of experience. It wasn’t just about coming to work and knowing your lines. It was — How can we elevate this material? How can we make this better? How can we make this completely organic? We’d be doing exercises on set. We’d be doing tons of rehearsals. And through that process there was so much more discovery about the character and about the text that I really became enamored with what they did. It’s definitely experiences like that that make me really enjoy what I do now. It’s not so much a means to an end.”

Challenges are something Union, a fierce competitor at Scrabble or anything she competes in, welcomes. Her never-say-die-attitude, which surfaced when she fought back against a rapist that attacked her at 19, was instilled by her old-school ex-Army and ex-jock father, Sylvester, who pushed her, like a drill instructor, to excel in sports and academics from the time she was a child. She feels this boot-camp rearing gives her an edge in swimming with the sharks. “I’ve learned how to navigate tough waters, whereas a lot of actors are used to being coddled. I have a very thick skin. Screaming directors or difficult actors or whatever…it’s not a big deal. I mean, after you’ve dealt with my father, it’s all easy.”

The mettle that comes from a trial-by-fire background is why Theresa Union is “not surprised” by her daughter’s success. “She’s very disciplined. She’s self-reliant. She’s a natural-born competitor. She takes advantage of things that come her way. Her confidence and ability to pick up things fast give her an edge,” she said.

After playing largely decorative roles early in her career, Union, who can now afford to be choosy, is embracing more ambitious parts. “With certain kinds of things I was doing it wasn’t that hard to figure out and you sort fell into a lull,” she said of the stock best friend and girl friend characters she played. “But as the projects got a little bit more complex and a little bit more challenging it became a lot more fun for me because I had to push myself to see what I could do better than the day before. For me, it’s like when I played up an age group in basketball or in soccer, where the players were bigger, faster, stronger, better and you had to kind of raise your level of ability to meet that challenge. It’s the same with acting. As the projects get a little bit more in-depth and complex you have to raise your game to work with the William H. Macys and the George Clooneys. You can’t just sort of rest on, Well, I did a few sitcoms for UPN. So, I work with a coach (acting) now to make sure I’m sharp and ready to compete.”

Of the tests posed by her latest films, Union said: “For Eva, the challenge was how to make this really difficult woman likable. For Bad Boys, it was how to do action and not make it seem like you’re just a cardboard cutout in this high-concept movie. This movie I’m shooting now — Neo Ned — will probably be my most challenging to date. I play this woman who was molested as a child. She’s a bed-wetter. She’s trying to deal with the shame that comes with these experiences. She keeps checking herself into mental institutions. She’s not necessarily crazy, she’s just very overwhelmed. She develops this character, if you will, of this girl who feels like she’s got the soul of Hitler trapped inside her. She goes as far as to learn German and she ends up falling for this neo-Nazi, Ned. So, it’s incredibly challenging on a lot of different levels.”

Making the role even more demanding for the actress is that it requires her to be more emotionally raw on screen than ever before. “Usually, I’m cast as someone strong — with bolder-type qualities. But with this, she’s damaged and sort of on the path of trying to put herself back together. I kind of wanted to challenge myself in that sense in being able to convey the vulnerability and the trust issues that victims have and some of the things that go along with being violated.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Union is careful not to take on roles too close to the real-life trauma she endured, saying she accepted Neo Ned because it deals with the aftermath of the attack rather than its depiction. “I’ve turned down other projects where the character was brutally raped on-screen,” she said. “It’s not a problem talking about it or expressing it or conveying the emotions of what it feels like to have all control taken away from you, but to have someone physically simulate raping me, that would be above and beyond what I’m emotionally able to do. So, I know my limitations.” Her fear of having to relive her horror during a City of Angels shoot whose storyline concerned a serial rapist first led Union to divulge her own story. “I had so much anxiety that my character would be next that I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t go through that again. You see, I never talked about it. No one ever knew to not write my character to be raped. That, combined with the very cavalier attitude a lot of people on the set were taking about the storyline, made me come out to a magazine reporter I was doing an interview with in the midst of all this. I just felt it was my duty to come out and use my voice for something worthwhile. Reporters ask you a lot of stupid questions, like who’s cuter — Freddie Prinze. Jr. or Paul Walker? Well, who cares? How about what I’ve experienced and what I’ve overcome. I still finished college and I still got a pretty cool career for myself in spite of all this. Why don’t we talk about that and help people?”

She said it’s only after “years and years of therapy” that she’s able to be “normal again and somewhat sane.” Although once the victim of a brutal crime, Union is no victim for life. Her defiant attitude then and now stems from the way she was brought-up. “My parents always said, Don’t ever start a fight, but you damn well better finish it. You know, it was like — Don’t bring your ass home defeated. I certainly never solicited to have that (rape) happen to me, but when I saw an opening to sort of take back control of the situation I gave it my all. I put up a really valiant fight and have the scars to prove it.” As first related to Vibe Magazine, she wrestled the armed perpetrator to the ground, flailing at him with her fists, and managed to grab his gun and fire. “But in the end I wasn’t successful. He went on to rape another girl and ultimately turned himself in. A part of me was disappointed I didn’t kill him or didn’t at least wing him, so he could be apprehended sooner. I wanted to be the one that put an end to it.” She is proud, however, for having “the tenacity and courage…to make sure he was prosecuted and served his time and got a little dose of good old-fashioned prison justice,” she said. “All of that definitely goes back to how I was raised.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Where her father has been the driving disciplinarian in her life, her mother, Theresa, a former dancer, has been the nurturing, artistic influence. Her mother’s family, the Bryant-Fishers, is one of the oldest and largest black families in Nebraska. So entrenched are they that as part of their annual weekend-long August reunion — 85 years and running — the family stages their own parade down 24th Street. Union recalls that after her family moved from Omaha, where her father was an AT&T manager and her mother a social worker, her mom would take her and her two sisters to such Bay Area cultural events as poetry slams, ethnic festivals and gay pride parades. Union, a tomboy at heart, was 8 when she left Omaha but her ties led her to attend the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, whose women’s soccer team she competed on and whose football team she still madly cheers. Homesickness soon led her back to the coast, where she attended Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo before entering UCLA. After getting her B.A. she  considered law school before being “discovered” at the Fontaine Modeling Agency.

Despite lacking a prestigious acting school pedigree, Union said, “I feel confident about what I bring to the table.” In a sense, she’s been in training from the start by being a keen observer. “I’ve always been the kind of person, even as a young kid, who would just sit somewhere and watch people. I’ve always been fascinated by human nature and by what motivates people to do certain things…and that’s kind of a big chunk of acting. That, coupled with the fact I was a sociology major and wrote tons of term papers on inter-group conflict and on what makes people tick…which is a lot of what goes into theater studies.”

Then, she said, there’s the side of the profession no drama school can simulate. “Nothing prepares you for Hollywood. There’s no class on how to deal with a psycho director or a co-star on cocaine or on how to get along with people. Those are just sort of common sense things and a lot of that goes into who works and why. A lot of it is just like manners. Being on time. Working well with others. Literally being one of those people that others like to spend three or four months out of a year with. Part of that is definitely being professional, but part of it too is not taking yourself so seriously that you don’t have a good time. I mean, if I’m going to work in Miami I’m taking a very professional attitude, which means I’m going to be at work on time, I’m going to know my lines, I’m going to hit my marks and you’re not going to have to wait for me. But I’m also going to have a good time while I’m there. No one’s ever going to accuse me of being a fuddy-duddy.”

The vivacious Union is also no shrinking violet. Having grown up in the suburbs, she’s used to being “the black girl” in classes, on teams and, more recently, on sets, which means taking on “the responsibility of sort of educating people, correcting people and letting people know…little different nuances of race and class. It can be a little tiresome. It’s so much different on the set of a predominantly minority cast and crew, when you can free yourself up to just work and not have to worry about somebody saying something offensive or not understanding why I need a black hair stylist or why pink lipstick doesn’t look so great on a black person. It’s nice not to have those little struggles.”

