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Life Itself V: Jewish-themed and related stories from 1998-2018


Life Itself V:
Jewish-themed and related stories from 1998-2018
Holocaust/War
Milton Kleinberg: Omaha resident who survived little-known chapter of Holocaust history releases new edition of memoir
Art trumps hate: 
‘Brundinar’ children’s opera survives as defiant testament from the Holocaust
Leo Adam Biga’s survivor-rescuer stories featured on Institute for Holocaust Education website
A not-so-average Joe tells his Holocaust story of survival
Holocaust rescue mission undertaken by immigrant Nebraskan comes to light: 
How David Kaufmann saved hundreds of family members from Nazi Germany  

Holocaust Survivor's Personal Story

 
Kitty Williams finally tells her Holocaust survivor tale
The Artful Dodger: Lou Leviticus survived the Holocaust as an escape artist
Walter Reed:
Former hidden child survives Holocaust to fight Nazis as American GI
Piecing together a lost past: The Fred Kader story
The Hidden Child revealed: 
Marcel Frydman, Fred Kader, Tom Jaeger share childhood survival stories in gathering like no other
Sisters of the Shoah:
Three survivor tales, three golden fates, three iron wills
Lola’s story: Out of the ashes, destined to live
Holocaust survivor Helena Tichauer: Destiny’s child
Bea Karp: Holocaust survivor feels obligation to share painful memories
Rescuer curriculum gives students new perspective on the Holocaust
Ben Nachman remembered heroes of the Holocaust
Bringing to light hidden heroes of the Holocaust 
Ben Nachman’s mission
Ben Nachman:
At work in the fields of the righteous
By land, by sea, by air, Omaha Jewish veterans  performed far-flung wartime duties

Jewish Life in Omaha and Lincoln: A Photographic History

Social Justice/Community
Abe Sass: A mensch for all seasons
Norman Krivosha’s life in law
Steve Rosenblatt: 
A legacy of community service, political ambition and baseball adoration
Leo Greenbaum is collector of collectors ofJewishArtifacts at YIVO Institute 
Louise Abrahamson’s legacy of giving finds perfect fit at The Clothesline, the Boys Town thrift store the octogenarian founded and still runs
The life and times of scientist, soldier and Zionist Sol Bloom
Shirley Goldstein: Cream of the Crop
One woman’s remarkable journey in the Free Soviet Jewry movement
Sam Cooper’s freedom road
Retired Omaha World-Herald military Affairs newsman Howard Silber: 
War veteran, reporter, raconteur, bon vi vant, globetrotter
Howard Rosenberg’s much-traveled news career
Flanagan-Monsky example of social justice and interfaith harmony still shows the way seven decades later
Winners Circle: 
Couple’s journey of self-discovery ends up helping thousands of at-risk kids through early intervention educational program
Alone or together, Omaha power couple Vic Gutman and Roberta Wilhelm give back to the community
A force of nature named Evie: 
Still a maverick social justice advocate at 100

Faith/Religion
A matter of faith: Beth Katz and Project Interfaith find bridges to religious beliefs
Identity gets a new platform through RavelUnravel
Rabbi Azriel’s neighborhood welcomes all, unlike what he saw on recent Middle East trip; 
Social justice activist and interfaith advocate optimistic about Tri-Faith campus
Rabbi Azriel: Legacy as social progressive and interfaith champion secure
Temple Israel Omaha embraces new home and new era
History in the making: $65M Tri-Faith Initiative bridges religious, social, political gaps
Omaha Tri-Faith pioneers seeing fruits of interfaith collaborative take shape

photo

Business/Development
Master developer Jay Noddle and his Noddle Companies transform Omaha
Urban planner Marty Shukert takes long view of Omaha development
Customer-first philosophy makes family-owned Kohll’s Pharmacy and Homecare stand out from the crowd
Bedrock values at core of four-generation All Makes Office Furniture Company
This version of Simon Says positions Omaha Steaks as food service juggernaut
Allan Noddle’s food industry adventures show him the world
The much anticipated return of the Bagel Bin

 
Omaha History
The Brandeis Story:
Great Plains family-owned department store empire
“Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores, Omaha, Lincoln, Greater Nebraska and Southwest Iowa”
Once upon a time an urban dead end became Omaha’s lively Old Market
Omaha’s Old Market: 
History, stories, places, personalities, characters
In Memoriam: George Eisenberg
A man intimate with the Old Market’s origins is gone, but his legacy lives on
George Eisenberg’s love for Omaha’s Old Market never grows old
Buffett’s newspaper man, Stanford Lipsey
Sun Reflection: Revisiting the Omaha Sun’s Pulitzer Prize-winning expose of Boys Town
When Omaha’s North 24th Street brought together Jews and Blacks in a melting pot marketplace
Omaha native Steve Marantz looks back at city’s ’68 racial divide through prism of hoops in new book, “The Rhythm Boys of Omaha Central”
Rich Boys Town sports legacy recalled
Roaenblatt-College World Series

6141-borsheim-s-fine-jewelry-and-gifts-remodel-7631

Arts/Culture/Entertainment
Potash Twins making waves in jazz:
Teen brothers count jazz greats as mentors
Identical twin horn players set to lead Omaha jazz revival
Author Scott Muskin – What’s a nice Jewish boy like you doing writing about all this mishigas? 
Author Rachel Shukert: 
A nice Jewish girl gone wild and other regrettable stories
Rachel Shukert’s anything but a travel agent’s recommended guide to a European grand tour
Omaha Lit Fest: 
In praise of writers and their words: Jami Attenberg and Will Clarke among featured authors 
Being Jack Moskovitz:
Grizzled former civil servant and DJ, now actor and fiction author, still waiting to be discovered
Playwright turned history detective Max Sparber turns identity search inward
The magical mystery tour of Omaha’s Magic Theatre, a Megan Terry and Jo Ann Schmidman production
Theater-Fashion Maven Elaine Jabenis
Old Hollywood hand living in Omaha comes out of the shadows: Screenwriter John Kaye scripted “American Hot Wax” and more
Murder He Wrote: 
Reporter-Author David Krajicek finds niche as true crime storyteller

Living the dream: 
Cinema maven Rachel Jacobson – the woman behind Film Streams
Film Streams at Five: Art cinema contributes to transformed Omaha through community focus on film and discussion
Omaha’s film reckoning arrives in form of Film Streams, the City’s first full-fledged art cinema
Joan Micklin Silver: 
Shattering cinema’s glass ceiling
“The Bagel: An Immigrant’s Story”
Joan Micklin Silver and Matthew Goodman team up for new documentary
Joan Micklin Silver’s Classic “Hester Street” Included in National Film Registry
Women’s and indie feature film pioneer Joan Micklin Silver’s journey in cinema
Carol Kane Interview
Actor Peter Riegert makes fine feature directorial debut with ‘King of the Corner”