Union is riding a wave that is seeing a more inclusive American cinema than, say, 10 years ago. But, as she can attest, Hollywood is still no where near to being as diverse as the society it purports to mirror. “There’s so much more that needs to be done for minorities, period, just to make films reflective of a multicultural America. Unfortunately, most of the writers employed come from privileged, homogeneous backgrounds not representative of the changing face of America, especially among younger people who, with the infusion of hip-hop, have a completely different mind-set,” she said. “For the younger generation, it’s not a big deal to have a black person kissing a white person or to have a Latino and an Asian as a couple. If those are the dollars Hollywood’s trying to get, then the projects need to be reflective of those attitudes, which are much more open.”

 

 

does she age at all? wth?

 

Casting, she said, is still replete with racism. While Berry broke down barriers playing a Bond girl, the buzz behind that “goes away and it’s back to fighting to play certain roles not written race specific. Why does the star’s secretary have to be blond? Why does Tom Cruise’s love interest have to be white? What’s the problem?” More insidious, she said, is the practice of casting light-skinned minorities in positive roles and dark-skinned minorities in negative roles. “When I was auditioning to play the pretty girl friend or the well-educated snob, the other girls in the room were either very fair or biracial and it was like, OK, clearly we have a mind set about what’s attractive, what’s well-to-do and what those faces look like. But a single mother crack-head who just lost her baby’s daddy to a gangland shooting, oh yeah, those girls are going to be dark. It’s just what people feel comfortable with I guess. It’s weird. But hopefully we’re slowly changing that.”

Along with her counterparts, Union hopes to open doors for more actors-of-color. “People in Hollywood always say, It’s not a black thing or a white thing, it’s a green thing, and in a sense that’s true. I’ve been lucky enough that some of my films have made money. Deliver Us From Eva made triple its budget, which you can’t say about many other movies, and that means something to Hollywood, which says, Here’s a movie about four sisters who all have jobs, who all have relationships and it made made money — Hmmm, let’s have more of this.”

Black or white, part of being a starlet in Hollywood is glamming it up, something Union, who can otherwise be found kicking it at home in sweats or shorts, enjoys doing for occasional magazine spreads and industry bashes, when she looks as cool and posh and fabulous as anyone. “It’s an escape from reality and a nice release to be a part of that whole Hollywood glamour machine,” she said. “It’s a lot of fun, but it’s not something I could keep up every day, certainly.”

She still gets back to Omaha, most recently for the January funeral of her great-grandmother, Ora Glass, who was 110. And she keeps tabs on other native Omaha film artists, such as actress Yolonda Ross (Antwone Fisher). An admirer of Alexander Payne, who’s a fan of hers, she said if he ever shoots in town again she’s “willing to be a P.A. or grip to help him around north Omaha,” adding with her typical sauciness, “I love his work, but you don’t see all of Omaha reflected.” Hint, hint.

 

One Hundred Years Strong: Bryant-Fisher Family Reunion

June 23, 2017 2 comments

One Hundred Years Strong: Bryant-Fisher Family Reunion

©Story by Leo Adam Biga

©Photos by Bill Sitzmann

Published in July-August 2017 issue of Omaha Magazine

 

The Bryant-Fisher family reunion celebrates an important milestone in 2017—its 100th anniversary. The three-day reunion event will conclude with a final day of festivities in Elmwood Park.

The “Dozens of Cousins,” named for the 12 branches of the prodigious African-American family, will gather in Omaha on Sunday, Aug. 13, to eat, converse, and renew bonds of kinship while reinvigorating ties to local neighborhood roots.

The first reunion was a picnic in 1917 held at Mandan Park in South Omaha, where family roots run deep. Mandan hosted the picnic for 74 years. Its trails, gardens, and river views offered scenic backdrops. The park is also near the family’s homestead at 15th Street and Berry Avenue, and Graceland Park Cemetery (where many relatives are buried).

The picnic, which goes on rain or shine, relocated to Carter Lake in the 1990s and has since gone to various locales. It is coming to Elmwood Park for the first time this year.

Hours before the picnic, a dawn fish fry kicks things off. With bellies full of fried food, the descendants of Emma Early head for a family worship service followed by the picnic.

Always present is a star-studded menu of from-scratch American comfort and soul food staples: ribs, fried chicken, lasagna, collard greens, black-eyed peas, mac and cheese, potato salad, and more.

The family’s different branches provide tents under which they set up their family feasts. Monique Henry belongs to the Gray tent and says everyone waits for her first cousin Danielle Nauden’s peach cobbler to arrive on the table.

The meals may be the highlight, but the day also includes games, foot races, a dance contest, and a pie/cake baking contest, which Henry says is mainly for the teenagers. The baking contest garners between 20 and 50 entries, depending on the size of the reunion.

Competitions are an intense part of the picnic gathering.

Film-television actress Gabrielle Union, the star of hit BET drama Being Mary Jane, is a descendant who grew up with the reunions. She understands what’s at stake.

“Having a chance to compete against your cousins in front of your family is huge,” Union says. “Some top athletes are in our family, so the races are like the Olympics. Each section of the family is like a country sending their best athletes. You trained for it.”

Union vividly recalls her most memorable race: “I wore my hair in braids but tucked under a cap. I won the race, and then somebody shouted, ‘That’s a boy,” thinking this fast little dynamo couldn’t possibly have been a girl, and I whipped off my cap like, ‘I’m a girl!’”

Although the large family has expanded and dispersed across Omaha and nationwide—and descendants of Emma Early Bryant-Fisher now number in the thousands—the picnic has remained in Omaha the second Sunday of August as a perennial ties-that-bind feast.

Union returns as her schedule allows. The actress grew up in northeast Omaha, attending St. Benedict the Moor. She often visited relatives in South O, where the home of matriarch Emma (a street is named after her) remained in the family.

Union introduced NBA superstar husband Dwyane Wade to the reunion last year. “It was important for me for Dwyane to come experience it,” she says. “No one I know has a family reunion of the scale, scope, and length we have. It’s pretty incredible. It says a lot about the endurance and strength of our family. It’s a testament to the importance of family, sticking together, and the strength that comes out of a family that recognizes its rich history and celebrates it.”

A tradition of this duration is rare for African-Americans given the historic struggles that disrupted many families. Bryant-Fisher descendant Susan Prater James says, “The reason for celebrating the 100th is that we’re still able to be together after everything our ancestors went through.”

“There’s nothing I can complain about [in terms of facing] adversity [that] someone in my family has not only experienced but fought through, and not just survived but thrived,” Union says. “I come from a long line of incredibly strong, powerful, and resilient strivers, and I pull from that daily.

We recognize our uniqueness and specialness, and we never take that for granted. I think with each passing year it just gets stronger and stronger.”

The family tree gets updated with a new history book every five years. “Dozens of Cousins” social media sites keep the grapevine buzzing. The family migrated from South Omaha to North Omaha many years ago, and also once had its own North O clubhouse at 21st and Wirt streets. The Dozens of Cousins, Inc. became a 501c3 in 2016.

A century of gatherings doesn’t just happen.

“We get together all the time, and anytime we get together it’s a celebration,” says Bryant-Fisher descendant Sherri Wright-Harris. “We love on one another. Family has always been instilled as the most important thing you have in this life. This is a part of the fabric that makes us who we are.”

“We don’t know anything different,” says Henry, another Bryant-
Fisher descendant.

“That’s ingrained from the time you’re born into the legacy,” family historian Arlett Brooks says. “My mother committed to her mother, and I committed to her to carry this tradition on. This is my love, my passion. I just think it’s important to share your history, and I want our youth to know the importance of this and to treasure what we have because this is not a common thing.”

The reunion has evolved from a one-day picnic to include: a river boat cruise, skate party, memorial ride (on a trolley or bus) to visit important family sites, banquet dinner-dance, and a talent showcase. Milestone years such as this one include a Saturday parade. Headquarters for the 2017 reunion will be situated at the Old Market Embassy Suites.

The reunion’s Friday night formal banquet means new outfits and hair-dos. But renewing blood bonds is what counts. “It’s a way for young and old to reconnect with their roots and find a sense of belonging,” Prater James says.

Representing the various branches of the Bryant-Fisher family takes on added meaning over time.

“No matter how old you are, no matter how down you get, on that day everything seems to be looking better,” Marc Nichols says.

Cheryl Bowles says she “felt sick” the one reunion she skipped.

Arlett Brooks says she has never missed a reunion, and she’s not about to miss the 100th. “You only get the centennial one time,” Brooks says.

New this year will be a family history cookbook complete with recipes, stories, and photos. Catfish, spaghetti, greens, and cornbread are faves. The history cookbook is expected to be printed and ready for sale at the reunion.

Union says fun and food aside, the real attraction is “hearing the stories—the important stories, the silly stories—and learning the history before people are gone.”

Visit bryantfisherreunion.com for more information.

Monique Henry

This article was printed in the July/August 2017 Edition ofOmaha Home.

Interfaith Journey: Sharif Liwaru and Gabrielle Gaines Liwaru share how they make their interfaith walk work

November 16, 2016 2 comments

Two of Omaha’s best – Gabrielle Gaines Liwaru and Sharif Zakir Liwaru – share the interfaith journey they make every day as a couple in my new Reader cover story. He’s Muslim. She’s a Follower of Christ. They make their blended union work in this fractious era by being intentional, open and honest about where their beliefs and practices converge and diverge. There is more sameness than difference and where there are differences, they treat each other and their tenets with respect. We all have something to learn from them.

 

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©photo by Debra Kaplan

 

Interfaith Journey

Sharif Liwaru and Gabrielle Gaines Liwaru share how they make their interfaith walk work

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the November 2016 issue of The Reader (http://.thereader.com)

 

When it comes to religious diversity, Omaha has churches, cathedrals, synagogues, mosques and temples. The metro’s immigrant, migrant and refugee settlers planted deep roots of Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism and Eastern Orthodoxy that still flourish today. The imprint Mormon pioneers made during the 19th century lives on in Florence and Council Bluffs.

Today’s local religious landscape also includes Bahá’í, Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic, New Religion, Pagan, Atheist and Unitarian centers.  Throughout the metro, interfaith efforts abound: Inclusive Communities, Together Inc., Omaha Together One Community, Neighbors United and the Tri-Faith Initiative. Countryside Community Church programs sometimes feature interfaith dialogues. There are also serious religious studies offerings at local institutions of higher learning that invite cross-current explorations.

Omaha’s not immune from religious bigotry. Hate crimes have defaced area mosques amidst rising anti-Islamic fervor. As recent and still waging wars demonstrate, religion, like race and nationality, can be a wedge for conflict or a bridge for understanding. Schisms happen within and between countries, denominations, congregations, tribes, sects, even individuals. As a house divided starts at home, interfaith couples carry loaded religious commerce. One such couple is Sharif Liwaru and Gabrielle Gaines Liwaru of Omaha. He’s a Muslim by birth and choice. She’s a self-professed “follower of Jesus” after growing up Lutheran and Assembly of God.

The 40-something-year-old parents of three are professionals and community activists. He directs the Office of Equity and Diversity at Omaha Public Schools and is president-CEO of the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation. She’s a teaching artist. They’re both active in the African Culture Connection, the Empowerment Network and the Black Lives Matter movement.

They shared with The Reader how they make their blended union work in this fractious era when contrasting persuasions can be deal-breakers. Not surprisingly for two people who advocate engagement, they go to great lengths to ensure they remain connected despite their differences. It starts with respecting each other and their sometimes opposite beliefs.

Gabrielle said, “As a follower of Jesus in an interfaith marriage

what I admire is that Sharif is not every Muslim. – Sharif is his own Muslim. He’s unique. Each person and their set of beliefs does not have to be exactly like the rest in their group and it goes for me as well. I’m happy that in our relationship we explore ideas and spiritual matters together.”

Though born Muslim to convert parents, Sharif examined the religion and recommitted to it as a young man.

“This settles easy on my heart and on my mind. It makes sense for me,” he said of his practice. His disciplines include fasting, praying five times a day and weekly congregational prayer.

When the couple met 23 years ago, Gabrielle’s religious traditions demonized Muslims. The more time she spent with Sharif and other Muslims, she came to see those ideas as false.

“In a lot of ways, shapes and forms the attitudes-beliefs of Christians towards Muslims are wrong,” she said.

Marriage only confirmed her new-found outlook. “I have a husband who has a golden heart and he is Muslim. I’m extremely in love with how he depicts himself within black American culture and with how he’s chosen to be Muslim, too.”

The couple married despite each being warned against if not forbidden from mating with someone of another faith.

“Both of us we’re breaking rules against our religion to be together,” she said.

They met at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. She was a single mom and aspiring artist and art educator. He was a community volunteer. They began as platonic friends. To this day their friendship and love trump any conflicts.

Sharif said, “In faith and spirituality when there are disagreements there’s a barrier that can come from I-feel-it’s- this-way and you-feel-it’s-that-way and there’s no reconciliation.

We’re not trying to create a sense of hierarchy of one being better than the other. At the same time, if either one of us felt the other’s path was THE path, we would have been on it. So, in as much as we agree with the other, we have to acknowledge each of us thinks we’re right.”

“In situations where Sharif thinks he’s right, I still have to respect him to the core as being a peaceful person,” she said.

They try emphasizing those things they are of one accord on.

“We are connected purposefully and spiritually and aligned in so many ways, so it’s a challenge trying to walk through the things we may see differently,” Sharif said. “Our ideologies are very similar in terms of how we treat one another, the belief in one god and in a creator, the understanding that your actions need to reflect what you believe, the sense of having purpose and being created intentionally, having strong moral values and the way you carry yourself as vital.”

Gabrielle said she believes she and Sharif are ordained “to journey together to do the things that make this place better,” adding, “We strengthen community, we strengthen our children and family and we’re role models for people to see that oh, yes, you can get beyond differences.”

 img_9016
©photo by Devra Kaplan

 

 

It hasn’t always been easy.

“For many years she wasn’t sure how I would take it if she was using Jesus a lot,” Sharif said. “I wasn’t sure how she would take different things – like greeting someone with ‘as-salamu alayka’ or s’alamun alaykum’ (peace and blessings or complimenting someone with ‘alhumdulillah’ (all praises be to god). Or praying-reading from the Koran before eating. Or using Allah for God. Those are Arabic words for English words commonly agreed upon and used in the house.

“We sometimes would self-dictate what made the other person feel uncomfortable. But then as we started to explore and grow,

especially in terminology, she used Yah as the one creator and I used Allah. We came to an understanding that when we say that we’re not saying it be contentious, rather we’re saying the same thing in two different ways. We don’t see them as counter or correction.”

As much as he or she might want the other to follow their beliefs, neither takes offense at their choosing not to.

She said she doesn’t accept Prophet Mohammed as “the final messenger Jesus said was to come after him –I feel like Jesus was talking about the spirit of truth and great comforter that would never leave us alone and would guide us without us having to follow a man and what the man said. I feel that deep in my soul and, yes, I would like my husband to feel that.”

She takes issue with the inequity Muslim women face. There are things about Christianity he finds difficult.

Each felt pressure to bring up they’re kids in a certain faith.

“There was a lot of recruiting by our parents wanting to make sure they grew up in the faith tradition they believed,” Sharif said. “We exposed them very intentionally and unashamedly to our faith. It was no secret Christian faith was on one side of the family and Islamic faith on the other side.”

He said he and Gabrielle left it open for their kids to identify as they saw fit. “Our kids grew to be examiners of information. The same way they took everything, they absorbed and created their own paths.” At various times, he said, they identified as “Muslim-Christian, neither-both, half Muslim and half Christian.”

In 2015 the couple’s middle child, Zaiid, was killed in an auto accident and the loss set them on a new path seeking answers.