Prodigal filmmaker comes home again to screen new picture at Omaha Film Fest
Dan Mirvish strikes again: Indie filmmaker back with new feature “Between Us”
Crazy like a fox indie fimmaker Dan Mirvish makes going his own way work
In Memoriam:
Filmmaker Gail Levin followed her passion
Filmmaker Gail Levin followed her passion
Forever Marilyn:
Gail Levin’s new film frames the “Monroe doctrine”
A filming we will go: Gail Levin follows her passion 
Gail Levin takes on American Master James Dean
Dena Krupinsky makes Hollywood dreams reality as Turner Classic Movies producer
Bill Maher Gets Real
The wonderful world of entertainment talent broker Manya Nogg
Entertainment attorney Ira Epstein: Counsel to the stars
For artist Terry Rosenberg, the moving human body offers canvas like no other
Rebecca Herskovitz forges an art family at Kent Bellows Studio and Center for Visual Arts
Song Girl Ann Ronell
Radio Day: “Michael Feldman’s Whad’Ya Know?” Live from Omaha 
Radio DJ-Actor-Singer Dave Wingert, In the Spotlight
Wild about chocolate
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Ben Kuroki: A distinguished military career by a most honorable man

March 17, 2018 2 comments

 

Ben Kuroki: A distinguished military career by a most honorable man

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the New Horizons (2007)

Sergeant Ben Kuroki dreaded what awaited him.

It was 1994, World War II raged on, and the 27-year-old American serviceman was on special leave back in the States,  where he was ordered to make a speech about his wartime experiences. He felt ill-prepared to do so. After all, he grew up a poor Nebraska farm boy near Hershey. He’d had a spotty education. His school was often interrupted when his folks needed him to work the potato fields.

Kuroki had never done any public speaking unless you count a speech or two he gave in school. Now he was expected to address an audience of hundreds of well-heeled strangers, He was so intimidated, he tried getting out of it. But the U.S. War Department, which had arranged for Kuroki to speak, would not have it.

The crowd of movers and shakers belonged to San Francisco’s elite Commonwealth Club. Its members were used to hearing from power-brokers , including every U.S. president since Abraham Lincoln. Now they were about to hear from Kuroki, a skinny, young Japanese-American enlisted man at the height of America’s war with Japan. Skepticism ran high. For his part, Kuroki was plain scared and it took a lot to scare a man who has seen as much battle action as he had.

The B-24 Army Air Corps gunner had flown through the worst the German air defenses over North Africa and Europe could throw at Allied forces. A veteran of 30 bombing missions, including the famed Ploesti raid, Kuroki was already a hero. He went on to fly 28 more missions on B-29s over the Pacific.

On the eve of giving a talk before a group of fat-cats in San Francisco, he felt a new kind of fear. There was good reason for his unease. As a Japanese-American, Kuroki was widely viewed with suspicion or worse in the wake of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s ongoing bloody war with the Pacific island nation. Wartime hysteria, particularly on the west coast, resulted in hundreds of thousands of Japanese-Americans beige forcibly interned in “relocation” camps. Hostility toward anyone of Japanese ancestry was common.

Kuroki himself suffered insults and slights from the time he enlisted. Just being in the Air Corps was an anomaly. At the outset of the war, young men wanting to enlist like Ben and his kid brother, Fred, encountered roadblocks. Japanese-Americans already in uniform were kicked out. Those who got in were mustered out. denied combat assignments or shifted to the segregated 442nd Infantry Regiment that earned distinction. Kuroki was desperate to prove his loyalty to America and persisted in the face of racism and red tape.

“I had to fight like hell just for the right to fight for my own country,” he said recently from his home in Camarillo, California where he and his wife, Shige, live.

Few have faced as much to risk their life for an ungrateful nation. None of his remarkable service record, including two Distinguished Flying Crosses, would have happened if Kuroki  didn’t press his case up the chain of command: once, all the way to the Secretary of War, Henry Stimson. Stimson reversed U.S, policy that banned Japanese-Americans from seeing combat in the Pacific. As a result, Kuroki was the only Nisei to see such duty over mainland Japan.

His continuing inequality became Kuroki’s “59th mission.”

Kuroki’s singular story is told in a new documentary, Most Honorable Son, that premiered in Lincoln Aug. 1. The documentary is set to air on PBS (NET1) Sept. 17 at 8 p.m.

For filmmaker Bill Kubota, who grew up hearing his father tell of Kuroki’s visit to the camp at which he was interned, Kuroki’s story is unique.

“It’s very rare you can find one person that can carry a lot of different themes of the war with their own personal experience,” Kubota said. “He saw so many different things. It’s a remarkable story no matter who it is, but throw in the fact he’s basically the first Japanese-American war hero, and you have even more of a story.

“He’s more than a footnote in Japanese-American history. One that needs to be better understood and more heard from. It’s a unique, different story that not only Asian-Americans can relate to, but all Americans. That’s why I like this story.”

Even now, the 90-year-old Kuroki, a retired newspaper editor, asks, “Why the hell did I do it? I mean, why did I go to that extent? I was just young. I had no family, no children, or wife or anything like that. I was all gung-ho to prove my loyalty.”

One key to what Kuroki calls his “all guts, no brains” loyalty was his upbringing. His parents “pounded it into their children  to never bring shame to yourself or you family,” he says in the film. “I hated the fact I was born Japanese. I wanted to try and avenge what they (Japan) had done for causing what we considered shame.”

The tenor of the times was expressed in a newspaper headline that announced his speech as “Jap to Address S.F. Club.” That story ran next to another condemning Japanese atrocities on the Bataan Death March. Even the officer escorting Kuroki worried how the audience would react. Making the appearance even more dramatic, Kuroki was the first Japanese-American to return to the west coast since the mass evacuation.

“I realized I had a helluva responsibility,” he recalled.

Seeing the public relations windfall of a Japanese-American combat hero, the War Department put him to work winning hearts and minds by booking him on the public speaking circuit. By parading him around to civic groups and internment camps, it was hoped Kuroki’s example would reverse racist attitudes and boost Nisei recruits.

“Bivouacked” at a Santa Monica, California rest-rehab center, he gave interviews and met celebrities. Stories about him appeared in Time Magazine and the New York Times. Then came the Commonwealth gig in San Francisco. He was given a room at the Palace Hotel. An Army PR officer accompanied him. In preparation for the talk, Sgt. Bob Evans asked Kuroki to outline his experiences on paper., which Evans transformed into the moving speech Kuroki made.

“He did a terrific job,” Kuroki said of Evans’ work shaping his story.

The words Kuroki spoke that day and the heartfelt way he delivered them are said to have turned the tide of west coast public opinion on the Japanese-American question. Broadcast via radio in Calif., the speech got wide news coverage.

Here’s a sample of what he said on February 4, 1944:

“I learned more about democracy, for one thing, than you’ll find in all the books, because I saw it in action. When you live with men under combat conditions for 15 months, you begin to understand what brotherhood, equality, tolerance and unselfishness really mean. They’re no longer just words.”

He went on to recount how a crewmate caught a piece of flak in his head on a mission. The co-pilot left the cockpit to go back and give the injured man a morphine injection, but Kuroki waved him off, remembering training that taught morphine could be fatal to head injuries at high altitude. The wounded airman recovered.

“What difference did it make what a man’s ancestry was? We had a job to do and we did it with a kind of comradeship that was the finest thing.”

He described his “nearly continuous struggle” to be assigned a flight crew. How he “wanted to get into combat more than anything in the world, so I kept after it.” How he was “waging two battles, one against the Axis one against intolerance of my fellow Americans.” The prejudice he felt in basic training was so bad, he shared, “I would rather go through my bombing missions again than face it.”

Following the talk, reports refer to men crying and to a standing ovation that lasted 10 minutes. Kuroki confirmed this. Even his escort was in tears.

The reaction stunned Kuroki. He didn’t realize what it all meant until a letter from Club doyen Monroe Deutsch, a then University of California at Berkeley vice president, reached him overseas and reported what a difference the address made in tempering anti-Japanese sentiment.

Filmmaker Bill Kutoba’s research convinced him the address brought the matter “back to the forefront around the time it needed to be.”

“It helped people realize this is an issue they should think about and deal with.”

Kubota said the speech is little known to most Japanese-American scholars because the JA community was prevented from hearing the talk. Vital evidence for the profound effect is in Kuroki’s own files, not in public archives.

Before Kuroki went back overseas, he appeared at internment camps in Utah, Idaho and Wyoming, where his visits drew mixed responses: enthusiasm from idealist young Nisei wanting his autograph; and hostility from bitter older factions.

Kuroki’s ardent American patriotism and virulent anti-Japam rhetoric elicited “hissing and booing from some of those dissidents,” he says.

“Some started calling me dirty names. It got pretty bad. I didn’t take it too well. I figured I’d risked my life for the good of Japanese-Americans.”

Among the young Nisei who idolized Kuroki was Kabota’s father, a then-teenager impressed with the dashing, highly decorated aerial gunner.

“My dad regards him as a hero, which is how pre-draft age Japanees-Americans also saw him,” Kubota said.

Because of the personal tie, the film “means more to me because it means more to my father than I had earlier realized,” Kubota added.

At one time, Kuroki’s story was widely reported in newspapers, magazines, newsreels and a 1946 book, Boy from Nebraska, by Ralph Martin. Outside of Audie Murphy, Kuroki may have ended the war as the best-known enlisted man to have served.

For years afterward, Kuroki kept silent about his exploits. The humble man, like most of his generation, did not want a fuss made about events long past. He married, raised a family and worked as a newspaper publisher and editor, first with the York (Nebraska) Republican and then the Williamston (Michigan) Enterprise. He later moved to California, where he worked as an editor with the Ventura Star-Free Press.

Kuroki’s story resurfaced with WWII 50th anniversary observances in the 1990s. At the invitation of the Nebraska State Historical Society, he cut the ribbon for a new war exhibit. On the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, he was the subject of a glowing New York Times editorial. More recently, he has been feted with honors by the Nebraska Press Association an his alma mater, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. As a result of all the new-found attention, Kuroki and wife Shige have been invited guests to the White House on several occasions, most recently in May.

In 2005, Kuroki was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal. He was honored again last month when the new documentary was screened at a dinner hosted by Nebraska Gov. Dave Heinemann and First Lady Sally Ganem in Lincoln.

High distinction for a man from such humble beginnings. Always, he credits his Nebraska roots for preparing him for life and duty.

“I think in the long run, I have to thank my Nebraska upbringing, my Nebraska roots, for playing a real credible role in giving me a solid foundation for patriotism. It really was a way of life. Freedom was always something really I had the best of.”

Kuroki came from a poor family of 10 children. His parents emigrated from Japan with scant schooling and speaking no English. His father, Sam, arrived in San Francisco and worked his way east on Union Pacific Railroad section crews. The sight of fertile Nebraska land was enough to make the former sash salesman stay and become a farmer.

A small Japanese enclave formed in western Nebraska. Times were hard during the Great Depression and the years of draught, but Ben enjoyed a bucolic American youth, playing sports and hunting with friends, trucking potatoes down south and returning with fresh citrus.

Though accepted by the white majority, the newcomers were always aware they were different.

“But at the same time, I never encountered racial prejudice until after Pearl Harbor,” Kurokki said.

On Dec. 7, 1941, he was in a North Platte church basement for a meeting of the Japanese-American Citizens League, a patriotic group fighting for equality at a time of heightened tensions with Japan. Mike Masaoka from the JACL national office was chairing the meeting when two men entered the hall and, without explanation, said something to Masaoka and led him outside.

“Just like that, he was gone. We were just baffled, so we just sort of scattered, and by the time we got outside the church someone had a radio and said, ‘My God, Pearl Harbor has just been bombed by the Japanese.’ That was a helluva experience for us the way we found out. It really was a traumatic day.”

They soon learned that Masaoka had been arrested by the FBI and jailed in North Platte.

“I guess all suspects, so to speak, were taken into custody,” Kuroki said,

Masaoka was soon released, but his arrest presaged the coming restrictive measures imposed on all Japanese-Americans during the conflict. As part of the crackdown, their assets, including all bank accounts, were frozen. As hysteria built on the west coast, Executive Order 9066 forced the evacuation and relocation of individuals and entire families. Homes and jobs were lost. Lives disrupted. As the Kurokis lived in the Midwest, they were spared internment.

Soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Kuroki and his brother Fred were surprised when their father urged them to volunteer for the armed services. As Kuroki recalls in the film, their father said, “This is your country, go ahead and fight for it.”

They went to the induction center in North Platte 13 miles away. They passed all the tests but kept waiting for their names to be called.