“The passing of our son had us exploring an element of our faith we didn’t have many occasions to discuss (before),” Sharif said. “We found commonalities in the way we saw things and we talked through differences. Everything from wording to where Zaiid is now – physical presence versus spiritual presence – to where we originate from as human beings to where we come after we die. We share the philosophy that we are souls with a body, not bodies that have souls. Our bodies are vessels we carry until we return to our creator.”

The couple doesn’t allow any divergence to supersede their relationship.

“The harmony we want is because of our love – our love being bigger than him having a different religion than my spiritual way.

It’s love above all,” Gabrielle said.

They are secure enough that they can broach awkward disagreements without fear of rejection or resentment or rupture.

Sharif said, “Because of the way we feel about each other we can go deep into conversations other people can’t and we feel confident in exploring things. There’s intentionality and purpose. We work on it as much as we do for us because we’ve vested this many years into it, but beyond that working on us is working on God’s plan. That part we know to be truth – no doubt. We have to work through some stuff we don’t agree with or understand but we know the outcome will still be that this union stays. As much as we have some (conflicting) areas, I believe we’re walking the same path.”

Gabrielle doesn’t mask feelings about certain tenets of Islam she opposes but she delights in how she and Sharif find common ground.

I view Islam as being a religion and I feel less inclined to follow any religion. In his mosque I can’t go with him and stand or sit and make Salat with him, and I don’t agree with that. I want to be led spiritually by my husband. I want to have that accountability for a man to uphold his household with first priority to serving God and loving his wife and giving to his children every nurturing and provision he can.

“Sharif embodies all these beautiful characteristics to me and when I can grab his hand and we can pray prayers each of us understands, we’re worshiping,” she said, clasping his hand in hers at their dining room table, “and I believe it doesn’t need a religion that goes with that. It’s just us trying to put God at the center of our marriage and home and bring him glory. That’s where I like to worship. Personally I have found the church of Jesus has no walls. I will continue to have church with people who believe in God, whether we’re at my dining table or on somebody’s couch or in a coffee-shop or outdoors.”

 

 

 

She said nature, music and art resonate with her and Sharif’s spirits. In their North Omaha home plants sprout everywhere, international music plays, incense burns, art pieces from friends and travels pop on walls, tables, shelves. The couple’s curiosity is reflected in their many books and periodicals.

While no discernible faith artifact is displayed, the home exudes a warm, prayer-like intimacy and calm. When their kids were small the couple deliberately integrated faith in their home.

Gabrielle said. “We had the Bible, we had the Koran. We prayed as a family. We adopted and said mostly in English a Hindu prayer. We did prayers I grew up with. We asked our kids to invent prayers. Sharif taught our kids how to make Salat. We didn’t continue to do it religiously, nor did we do Bible or Koranic studies religiously, but our family has a strong sense of being together. We pray when we hear an ambulance go by. Whenever we’re at the table about to eat we honor God first because from God all good things come.”

Their oldest, Parris, composed a prayer the family still recites:

“Thank you Yah for this beautiful day.Thank you for all the blessings you have given us today. Please bless this food. Take any impurities out of it and let it nourish our bodies in every way it can. Please help anyone in need of your merciful blessings and wonderful healing. Amen”

The couple’s faith, she said, extends to “doing community service and standing up for people in need.” She stays “prayed up” for people regardless of their beliefs. “It doesn’t matter what they’re following, if they have a religion or not, just that they’re part of who I call mine. We pray no hardship or harm for our loved ones and that means my Muslim loved ones who cover. The Muslim community is part of who I pray for all the time.”

Though Gabrielle’s concerned about anti-Muslim sentiment, she said, “I have more concern over Sharif’s well-being because he’s a black man in America versus being Muslim.”

After the human stampede that killed and injured thousands during 2015’s Haj, she worried about his safety on the pilgrimage to Mecca he made last summer. Not used to being apart that long, the separation reconfirmed their love.

“We missed each other like crazy when he was on his pilgrimage,” she said. “I think both of us held onto that our love is going to be bringing him safely home and us back together again because of our destiny.”

She feels as a couple they’re still all-in.

“We have 21 years under our belts and it doesn’t feel like we’ve come to a place of we’re too tired to work on this or we don’t have any sparks about each other.”

 

The Reader November

 

 

Meanwhile, they support interfaith exchanges. Omahan Beth Katz used their perspective to frame dialogues and trainings at Project Interfaith. She said she admires their “commitment as individuals and as a couple” to engage on issues of identity, faith, diversity, culture and community” that are “complex and messy and many people prefer to avoid.” “But I think it is precisely because they each have a deep sense of faith rooted in different religions that avoidance has never been an option and they have embraced this reality rather than resent it.”

“They also didn’t sugarcoat the experience,” Katz said. “They revealed there were times of tension and unease. I think their willingness to share publicly their journey on issues of religion and faith speaks to the incredible respect they hold for each other as people of faith, as a couple and as a family. They live out their faiths and the common values it provides them through their commitment to their family and the larger community.”

Sharif said the interfaith dynamic he and Gabrielle share adds a “very strong richness” to their lives. He agrees with Katz that most folks aren’t ready for open, honest conversation along faith lines. “As a community I think we’re not as engaged in that interfaith conversation as we need to be. Whether interfaith or interracial, conversations are ignored so that nobody feels     uncomfortable or because you’ve decided you know about a particular group of people or it’s just easier to have this hateful opinion versus actually listening and possibly liking the other. Some people are not prepared to deal with that dissonance.”

He likes the Omaha Tri-Faith Initiative’s attempt to bring Christian, Jewish, Muslim faith centers together on one campus.

“It’s countering the narratives we see and hear that folks are not getting along based on their religion and the politics of that, where in many parts of the world these three faiths are interacting in a peaceful way.”

Parenting the Second Time Around Holds Challenges and Delights for Senior Kinship Caregiver Theresa Glass Union, Who Always Puts Family First

November 25, 2012 7 comments

Parenting the Second Time Around Holds Challenges and Delights for Senior Kinship Caregiver Theresa Glass Union, Who Always Puts Family First

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear as the cover story in the December issue of the New Horizons

After raising three daughters in the 1970s-1980s and nearing retirement in the early 2000s, Theresa Glass Union thought she knew what her later years would look like. Even though still working, she envisioned socializing and traveling with friends and family. When she could finally retire it’d mean free time like she hadn’t known in ages.

The Omaha native had just moved back here after more than 20 years in Calif. She was divorced, eager to start a new life and catch up with old mates and haunts. Then a family crisis erupted and her selfless response led her to join the growing ranks of kinship caregivers raising young children.

Reports indicate that upwards of 6 million children in America live with grandparents identified as the head of household. Nearly half of these children are being raised by someone other than the parents or grandparents. The number of children being parented by non-birth parents has increased 18 percent since 2000, according to a report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Some kinship caregivers do it informally, others through the state child welfare-foster care system. Being informed of rights, regulations and benefits takes work.

photo
Theresa Glass Union, ©New Horizons

Theresa is a kinship caregiver to children of a niece who’s long battled drug addiction. The niece is the mother of six children by different fathers, The three oldest variously live with their fathers or their fathers’ people. When the niece got pregnant with each of her three youngest children, now ages 5, 4 and 2, they came to live with Theresa shortly after their births.

It’s not the first time Theresa’s dealt with tough circumstances inside and outside her family. She has a younger sister with a criminal past who happens to be the mother of the niece whose children Theresa is raising. Years spent in social service jobs dealing with clients living on the edge have given Theresa a window into the bad decisions that desperate, addicted persons make and the hard consequences those wrong choices bring.

At age 65 and two-and-a-half decades removed from raising three grown daughters, one of whom is film-television star Gabrielle Union, Theresa’s doing a parenting redux. She never thought she’d be in charge of three pre-school-aged kids again, but she is. She’s since legally adopted the two older siblings, both girls, and is awaiting an adoption ruling on their “baby” brother.