“We knew were getting the runaround then because all our friends in Hershey were going in right and left,” Kuroki said.

The brothers left the facility in frustration.

“It was about two weeks later I heard this radio broadcast that the Air Corps was taking enlistments in Grand Island, so I immediately got on the phone and asked the recruiting sergeant if our nationality was any problem. He said, ‘Hell, no, I get two bucks for everybody I sign up. Come on down.’ So we drove 150 miles and gave our pledge of allegiance.”

The Omaha World-Herald ran a picture of the brothers taking their loyalty oath.

While on the train to Sheppard Field, Texas for recruit training, the brothers got a taste of things to come. Ben Kuroki recalled how “some smart aleck said, ‘What the hell are those damn Japs doing in the Army?'” “That was the first shocker.”

Things were tense in the barracks as well.

“I’ll never forget this one loudmouth yelled out, ‘I’m going to kill myself some Japs.’ I didn’t know whether he was talking about me or the enemy and I just felt like I wanted to crawl in a hole and hide.”

At least the brothers had each other’s back. Then, without warning, Fred was transferred to a ditch-digging engineers outfit.

“My god, i feared, for my life then,” Ben said.

As Kuroki learned, it was the rare Japanese-American who got in or stuck with the Air Corps. Almost all served in the segregated 442nd Infantry Regiment that earned distinction.  The brothers corresponded a few times during the war. Fred ended up seeing action in the Battle of the Bulge.

From Sheppard Field, Ben Kuroki went to a clerical school in Logan, Colorado and then to Burksdale Field, Louisiana, where the 93rd Bomber Group made up of B-24s, was being formed. As a clerk, he got stuck on KP duty several days and nights.

“I knew damn well they were giving me the shaft, but I wasn’t about to complain because I was afraid that if I did the same thing would happen to me that happened to my brother. That I’d get kicked out of the Air Corps in a hurry.”

Kuroki took extra precautions.

“I wouldn’t dare go near one )B-24 bomber) because I was afraid somebody would think I’m going to sabotage. That’s the way it was for me for a whole year. I walked on egg shells worried if I made one wrong move, if I was right or wrong, that would be the end of my career.”

The his worst fear came to pass. Orders were cut for him to transfer out, which would ground him before he even got over enemy skies. That’s when Kuroki made the first of his pleas for a chance to serve his country in combat. He got a reprieve and went with his unit down to Fort Myers, Florida, the last stop before going to England. After three months of training, he once again faced a transfer.

“I figured if I didn’t go with them then, I’d be doing KP for the rest of my Army life. So I went in and begged with tears in my eyes to my squadron adjutant. Lt. Charles Brannan, and he said, ‘Kuroki, you’re going with us, and that’s that.’ All these decades later, I;m forever grateful because if it wasn’t for him I probably would never have gotten overseas.”

Kuroki made it to England – the great Allied staging area for the war in Europe – but he was still a long ways from getting to fly. He was still a clerk. But after the first bombing missions suffered heavy losses there were many openings on bomber crews for gunners. Not leaving it to chance, he took his cause directly to his officers.

“I begged them for a chance to become an aerial gunner and they sent me to a two-week English gunnery school. I didn’t even fire a found of ammunition.”

In late 1942, Kuroki got word his outfit was headed to North Africa and he was going with it. It took beseeching the 93rd’s commander, Ted Timberlake, whose unit came to be called “The Flying Circus,” before Kuroki got the final go-ahead. He was delighted, even though he “had practically no training.” As he would later tell an audience, “I really learned to shoot the hard way: in combat.”

Training or not, he finally felt the embrace of brother airmen around him.

“Once I got into flying missions with a regular crew and I was with my own guys, the whole world changed,” he said. “On my first mission I was just terrified by the enemy gunfire, but I suddenly found peace. I mean, for the first time I felt like I belonged. And by God we flew together as a family after that It was just unbelievable, the rapport. Of course, we all knew we’re risking our lives together and fighting to save each other’s lives.”

A crewmate dubbed Kurpki “The Most Honorable Son.” It became he nickname for their B-24.

At the time, Kuroki was reading accounts of extremists calling for all Japanese-Americans to be confined to concentration camps. Some nativists even suggested Japanese-Americans be deported to Japan after the war.

By then, Kuroki’s own battles were more with the enemy than with the military apparatus. His first action came on missions targeting the shipping lines of “The Desert Fox,” Erwin Rommel, whose Panther tank divisions had caused havoc in North Africa. Kuroki was on missions that hit multiple locations in North Africa and Italy.

Kuroki and his mates made it through more than a dozen missions without incident. Then, on a return flight in 1943, their plane ran out of fuel and made an emergency landing in Spanish Morocco. Armed Arab horsemen converged on them. The crew feared for their lives but Spanish cavalry rode to the rescue. The Spanish held the Americans more as reluctant guests than as prisoners. But Kuroki tried to escape.

“I just had to prove my loyalty,” he says in the film. He was caught. What ensued next was a limbo of bureaucratic haggling over what to do with the captured airmen. They were taken to Spain, where they were told they might sit out the rest of the war. For a time, it was welcome news for the crew, who stayed in luxurious quarters. But soon they felt they were missing out on the most momentous events of their lifetime.

Finally, the way was cleared for them to rejoin the 93rd, which soon moved to England for missions over Europe. Of all those bombing runs, the August 1, 1943 raid on Ploesti, Romania is forever burned in Kuroki’s memory. In a daylight mission, 177 B-24s came in at tree-top level against heavily fortified oil refineries deep in enemy territory. Nearly a third of the bombers failed to return. Hundreds of American lives were lost.

The legend of Kuroki grew when he reached he 25 mission rotation limit and volunteered to fly five more. His closest call came on his 30th trip, over Munster, Germany, when flak shattered he top of his plexiglass turret just as he ducked.

On an official leave home in early 1944, he was assigned a series of public appearances, including the Commonwealth Club speech that caused such a stir. The came his visits to internment camps. None of this sat too well with Kuroki.

“I felt very much used and I wasn’t cut out for that sort of thing. I got my belly full of it. I wanted to quit.”

Once back overseas, his bid for Pacific air cut was soon stalled. When Monroe Deutsch of the Commonwealth Club learned that a regulation stood in Kuroki’s way, he and others pressured top military brass to make an exception. Kuroki also prevailed upon U.S. Congressman Carl Curtis (Rep.–Neb.), who telegraphed Secretary of War Henry Stimson and Generals George Marshall and Hap Arnold. Stimson wrote a letter granting permission.