As the babies came to her one by one she found herself knee deep again in diapers and baby bottles, awakened in the middle of the night by crying infants, figuring out formulas and worrying about fevers, sniffles, coughs and tummy aches. Now that the kids are a little older, there’s daycare, pre-school and managing a household of activity.

It’s not what she imagined retirement to be, but how could she not be there for the kids? They were going to be removed from their birth mother and placed in a system not always conducive to happy outcomes. Child welfare officials generally agree that childcare fare better in kinship care settings than in regular foster care.

Kinship caregivers may get involved when the parents are incarcerated, on drugs or deceased. In the case of Theresa, drugs were found in the systems of the two oldest children she’s adopted, Keira and Miyonna. Theresa felt they needed unconditional family love. The girls are doing fine today under the care of Theresa and her brother James Glass. The girls’ brother, Amari, was born drug-free.

With so much stacked against the children to start life, Theresa wasn’t about to turn her back on them. Family is everything to her. She’s the oldest of seven siblings, all raised Catholic – churched and schooled at St. Benedict the Moor, the historic African-American parish in northeast Omaha. It’s where she received all her sacraments, including marrying her ex-husband Sylvester Union.

“The church is central to my family here.”

She graduated from Sacred Heart High School.

She and Union moved to San Francisco during the Summer of Love in 1967 and they returned to Omaha a year later. They both ended up working at Western Electric. Like other black couples then they ran into discriminatory real estate practices that flat out denied them access to many neighborhoods or steered them away from white areas into black sections of North Omaha. Their first home was in northeast Omaha but they eventually moved into a house in the northwest part of the city, where their three daughters went to school.

In the 1970s Theresa, who studied social work at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, worked for Omaha nonprofit social service agencies, including CETA (Comprehensive Employment & Training Agency) and GOCA (Greater Omaha Community Action). After a long stint in corporate America she returned to the non-profit field.

The family left here in 1981 for Pleasanton, Calif., where they lived the sun-dappled Southern Calif. suburban life. She worked for Pacific Bell and completed her bachelor’s degree in human relations and organizational behavior at the University of San Francisco. After her divorce she and her brother James Glass returned to Omaha in 2003. A few years passed before Theresa’s troubled niece came for help. At various times the family tried interventions, once even getting the niece into rehab, but each time she fled and resumed her drug habit.

photo
Theresa and her brother James Glass with the children
©New Horizons

As a former field worker with Douglas County Health and Human Services and as a one-time Child Protection Service Worker with Nebraska Health and Human Services, Theresa’s seen the despair and chaos that result when siblings are separated from each other and extended family. It’s why when her niece kept getting pregnant while hooked on drugs and unable to take care of herself, much less children, Theresa intervened to ensure the kids would go to her.

“Some of the things children said to me when I was a social worker have just stayed with me,” she says.

On one call she visited three young siblings in a foster home.

“I was like the fifth social worker since they’d been brought into the system. The     8-year old boy said, ‘Please don’t take us away, we get fed three times a day here. ‘Well. that told me they’d been staying with some people (before) who weren’t feeding them regularly. Who does that? The foster parent let him walk me around the home and this little boy was just adamant he be with his brothers.”

In another case several siblings were divided up among different foster families.

“One of the siblings got to see her sisters at school but she no longer got to see her brothers, and she asked me, ‘Can I see my brothers?’Her foster parent had made the request but nothing had happened, so I looked into it and found that each sibling had a different social worker and had been placed at a separate time. I got it worked out that the siblings got to visit each other.”

System shortfalls and breakdowns like these were enough to make Theresa bound and determined to arrange in advance with hospital social workers for her to be the foster placement parent for her niece’s three youngest kids. When Keira and Miyonna tested positive for drugs the state, by law, detained them and they were put in Theresa’s care two days after their births. She did the same with their brother. She simply wouldn’t let them fall outside the family or be separated.

“After Keira was born I was already a resident foster placement and I’d already contacted everybody involved to let them know if there was another baby that ends up in the detention system I want to be the foster parent of choice because I didn’t want these kids to go into the system. My idea is that the kids all need to be raised together. They deserve to have their siblings .

“I was working for Child Protective Service, so I knew all the ins and outs of what was going to happen. I knew how many times we were going to have to go to the doctor before the baby’s cleared. I knew that babies wake up in the middle of the night and children with drugs in them can find it more difficult sleeping, eating. I was prepared for all that. It didn’t happen, I was thanking God that Keira’s and Miyonna’s little withdrawal things were just a few days. The biggest problem we had was figuring out formula.”

Daughter Kelly Union, a senior analyst with US Airways, admires her mother’s by-any-means-necessary fortitude.

“My mom always looks for more solutions, other options, different ways to climb a mountain. That determination helps me when I hit a brick wall at work, in my marriage, with my kids. My mom also sees all glasses as half full. There is a positive in everything and we just need to find it. My mom’s best attribute, however, is being strong against all odds—she finds the strength to hold up everything and everyone, including herself despite what she is up against.  I get my strength from her.”

The way Theresa sees it she did what she did in order to “preserve the continuity of the children’s lives, so that they know their family members, the cousins, the aunts and uncles, the lineage back, like my grandma Ora Glass and my grandma Myrtle Fisher Davis, and the head of our family today, Aunt Patricia Moss.”

Theresa hails from one of the largest and oldest African-American families in the region, the Bryant-Fishers, whose annual picnic is 95 years strong.

Her bigger-than-life late grandmother, Ora, the longtime matriarch, lived to 110. Ora gained celebrity as a shining example of successful aging, even appearing on Phil Donahue’s show and running her fingers through the host’s hair. In her younger years Ora was a housekeeper and nanny for some of Omaha’s elite families. One packinghouse owner family even brought her out to Calif. to continue her duties when they moved there. She survived the Red Summer of 1919, when blacks were targeted by racists in riots that wreaked havoc from coast to coast, including Omaha and Orange County, Calif..

“My grandmother had a whole lot of stories,” says Theresa.

In her 70s and 80s Ora “reinvented” herself from a very strict, prim and proper lady with politics tending toward the conservative” to loosening up on things like relationships and social issues, notes Theresa. “She told me, ‘I’m losing so many old friends that I have to make new friends and I have to use new opinions and I have to make new decisions.’ She began reaching out and making new friends and gathering new family to her. She started trying different things. She went to political science classes at UNO. She learned ceramics.”

Even when she had to use a walker, Theresa says. Ora maintained her independence, riding the bus downtown for Mass at St Mary Magdalene’s Church, a repast at Bishop’s Cafeteria and taking in all the sights.

Ora was then and is now an inspiration to Theresa. She carries her grandmother’s boundless curiosity, determination and affirmation inside her.

“She always persevered. She said, ‘Whatever you do you always do it to the best of your ability.’ She said, ‘You can always make more family’ and she always did generate more and more family for herself.”

Ora was godmother to Omaha native Cathy Hughes, founder of the Radio One and TV One media empires, and played a big role in the mogul’s early life.

Ageless Ora ended up a resident at the Thomas Fitzgerald Veterans Home (the military service of her late husband Aaron Glass entitled her to stay there) and Theresa says her grandmother “recruited families from St. Vincent dePaul parish to visit residents there. There were a couple of families she adopted. The kids came and they called her grandma and they brought her gifts.”

It’s figures and stories like these that Theresa didn’t want her three new children to miss out on. The family takes great pains to maintain its ties, celebrate its history and record the additions and losses as well as the triumphs and tragedies among their family trees. Help abounds from loved ones she says because “there’s so many of us. There’s like 1,500 of us (dispersed around the country).”

She values the traditions and events that bind them and their rich legacy and she wouldn’t want the children now in her care to be deprived of any of it.

“We’re called the Dozens of Cousins. Yeah, I do take a lot of pride in that. I get that a lot from my aunt Patricia Moss because she wants there to be the continuity. We do have continuity.”