“They certainly were unusual people to go to bat for me at that time, when war hysteria was so high,” Kuroki said of the campaign waged on his behalf.

Stimson’s letter read in part: “I am now happy to inform you that by reason of his splendid record, it has been decided to except Sgt. Kuroki from the provisions of the policy.”

A fellow veteran and old friend of Kuroki’s, Carroll “Cal” Stewart, speculated it may have been the only time a GI “beat a War Department regulation during WWII.”

Even with his clearance, Kuroki still encountered resistance. Twice, federal agents tried to keep him from going on flights: once, at Kearney (Neb.) Air Base, and then again at Martha Field (Calif.), where the agents carried sidearms. Each time, he had to dig in his barracks bag to produce the Stimson letter.

“My pilot and bombardier were so damn mad because by this time they figured we were just getting harassed for nothing,” Kuroki said.

The B-29 he was assigned was dubbed “Honorable Sad Saki” in honor of Kuroki.

His crew flew out of Tinian Island, where their plane was parked next to the “Enola Gay” B-29 that would soon drop the first atomic bomb. Meanwhile, the fire bombings of Japanese cities left a horrible imprint.

While on Tinian, Kuroki could move safely about only in daylight and then only flanked by cremates, as “trigger-happy” sentries were liable to shoot anyone resembling the enemy.

After completing 58 missions unscathed, Kuroki was nearly murdered by a fellow American. When a drunken GI called him “a dirty Jap,” Kuroki started for him but was waylaid by a knife to the head. The severe cut landed him in the base hospital for the remainder of the war.

“Just a fraction of an inch deeper, and I wouldn’t be here talking,” he said. “And it probably would ever have happened if he hadn’t called me a Jap.”

As he says in the film, “That’s what my whole war was about. I didn’t want to be called a Jap. Not after all I had been through. The insults and all the things that hurt all the way back, even in recruiting.”

 

Her mother’s daughter:  Charlene Butts Ligon carries on civil rights legacy of her late mother Evelyn Thomas Butts

January 28, 2018 2 comments

Her mother’s daughter: 

Charlene Butts Ligon carries on civil rights legacy of her late mother Evelyn Thomas Butts

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in February 2018 issue of the New Horizons

 

Chances are, you’ve never heard of the late Evelyn T. Butts. But you should know this grassroots warrior who made a difference at the height of the civil rights movement in the Jim Crow American South.

A new book, Fearless: How a poor Virginia seamstress took on Jim Crow, beat the poll tax and changed her city forever, written by her youngest daughter, Charlene Butts Ligon of Bellevue, Neb. preserves the legacy of this champion for the underserved and underrepresented.

Defying odds to become civil rights champion

Evelyn (Thomas) Butts grew up with few advantages in Depression Era Virginia. She lost her mother at 10. She didn’t finish high school. Her husband Charlie Butts came home from World War II one hundred percent disabled. To support their three daughters, Butts, a skilled seamstress, took in day work. She made most of her girls’ clothes.

When not cooking, cleaning, caring for the family, she volunteered her time fighting for equal rights, She became an unlikely force in Virginia politics wielding influence in her hometown of Norfolk and beyond. Both elected officials and candidates curried her favor.

She fought for integrated schools, equal city services and fair housing. Her biggest fight legally challenged the poll tax, a registration fee that posed enough of a financial burden to keep many poor blacks from  exercising their right to cast a ballot. The Twenty-fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution had ruled poll taxes illegal in federal elections but the practice continued in southern state elections as a way to disenfranchise blacks. Butts’ case, combined with others. made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. in 1966, Thurgood Marshall argued for the plaintiffs. In a 6-3 decision, the court abolished the poll tax in state elections and Butts went right to work registering thousands of voters.

Devoted daughter documents mom’s legacy in book

More than 50 years since that decision and 25 years since her mother’ death in 1993, Ligon has written and published a book that chronicles Evelyn Butts’ life of public service that inspired her and countless others.

Ligon and her husband Robert are retired U.S. Air Force officers. The last station of their well-traveled military careers was at Offutt Air Force Base from 1992 to 1995. When they retired, the couple opted to make Nebraska their permanent home. They are parents to three grown children and five grandchildren.

By nature and nurture, Ligon, inherited her “mama’s” love of organized politics, community affairs and public service. She’s chair of the Sarpy County Democrats and secretary of the Nebraska State Democratic Party. As the party’s state caucus chair, she led a nationally recognized effort that set up caucuses in all 93 counties and developed an interactive voting info website.

Former Nebraska Democratic Party executive director Hadley Richters knows a good egg when she sees one.

“In politics, you learn quickly the people who will actually do the work are few, and even fewer are those who strive to do it even better than before. Charlene Ligon is definitely a part of that very few. I have also learned those few, like Charlene, are who truly uphold our democracy. Charlene works tirelessly to further participation in the process, selflessly driven by rare and deep understanding of what’s at stake. She is a champion for voices to be heard, and when it comes to protecting the democratic process, defending fairness, demanding access, and advocating for what is right, I can promise you Charlene will be present, consistent, hard-working and fearless.”

Ligon is a charter member of Black Women for Positive Change, a national policy-focused network whose goals are to strengthen and expand the American middle-working class and change the culture of violence.

Besides her mother, she counts as role models: Barbara Jordan, Shirley Chisholm and Dorothy Height.

In addition to participating in lots of political rallies, she’s an annual Omaha Women’s March participant.

Like her mother before her. she’s been a Democratic National Convention delegate, she’s met party powerbrokers and she’s made voting rights her mission.

“It all goes back to that – access and fairness. That’s how I see it.”

Even today, measures such as redistricting and extreme voter ID requirements can be used to suppress votes. She still finds it shocking the lengths Virginia and other states went to in order to suppress the black vote.

“Virginia’s really shameful in the way it did voting,” she said. “At one time, they had what they called a blank sheet for registration. When you went to register to vote you had to know ahead of time what identifying information you needed to put on there. It wasn’t a literacy test. By law, the registrar could not help people, so people got disqualified. Well, the black community got together and started having classes to educate folks what they needed to know when they went to register.”

The blank sheet was on top of the poll tax. An unintended effect was the disqualification of poor and elderly whites, too. In a majority white state, that could not hold and so a referendum was organized and the practice discontinued.

“The history books tell you they did it because of white backlash, not because of black backlash,” Ligon said.

Virginia’s regerettable record of segregation extended to entire school districts postponing school and some schools closing rather than complying with integration

“It always amazes me they did that,” she said.