Regarding the big August reunion, when hundreds gather at Levi Carter Park, she says, “I try to always make it. Since coming back home in 2003 I haven’t missed any, and when I was younger it wasn’t an option, you were there. We have the family picnic, we have family birthdays, we have that kind of continuity and I think children need that to grow in their own maturity and emotional strength,” she says. “It can give them that stability. You’re not going to get that from strangers. And knowing at some point there’s going to be questions about who mom is, I have all those baby pictures and all that stuff. I can give them a sense of who she is if she doesn’t care to come around.”

Having a large family around gives Theresa a ready-made support network.

“I have a supportive family around me. I have everybody lined up that’s going to keep this continuity. My brother James wouldn’t say it before that he’s helping raise the kids, but he’s saying it now. My sister and cousins call and make sure I have break times. My granddaughter Chelsea came from Arizona recently to watch the kids so I could have a break time. When my daughter Tracy has breaks from work she comes in and helps out.

“So I have a support system around me and they’re all kin to these children, so they’re never outside of family.”

photo
Theresa with Amari, Miyonna and Keira
©New Horizons

Kelly Union says even if there wasn’t all that family support her mother would have done the same thing.

“Without a doubt, she would have been that beacon without all of us supporting her. That is her character, that is the legacy she inherited and the legacy she is passing on to all of us. We have all been known to help someone else, even when it isn’t easy or comfortable and that is a direct reflection of her.”

The respite family provides Theresa has proven vital as she’s realized she’s not capable of doing everything like she was the first time she raised kids. She’s much more prone now to ask for help. Another difference between then and now is that her older daughters were spaced out three or four years, whereas the kids she’s raising today are all just a year or two apart.

“My oldest was 4 before I had my second and then my second was 7 before I had my third. It’s a different experience when you can devote your time to the one child at a time. And then by the time I had the second child the oldest child had more of her own things she was doing that she didn’t need me while I was taking care of this other one. And then the two of them did not need me as much when I was taking care of the third one, so every kid got to be like an only child.”

Things stated out different the second time around.

“‘I found I was now taking care of two kids at the same time, so if I’m changing a diaper the other one’s right there fussing and attention grabbing. and boy that’s more wearing on me. The energy for two young ones is just wearing.

“When I first got Keira and Miyonna I was working, so I got to take them to day care. But I could not keep my mind going well enough during the day to do a social work job. I could not keep up and my caseload was falling farther and farther behind. I even asked for more training, but I just couldn’t manage it. I thought I was super lady but my energy level is not the same as it was, trust me.”

The two girls don’t need quite the attention they did before, which is good because their little brother needs it now.

“We got through that and Keira and Miyonna started doing real good together. I even have them sleeping together in a big double bed. They sleep all night.”

In terms of parenting, she says she’s learned to “let some things go” that she would have stressed over before. For example she doesn’t worry whether the kids’ clothes or hair or bedrooms are perfect. “You do the best with what you have and you gotta innovate,” she says.

Her adult daughters may be the best gauge for what kind of mother Theresa is. The oldest, Kelly, wrote in an email:

“My mother was always the “you can do it”, “give it a try” type of parent. She supported all our whims—Girl Scouts, musical instruments, sports, school plays, dance class. Whatever struck our fancy at the moment, she backed our efforts. No is not a big word in her vocabulary. Not that she was a permissive parent who let us get away with things. But more in the way that she was willing to let us try and learn our own likes, dislikes, pleasure and pain first hand.

“My mom was never really a yelling, scolding type of mom and that worked well for us. Life lessons taught with logic, love and support goes a long way to shaping a child the right way.”

Kelly doesn’t see any marked difference in her how mom parents now than before.

“No, the core is very much the same. My mom is home more with them but the attention, the opportunities, the lessons are all still the same.”

Theresa would like for the children’s birth mother to be involved in their lives but thus far she says her niece has shown little interest. In fact, Theresa’s lost most contact with her niece, whose exact whereabouts she’s unsure of.

“She actually did visitation with Miyonna for the first three weeks of her life and then she back slid all the way and did a disappearance act. We didn’t know where she was.”

The instability and unreliability of the mother were huge factors in Theresa taking charge and getting the kids in a safe home surrounded by family. She says she never wanted to have happen to these children what she’s seen happen to others, such as when kids age out of the system never having been reunited with family, much less visited by them. With their biological mother out of the picture, Theresa saw no option but to step up.

“It’s hard to forge your own identity when your identity has been connected with state administrators,” she says of foster children.

It’s not the first time she’s taken in loved ones in need. When her uncle Joe Glass lived in a Milwaukee nursing home and was going to be transferred to a veterans home near the Canadian border, far from any family, Theresa and her brother James brought him to Omaha.

Growing up, she saw the example of her family take in childhood friend Cathy Hughes when Cathy’s musician mother Helen Jones Woods was on the road. Hughes said growing up she and Theresa thought they were “blood sisters.”

Theresa’s three birth daughters have embraced her returning to parenting young kids again all these years later. She says they’ve all accepted and bonded with their new siblings and go out of their way in spoiling them. “They don’t want for anything,” she says of her little ones.

Kelly speaks for her sisters when she says they all admire and support their mother in assuming this new responsibility at her age but that it doesn’t surprise them.

“That is just my mom. I don’t think she thought of it as parenting at her age, she just saw a need and filled it. Age really didn’t play into it, although she did discuss it with us because doing the right thing would impact all of us. My mom always does the ‘right thing,’ and right doesn’t mean easy and she accepts that whenever she takes on a task, a role, a responsibility.

“My grandmother raised her and this is what my grandmother did and would have done if she was alive. Her opting to raise the kids did not surprise any of us in the least. It is the one characteristic both my parents had and handed down to us: Do what you can, when you can and share of yourself, your home, your belongings and your wealth (regardless of how much money you have or don’t have). It’s the right thing to do to help someone else, especially family.”

Kelly and her sister Gabrielle have each assumed similar super-nurturing roles as their mother. Kelly, who has three children of her own, has acted as a surrogate mom to athletes coached by her husband. Gabrielle is now the adult female figure in the home of her equally famous boyfriend, NBA superstar Dwyane Wade, whose two sons and a nephew live with him in Miami.

photo
Theresa, with portrait of her three adult children in background
©New Horizons

Theresa’s justifiably proud of her three grown children, each a successful, independent woman in her own right. Kelly’s a corporate executive. Tracy’s a facilities coordinator at Arizona State University and Gabrielle’s the movie star. Just as she feels she well prepared her older girls for life she hopes to do the same for their young siblings.

“I got my three grown daughters there healthy and educated and then they had to travel it on themselves. Hopefully I can do this another time and the three young ones will be healthy and educated and they’ll be able to move on and enjoy their lives. Nobody has to be famous but you have to be able enjoy and sustain your life. I think my girls have done really well and I hope the next ones do, too.

“This time it’s a different experience and we’re working it out.”

She says most of her parenting the first time happened in the suburbs compared to the inner city, where she, her brother and the kids live today. She’s struck by the stark difference between the two environments and their impact on children.

Gun violence and street gangs were foreign to west Omaha and Pleasanton but the northeast Omaha she’s come back to is rife with criminal activity. Where Pleasanton lacked for no amenities North Omaha has major gaps.

“It’s interesting that this neighborhood doesn’t have the things that we had when we were young. The (black) population has been dispersed throughout the city. Things you take for granted, conveniences you have right there in the suburbs, are not so readily available in the inner city. It’s a lack of resources, lack of everything right in this neighborhood for raising children. So I had to start looking for the village (the proverbial village that helps raise a child). My village is right here. I have Kellom School and I have Educare.”

Gabrielle says the way her mother intentionally seeks out educational and cultural opportunities for the young kids she’s raising now reminds her of how she did the same thing when she and her sisters were coming up. She says her mom’s always been about expanding children’s minds through enriching experiences.

Theresa says the dearth of programs for young kids in northeast Omaha “is what prompted me to join the board of the Bryant Center Association – so we could add things (like recreation activities and counseling services).”

The nonprofit association operates the Bryant Center, a community oasis at 24th and Grant Streets that aims to improve the lives of youth, young adults and seniors. Administrators are looking to expand programming. Theresa recently prevailed upon Cathy Hughes to co-chair the association’s capital fundraising campaign.

In the final analysis Theresa doesn’t consider rearing young children at her age as anything heroic or out of the ordinary. It all comes back to family and doing the right thing. “I don’t call it being a saint,” she says. “You always take care of your own.”

She wants others to know they can do what she’s doing. An aunt or a grandmother or another relation can be the parent when Mom and Dad cannot.

“It is a doable process, especially in Omaha, because there is other help available. There are families out there that could do this with their own because there is support for you in the community. Sometimes you have to really search for it depending on what your needs are. But even if there’s a problem where the natural parents aren’t available to participate, you can raise the children so they are still a part of a family.”

Helping navigate the experience is ENOA’s Grandparent Resource Center. It offers free monthly support group meetings, crisis phone intervention, transportation assistance, access to legal advice and referrals to other services and programs. Participants need only be age 55 or above.

Center coordinator Debra Scott, who is raising her granddaughter, says caregivers need to know they don’t have to do it alone. “Don’t be afraid to ask for help,” she says. “I’m learning I can’t be everything to everybody, I need to ask for help and that’s where this program comes in.”

Call 402-444-6536, ext. 297 to inquire how the center may be able to help you or a senior caregiver you know.

Theresa Union & Gabrielle Union pictured at the 'Cadillac Records' premiere after party at Marquee in New York City on December 1, 2008.  RD / Dziekan / Retna Digital
‘Cadillac Records’ New York Premiere

Theresa Union & Gabrielle Union pictured at the ‘Cadillac Records’ premiere after party at Marquee in New York City on December 1, 2008. RD / Dziekan / Retna Digital

A Family Thing: Bryant-Fisher Family Reunion

August 4, 2011 9 comments

Family. Can’t live with them, can’t live without them. For the Bryant-Fisher extended family, who call home base Omaha, Neb. but have members scattered all over the nation, they keep things tight with a annual family reunion. Big deal, right?  Well, before you dismiss their get-together as routine, consider that this is a really big family, as in more than 2,200 direct descendants of family reunion founder Emma Early Bryant Fisher, by last count. Their Second Sunday in August reunion usually draws 500 or more folks, and for those milestone years it sees 700, 800, or more.  Eight generations worth come from near far. Then consider they’ve been doing this for 94 consecutive years.

 

 

 Dozens_of_Cousins.jpg

 

 

A Family Thing: Bryant-Fisher Family Reunion

©by Leo Adam Biga

As published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

With Native Omaha Days come and gone, another traditional African-American summer gathering, the Bryant-Fisher Family Reunion, begins.

The biennial Native Omaha Days began in 1977. But it’s a newbie compared to the historic annual reunion that dates to 1917, when Emma Early Bryant Fisher inaugurated the event with a family picnic at Mandan Park near her South Omaha home. The picnic was held there for 30 years.

Sunday’s picnic at Levi Carter Park will mark its 94th consecutive year.

The Days and the reunion coincide only every other year. Just as NOD winds down, the reunion gears up, though there’s an extra week between them this time. NOD officially runs a week. The reunion, three days.

NOD boasts signature events attracting sizable crowds. The Bryant-Fisher reunion has one main event – the sprawling, all-day August 14 picnic. The picnic moved to Carter Lake in the early 1990s.

The picnic draws the biggest family throng.

“They’re going to be at the park. If they don’t do anything else for the whole weekend or the whole year, that Sunday they will be at the park,” says family historian Arlett Brooks. “You cook your food and you pitch your tent, and you may be there for an hour or you may be there for five hours, but you go.”

This mega extended family, whose population rivals that of many Nebraska towns, takes over a few acres at Carter Lake.

The Bryants and Fishers exert a considerable presence wherever they encamp. They comprise what’s believed to be the largest African-American family around, extending over 12 branches. They’re so large they conduct their own census. At last count they numbered more than 2,200 direct descendants.

If this year is like others, 500 to 800 souls will gather Sunday.

“People just don’t realize the magnitude of it until they get there,” says Brooks, whose sister Cheryl Secret and mother Patricia Moss are family stalwarts.

The enormity of the history and scope is a point of family pride.

“I think it’s associated with pride, it’s associated with tradition, respect for our elders. By continuing this we’re respecting our great-grandmother,” says Secret.

For milestone reunions like the 90th in 2007, when upwards of 1,000 or more gathered, the family throws its own Saturday parade on North 24th Street.

In this frantic age, the reunion expresses solidarity and consistency. The family likes to say no matter where you are in the world, you know the reunion will be held on the second Sunday in August ,come hell or high water. Neither storms nor floods will deter it.

“Nothing has ever stopped it,” says Secret. “You don’t even look at the weather, you just go.”

“We’ve been rained on a lot of times, but not rained out,” says Moss, who by her reckoning hasn’t missed a reunion during her 85 years.

Having something to count on helps this enormous family remain tight.

“It’s wonderful to have that bond, to have something that brings us together as opposed to separating us,” says Paul Bryant. “We need more things like that in society – showing love as opposed to hate or indifference.”

“We may not see each other every day, but if you need us we’re there. That’s how we are,” says Juanita Sutton.

Meeting and greeting at the picnic is an invitation for young and old to share where they fit on the vast family tree. “If someone says, ‘How are you related?’ it’s an honor to be able to go down the line as to how you belong in the family,” says Secret.

 

 

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Arlett’s daughter, Makida Brooks, says, “It means a whole lot, just knowing I can go anywhere and not be alone. I can go anywhere by myself and be pretty sure I’m going to be in the same area as one of my relatives, so I’m going to be okay, wherever I go.”

On their Dozens of Cousins Facebook page, Makida says, “We send messages, ‘Do we have any cousins in Alabama? In Buffalo, New York.? In L.A.? Most places we do. On Facebook I have 500-600 friends and 90 percent of them are my relatives. I don’t accept you if I don’t know you, so you have to be related to me.”

Moss, whose grandmother was reunion founder Emma Early, does old school social networking at the picnic, where she seeks her closest cousins.

“When I could walk I used to walk from one end of Carter Lake all the way to the other to make sure I saw every one of my cousins, especially my first cousins,” says Moss, who as an elder now has relatives come and wait on her.

When she was still spry, her daughters shadowed her as she made the rounds. It ignited their interest in family lore.

“We got to visit and develop relationships with all 12 families because we were with her,” says Brooks.

Patricia’s daughters cherish their mother’s and other elders’ tales.

“She loves telling us stories,” says Secret. “She’ll tell stories about racial things that happened in South Omaha, where they kind of pushed the blacks out, and how her father’s family stayed put. Her uncle sat on the porch with a shotgun and said, ‘I’m not going anywhere.’ They stood their ground.

“When we’re like this, just sitting around, all you gotta do is just give her a little hint of what direction you want to go, and she’ll just start sharing stories.”

As if on cue, Patricia recalls how long-ago customs were enforced at the picnic.

“I remember when we were kids my grandmother had all of the cousins sit at one table. The sisters (daughters, daughters-in-law) had to wait on everybody before they could eat. My grandmother would sit down with the men and she’d have her dinner and she’d make sure all the kids had theirs, and then the sisters could sit down and eat.”

Where a pavilion or large tent once accommodated the picnic, she says, “It’s got so big, now each family’s got their own tent.”

The Bryant-Fisher thing turns Carter Lake into a multi-colored tent city. Black folks of every shade and hue mingle. Eight generations worth. Some sport Bryant-Fisher T-shirts, complete with the family crest. Some “wear” the logo as body art. Jazz, blues and R&B mix with hip-hop.

One could mistake it all for Native Omaha Days. But don’t confuse the two. The family is protective of what they have and don’t like sharing the spotlight.

The reunion’s longevity and large turnout regularly attract media notice, even gaining Guinness Book of World Records mention. During election cycles the picnic’s known to bring out politicians in search of votes.

Party crashers are not unheard of.

“Oh, yeah, but they’re kind of welcome, as long as they’re not bringing trouble,” says Mary Alice Bryant. “To me, what’s great, with all the violence in Omaha, we’ve never had one incident, not one.”