 

Speaking her mind and giving others a voice

As a Norfolk public housing commissioner, Butts broke ranks with fellow board members to publicly oppose private and public redevelopment plans whose resulting gentrification would threaten displacing black residents.

“She really gave them a fit because they weren’t doing what they should have been doing for poor neighborhoods and she told them about it. They weren’t really ready for her to bring this out,” Ligon said of her mother’s outspoken independence.

“Mama could be stubborn, too. She was authoritarian sometimes.”

Butts became the voice for people needing an advocate.

“They called her for all kinds of things. They called her when they needed a house, when they were having problems with their landlord. They called her and called her. They knew to call Mrs. Butts and that if you call Mrs. Butts, she’ll help you. Nine times out of ten she could get something for them. She had that reputation as a mover and shaker and they knew she wasn’t going to sell them out because it wasn’t about money for her.”

Ligon fights the good fight herself in a different climate than the one her mother operated in. It makes her appreciate even more how her mom took on social issues when it was dangerous for an African-American to speak out. She admires the courage her mother showed and the feminist spirit she embodied.

“My mama always spoke up. She didn’t cow. She talked kind of loud. I got that from her. She looked them in the eye and said, ‘Yeah, this is the way it needs to be.’ They didn’t always pay attention to her, but she just always was ready to say what needed to be said.  Of course, the establishment didn’t want to hear it. But she actually won most people’s respect.”

Growing up, Ligon realized having such a bigger-than-life mother was not the norm.

“She stood out in my life. I started to understand that my mom was different than most people’s moms. She was always doing something for the neighborhood. There were so many things going on in the 1950s through the early 1960s that really got her going.”

Her mother was at the famous 1963 March on Washington, where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. Charlene wanted to go but her mother forbade it out of concern there might be violence. Being there marked a milestone for Evelyn – surpassed only by the later Supreme Court victory.

“It meant a lot to her. That was the movement. That was what she believed,” Ligon said. “And it was historic.”

Long before the march, Butts saw MLK speak in Petersburg, Virginia. He became her personal hero.

“She was already moving forward, but he inspired her to move further forward.”

Decades later, Ligon attended both of Obama’s presidential inaugurations. She has no doubt her mother would have been there if she’d been alive.

“I wish my mom could have been around to see that, although electing the nation’s first black president didn’t have the intended effect on America I thought it would. It gave me faith though when he was elected that the process works, that it could happen. He could not have won with just black votes, so we know a lot of white people voted for him. We should never forget that.

“It just really made me proud.”

Ligon shook hands with President Obama when he visited the metro. She’s met other notable Democrats, such as Joe Biden, Hilary Clinton, Bill Clinton, Jim Clybern, Doug Wilder, Ben Nelson and Bob Kerrey.

The day the Supreme Court struck down the poll tax, her mother got to meet Thurgood Marshall – the man who headed up the Brown vs. Board of Education legal team that successfully argued for school desegregation.

“She was really thrilled to meet him.”

Then-U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy was in the courtroom for the poll tax ruling and Evelyn got to meet the future presidential candidate that day as well.

Butts was vociferous in her pursuit of justice but not everyone in the movement could afford to be like her.

“As I look back on the other prominent people in the movement,” Ligon said, “they had their ways of contributing but there were a lot of people who had what they considered something to lose. For instance, teachers just wouldn’t say a word because they were afraid for their jobs. There were lots of people that wouldn’t say anything.”

Her mother exuded charisma that drew people to her.

“People liked her. Mama was an organizer. She was the person that got them all together and she was inspirational to them, I’m sure. She had a group of ladies who followed her. They were like, “Okay. Mrs. Butts, what are we going to do today? Are we going to register voters? Are we going to picket?”

Evelyn Butts formed an organization called Concerned Citizens for Political Education that sought to empower blacks and their own self-determination. It achieved two key victories in the late 1960s with the election of Joseph A. Jordan as Norfolk’s first black city council member since Reconstruction and electing William P. Robinson as the city’s first African-American member of the state House of Delegates.

Charlene marveled at her mother’s energy and industriousness.

“I was always proud of her.”

Having such a high profile parent wasn’t a problem.

“I never felt uncomfortable or had a negative feeling about it.”

Even when telling others what she felt needed to be done, Ligon said her mother “treated everybody with respect,” adding “The Golden Rule has always been my thing and I’m sure my mom taught me the Golden Rule.”

Telling the story from archives and memories

As big a feat as it was to end the poll tax, Ligon felt her mother’s accomplishments went far beyond that and that only a book could do them justice. So, in 2007, she and her late sister Jeanette, embarked on the project.

“We thought people needed lo know the whole story.”

Ligon’s research led her to acclaimed journalist-author Earl Swift, a former Virginian Pilot reporter who wrote about her mother. He ended up editing the book. He insisted she make it more specific and full of descriptive details. Poring through archives, Ligon found much of her mother’s activities covered in print stories published by the Pilot as well as by Norfolk’s black newspaper, the New Journal and Guide. Ligon also interviewed several people who knew her mother or her work.

Writer Kietryn Zychal helped Ligon pen the book.

Much of the content is from Charlene and her sister’s vivid memories growing up with their mom’s activism. As a girl, Charlene often accompanied her to events.

“She took me a lot of places. I was exposed.”

Those experiences included picketing a local grocery store that didn’t hire blacks and a university whose athletics stadium restricted blacks to certain sections

“The first time i remember attending a political-social activism meeting with Mama was the Oakwood Civic League about 1955 during the same time the area was under annexation by the city of Norfolk. My next memory is attending the NAACP meeting at the church on the corner from our house concerning testing to attend integrated schools. I have vivid memories of attending the court proceedings of a school desegregation case. Mama took me to court every day. She was called to testify by the NAACP lawyers.”

Charlene joined other black teenage girls as campaign workers under the name the Jordanettes, for candidate Joe Jordan. Her mom made their matching outfits.

“We passed out literature, campaign buttons, bumper stickers at picnics, rallies and meetings. Hanging out with my mom and doing the campaign stuff definitely had an influence. I was always excited to tag along.”

At home, politics dominated family discussions.

“My mom did what she did all the time and she talked about it all the time, and so I always knew what was going on, She involved us. She would update my dad. We were always in earshot of the conversation. My sisters and I were expected to be aware of what was happening in our community. We were encouraged to read the newspaper. We participated in some picketing.”

Always having Evelyn’s back was the man of the house.

“He was behind her a hundred percent,” Ligon said of her father, who unlike Evelyn was quiet and reserved. He didn’t like the limelight but, Charlene said, “he never fussed about that – he was in her corner.”

“He might not have done that (activism) personally himself but yeah he was proud she was out there doing that. As long as she cooked his dinner.”

Because Evelyn Butts was churched, she saw part of her fighting the good fight as the Christian thing to do.

“We attended church but my mama wasn’t really a church lady. She just always believed in what the right thing to do would be. I guess that inner thing was in all of us as far as social justice.

“She taught me there wasn’t anything I couldn’t do if I put my mind to it. She taught me not to be afraid of people because I was different.”

When it came time for Ligon to title her book, the word fearless jumped out.

“That’s what she was.”

Where did that fearless spirit come from?

After her mother died, she was raised by her politically engaged aunt Roz. But headstrong Evelyn took her activism to a whole other level.

“I remember Roz telling mama to be careful. She said, ‘Evelyn, you better watch out, they’re going to kill you.'”

The threat of violence, whether implied or stated, was ever present.

“That’s just the way it was. In Virginia, we had some bad things happen, but it wasn’t like Mississippi and the civil rights workers getting killed. We had a few bombings and cross burnings. It still amazes me how she was able to put up with what she did. A lot of people were frightened. Not far from where we lived. racists were bombing houses near where she was picketing. She wasn’t frightened about that and she always made us feel comfortable that things were going to be okay.”

Butts drew the ire of those with whom she differed, white and black. For example, she called out the Virginia chapter of the NAACP for moving too slowly and timidly.

“My mom was considered militant back in the day, but she was also pragmatic about it. There was so much ground to cover. There’s still a lot of ground to cover.”

 

Progress won and lost in a never-ending struggle

Ligon rues that today’s youth may not appreciate how fragile civil rights are, especially with Donald Trump in office and the Republicans in control of Congress.

“I don’t think young people realize we’re losing ground. They aren’t paying attention. They take things for granted, I’m old enough to remember when everything was segregated and how restrictive it was. I may not want to go anywhere then someplace where all the people look like me, but I need to have that choice.

“We’ve lost almost all the ground we made when Barack Obama was president. People who wanted change said we don’t need the status quo and I would say, yes we do, we need to hold it a little bit.”

She’s upset Obama executive orders are under assail. Protections for DACA recipients are set to end pending a compromise plan. Obamacare is being undone. Sentences for nonviolent drug offenders are being toughened and lengthened.

Perhaps it’s only natural the nation’s eyes were taken off the prize once civil rights lost an identifiable movement or leader. But Ligon chose a Corretta Scott King quotation at the front of her book as a reminder that when it comes to preserving rights, vigilance is needed.

Struggle is a never ending process. Freedom is never really won –you earn it in every generation.

“I think the struggle is always going to be there for us minorities, specifically for African-Americans,” Ligon said. “It’s my belief we’re always going to have it. Each generation has to continue to move forward. You can’t just say, ‘We have it now.'”

She’s concerned some African-Americans have grown disillusioned by the overt racism that’s surfaced since Trump emerged as a serious presidential candidate and then won the White House.

“With the change that’s happened in the United States, I think a lot of them have lost faith. They seem to have given up. They say America is white people’s country. I remind them it’s our country. Do you know how much blood sweat and tears African-Americans have invested in America? Somewhere down the line we did not instill that this is our country. It’s okay to be patriotic and call them out every day. You can do both.”

How might America be different had MLK lived?

“Hopefully, we would be a little bit further along in having a more organized movement,” said Ligon.

She’s distressed a segment of whites feel the gains made by blacks have come at their expense.

“Some white people feel something has been taken from them and given to the minorities, which is sad, because it’s not really so. But they feel that way.”

She feels the election of Trump represented “a backlash” to the Obama presidency and his legacy as a progressive black man in power.

If her mother were around today, Charlene is sure she would be out registering voters and getting them to the polls to ensure Trump and those like him don’t get reelected or elected in the first place.

In her book’s epilogue, Charlene suggests people stay home from the polls because they believe politics is corrupt and dirty but she asserts Mama Butts would have something to say about that.

If my mother could, I know she’d say this: If you don’t vote, you can be assured that corrupt politicians will be elected.

“And that’s the truth,” Ligon said.

Drawing strength from a deep well

Just where did her mother get the strength to publicly resist oppression?

“It probably came from a long line of strong women. My grandmother’s sisters, including Roz, who raised my mom, and women from the generation before. The men, I suspect, were pretty strong too. You just had to know my mom and the other family ladies, and the conclusion would be something was in the genes that made them fighters. They were fighters, no doubt. They all were civic-minded, too.”

Going back even earlier in the family tree reveals a burning desire for freedom and justice.

“My great-great-grandfather Smallwood Ackiss was a slave who ran away from the plantation during the Civil War after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and went to Norfolk. He went on to fight for the Union for two years,” Ligon said. “In 1865, he came back to the plantation. John Ackiss II, who was the plantation owner and his owner, had been fighting for the Confederacy at the same time. We do know Smallwood was given 30 acres of land. He lost the property, but we still have a family cemetery there that’s now on a country club in a real exclusive area of Virginia Beach.”

From Smallwood right on down to her mother and herself, Charlene is part of a heritage that embraces freedom and full participation in the democratic process.

“I guess I was always interested and Mom always took me with her. I always saw it. Even in the military, when stationed in South Dakota, I chaired the NAACP Freedom Fund in Rapid City.

“It’s always been there.”

She feels her time in the service prepared her to take charge of things.

“The military strengthens leadership. It’s geared for you to get promoted to become a leader.”

Then there’s the fact she is her mother’s daughter.

Entering the service in the first place – as a 26-year-old single mother of two young children – illustrated her own strong-willed independence. It was 1975 and the newly initiated all-volunteer military was opening long-denied opportunities for women.

“I was divorced, had two kids and I needed child care and a regular salary. I didn’t want to have to depend on anyone else for it but me. It was difficult entering the military as a single parent, but I saw it as security for me and my kids. I was really fortunate I met a great guy whom I married and we managed to finish out our careers together.”

Ligon made master sergeant. She worked as a meteorologist.

“I didn’t want a traditional job. I didn’t want to be an administrative clerk in an office.”

She ended her career as a data base programmer and since her retirement she’s done web development work. She also had her own lingerie boutique, Intimate Creations, at Southroads Mall. Democratic Party business takes up most of her time these days.

Charlene’s military veteran father died in 1979. He supported her decision to serve her country.

Bittersweet end and redemption 

While off in the military, Charlene wasn’t around to witness her mother falling out of favor with a new regime of leaders who distanced themselves from her. Mama Butts lost bids for public office and was even voted out of the Concerned Citizens group she founded. This, after having received community service awards and being accorded much attention.