Rev. Doyle Bryant, pastor at Shiloh Baptist Church, says his family’s commitment to staying connected, and the reunion’s high profile, explain why it’s endured and why it’s coveted by outsiders.

“This family reunion is nationally known, that has a lot to do it. When you get that type of notoriety you don’t want it to die out. We have people coming from all over the country to participate.”

“I know some families struggle to keep the family together, but I grew up with us always having it. It’s just expected,” says Arlett Brooks. “I think a lot of people admire that we could have kept it going that long.”

“There’s not too many that have gone on this many years,” says Marcelyn Frezell. “I think it has encouraged other families to have family reunions.”

But there are posers, too.

“We’ve got a whole lot of wannabes,” says Patricia Moss.

With a family this size, it’s impossible to know everyone.

“I think it’s intimidating, especially for the people who come from out of town maybe only every five years,” says Secret. “You walk through the park and you know all these people are your relatives, but you just don’t have a clue who they all are.

“I think the more we go down in generations the less connection they seem to have with each other. That’s something we talk about, we really need to work on – the young people getting to know each other to maintain the closeness and bonds with one another.”

Paul Bryant says he had to overcome his own shyness to fully partake in the reunion.

“You just have to get a comfort zone being around that many people and realizing all these people are family. They’re here to represent family, and you are a part of the family. Whether you’re a Bryant or a Fisher, at every tent you’re welcome, and that’s the way I conduct myself now. I walk right up to another tent, ‘Hey, you guys got anything to drink over here?’ ‘Sure, help yourself.’ ‘Who are you?’ ‘Paul Bryant. I’m the son of Doyle Bryant, who was the son of….”

And the lineage beat goes on.

There have been countless occasions when two young people who are sweet on each other find out they’re cousins.

“I had six children and every last one of my kids, every last one of ’em, brought        somebody home as their girlfriend or their boyfriend,” says Moss. “When I got through questioning them, they were cousins. And we all live right here in Omaha. That’s what I couldn’t understand – how they don’t know each other.”

Arlett and Cheryl had it happen to them, as did most of their cousins.

“I went all the way through high school with a guy and one year I seen him at the family picnic. He said, ‘This is my family,’ and I’m like, ‘Well, where have you been all of these years?’ Sometimes, they’ve been there and you’ve been there, you just haven’t seen each other,” says Arlett.

Someone she works with turned out to be a cousin. “We’re very close now.”

Cheryl began a family genealogy book 16 years ago. Arlett’s revised it every five years. The family consults it when there’s a question.

“I took the initiative to research and find out all of the generations underneath my mother’s generation,” says Secret. “If someone can’t go down that line and tell me who their grandmother was or who their great-grandmother was, then you know they’re a wannabe or they married in or they’re somebody’s friend.”

Not that friends aren’t welcome, they are. “I have two girlfriends I’ve been knowing all my life, and they don’t miss it,” says Mary Alice Bryant.

Coming on the heels of Native Omaha Days, it makes for two weeks of black pride heritage celebrations.

Thousands flocked back for the July 27-August 1 Days. They came from Georgia, Alabama, Texas, California, Back East and every which way. Hundreds will do the same for the reunion. Some stay for both.

Folks catch up with family and friends, revisit old haunts and make the rounds. The Days is a succession of reunions, picnics, barbecues and block parties. There’s music, dancing, card playing. Church. A parade down North 30th. A communal picnic at Elmwood Park. A Blue Monday at local watering holes to tie one on before parting-is-such-sweet-sorrow goodbyes.

The Bryants-Fishers turn out in force at The Days. A family matriarch, Bettie McDonald, co-founded the event and its sponsoring Native Omahans Club. Not surprisingly, the itinerary is patterned after that of the Bryant-Fisher bash.

Though the Dozens of Cousins picnic has changed, one thing that hasn’t is the dawn fish-fry breakfast, followed by a church service. Other activities include a talent contest, volleyball, foot races, fishing. Pokeno, gin and dominos are the favored card games.

There’s a formal dinner dance Friday night at the Lake Point Center, a Family Fun Day Saturday at Fun-Plex and various odds and ends.

When the family has a parade, Bryant-Fisher floats and drill teams pass by the Native Omahans Club on North 24th. The building doubles as the family clubhouse for Dozens of Cousins meetings and fish-fry dinners.

Just as The Days ends on a blue note, some relatives will ring out the reunion on Monday at the club or a bar – tilting back a few to bid each other farewell, till next year.

For Paul Bryant, the reunion’s been a given his whole life, and with it the realization his family is far from ordinary.

“Some of my earliest childhood memories are at family picnics at Mandan Park,” he says, “and of some of the same things still going on today. The dance contest, the races. We used to almost always go down to the bottom of the hill to play football.

“The little kids would watch the older kids. ‘Oh,he plays for Central! He’s my cousin?’ Then you become older and you become the one the little guys are watching. Then you get older still and admire someone like my cousin Galen Gullie, who made us all proud playing ball for Bryan (High). In my day, I was kind of doing that.”

Bryant sees the reunion as continuity. An each-one-to-teach-one opportunity for older generations to impart the family heritage and tradition.

“I always knew we have a big family,” says Bryant. “When I was 8 or 10 they’d hold a program with a dinner and the mayor or someone would speak. I was like, ‘Wow, there’s something special here.’ Politicians come to the picnic and press the flesh. I mean, there’s a lot of people there and a lot of them have done some things in the community.

“As a kid, you’d see that, you’d hear that, and you knew your family had something special. And you were proud to be inheriting all that legacy.”
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He enjoys discovering some notable is a relative. He’s a notable himself. He excelled in sports in high school and college, then embarked on a fast-track corporate career before assuming leadership of the Nebraska Urban League. He found a new mission as executive director of the Wesley House, where he formed an excellence academy. Today, he’s a presenter at schools with his purpose-driven leadership program.

Bryant, his wife Robin and their three kids are widely recognized for their community service. He says high achievers in the family, whether the late coach-educator Charles Bryant or current young hoops star Galen Gullie or the family’s bona fide celebrity, actress Gabrielle Union, serve to inspire.

Union gets back for The Days some years and for the reunion others. Her appearances, lately with NBA squeeze Dwyane Wade, cause a sensation in the black community every bit as electric as the buzz Lady Gaga generates among her Little Monster fans.

The family is unapologetically possessive in claiming “Gabby” as their own. Paul Bryant’s as starstruck as the rest, but he’d rather his kids view their elders as role models and their family history as cool.

“My son can tell you, ‘My dad’s Paul Bryant, whose dad was Doyle Bryant, whose dad was Marcy Bryant, whose dad was Thurston Bryant, who’s the son of Emma Early, who’s the daughter of Wesley Early, who’s the son of a plantation owner.

“For me, it’s important to pass that down. I want every one of my kids to know their lineage as far back as we can trace it. I think that’s part of what this whole Bryant-Fisher thing is. If you don’t know, if it’s just going to the picnic Sunday and you don’t feel connected with something bigger, you miss out, you’ve got nothing to pass on.”

Makida Brooks values the experiences her elders share. “Just knowing what they had to go through and what they had to do makes me appreciate what I have now. I understand I don’t have nearly the struggles they had.”

Ninety-four years since it’s start, the reunion appears set for the future.

“I’m not expecting anything different than what has happened in the past,” says Arlett Brooks. “People will step up and make sure it continues, just like I have for my generation, and I’m sure my daughters will for their generation. It’s just expected.”

“I think it’s embedded in so many of us we couldn’t stop this thing if we wanted,” says Cheryl Secret. “I think in each tribe there are children who will make this thing happen, no matter what.

“It will go on I think for generations.”

Back in the Day: Native Omaha Days is reunion, homecoming, heritage celebration and party all in one

June 11, 2011 74 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 (www.thereader.com) 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 (www.thereader.com)

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.

 

 

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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.

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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.”

 

 

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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.”

 

 

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“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.

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