Personality conflicts and turf wars come with the territory in politics.

“For a long time, my mom didn’t let those things stop her.”

Then it got to be too much and Evelyn dropped out.

Upon her death, Earl Swift wrote:

Evelyn Butts’ life had become a Shakespearean tragedy. She’d dived from the heights of power to something very close to irrelevance. This is someone who should have finished life celebrated, rather than forgotten. History better be kind to this woman. Evelyn Butts was important.

The family agreed her important legacy needed rescue from the political power grabs that tarnished it.

“The Democratic Party really was not nice to my mom. That was another reason I wrote the book – because I wanted that to be known,” Charlene said. “I didn’t know all that had gone on until 1993 when she died. I wanted to present who she was. how she came to be that way and the lessons you can learn from her life. I think those lessons are really important for young people because we need to move forward, we need to stay focused and know that we can’t give up – the struggle is still there.

“People need to vote. That’s what they really need to do. They need to participate. Voting is their force and they don’t realize it, and that’s really disheartening. Even in Norfolk, my hometown, the registered voter numbers  and turnout for elections among blacks is horrible – just like it is here. In north and south Omaha, they don’t turn out the way they could – 10 to 15 percent less than the rest of the city. That should not be.

“When John Ewing ran for Congress he lost by one and a half points. A little bit of extra turnout in North Omaha would have put him over the top. The same thing happened when Brenda Council ran for mayor of the City of Omaha. If they had turned out for Brenda, Brenda would have been elected. That discourages me because they feel like they’re only a small percentage of the population. Yes, it’s true, but you can still make a difference and when you make that difference that gives you a voice. When you can swing an election, candidates and elected officials pay attention. When black voters say ‘they don’t care about us,’ well I guess not, if you don’t have a voice.”

If anything, the work of Evelyn Butts proved what a difference one person can make in building a collective of activated citizens to make positive change.

To Ligon’s delight, her mother is fondly remembered and people want to promote her legacy. A street and community center are named after her. A church houses a tribute display. Endorsements for the book came from former Virginia governor and senator Chuck Robb and current Norfolk mayor Kenneth Cooper Alexander, who wrote the foreword.

Ligon was back home in Norfolk in January for a book signing in conjunction with MLK Day. She’s back there again for more book signings in February for Black History Month.

In Omaha, Fearless is available at The Bookworm, other fine bookstores and select libraries.

Fittingly, the book has been warmly received by diverse audiences. Long before intersectionality became a thing, Ligon writes in her book, her mother practiced it.

She was black. She was a woman. She was poor. She had dropped out of high school. She was overweight and she spoke loudly with confidence in her opinions in a voice that disclosed her working-class, almost rural upbringing. But this large, black poor woman was in the room with politically powerful white people, making policy and advocating for the poor, and it drove some suit-wearing, educated, well-heeled, middle-class male ministers nuts. Some wanted her place. Or, they believed her place should be subservient to a man.

When her public career ended, my mother retreated to private life … She occupied her time by being a mother, a grandmother, a caregiver, a homemaker and a fantastic cook. To say that her post-political years were tragic is to miss how much strength and satisfaction she drew from those roles. She may have retreated, but she was not defeated.

We will never come to consensus on why Evelyn Butts lost her political power. There will always be people in Norfolk who thought her ‘style’ made her unelectable, that she brought about her own demise … Whatever her failings, her legacy is not in dispute. She will always exist in the pages of the U.S. Supreme Court case, in brick and mortar buildings that she helped to create, and in the memories of people …

For me, her last surviving daughter, Evelyn Butts will always be a great American hero.

If there’s a final lesson Charlene said she’s taken from her mother it’s that “there are things bigger than yourself to fight for – and so I do what I do for my kids and grandkids.”

She’s sure her mom would be proud she followed in her footsteps to become a much decorated Democratic Party stalwart and voting rights champion.

“I haven’t thought about a legacy for myself. I hope people will remember me as a hard worker and as a pragmatic, fair fighter for social justice and civil rights.”

Visit evelyntbutts.com or http://www.facebook.com/evelyntbutts.

 

Hot Movie Takes Monday – ‘Mississippi Masala’


 

 

Hot Movie Takes Monday – “Mississippi Masala”

©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

 

Over the weekend I revisited one of my favorite films from the early 1990s – Mira Nair’s “Mississippi Masala.” I remembered it as one of the richest cross cultural dramas of that or any era and upon re-watching it on YouTube my impressions from then have been confirmed.

The story concerns an Indian family exiled from Uganda during Idi Amin’s reign of terror. They were forced to leave everything they owned and loved in terms of home, The patriarch of the family was born and raised in Uganda and lived there his entire life, building a life and career that made him feel at one with a nation his people had been brought to by the British to build railways. Though his ancestral roots are not of that continent, he identifies as African first, Indian second. The family ends up in Mississippi, owning and operating a motel and a liquor store. The patriarch, Jay, and his wife are the parents of an only child, Meena, who was a little girl when her left Uganda as refugees. When we meet her again she is a lovely, single 24 year old woman and still devoted daughter but strains under her parents’ overprotectiveness and their insisting she adhere to strict traditions concerning matrimonial matches and such. Those traditions aren’t such a good fit in America.

Also weighing heavily on Meena is the burden her father carries from being torn from his homeland. He can’t let that severing go. For years he’s petitioned the Ugandan government for a hearing to plead his case for his property and assets to be restored. He is a haunted figure. Part of what haunts him is the way he rebuked his black Ugandan friend from childhood, Okelo, when Amin’s military police rounded up foreigners for arrest, torture, deportation. Okelo is a devoted family friend who is like a brother to Jay and a grandfather to Meena. When Jay is arrested for making anti-Amiin remarks in a broadcast TV interview, Okelo bribes officials to free him. He tries to convince Jay that there is no future for him in Uganda anymore. Okelo tells him, “Africa is for black Africans.” He says it not out of malice but love. Jay is deeply hurt. He can’t accept this new reality but he realizes he and his family have no choice but to flee if they are to remain alive. Jay leaves without saying goodbye to Okelo. Meena sees and feels her father’s bitter anger and her beloved Okelo’s broken heart.

 

 

Grown-up Meena, played by Sarita Choudhury, lives with her parents in a diverse Mississippi town where they are the minority. A meet-cute accident brings together Meena and a young African-American man, Demetrius, played by Denzel Washington. He’s a devoted son who owns his own carpet cleaning business. He’s immediately attracted to Meena but at first he pays attention to her to get back at his ex, who’s in town and intent on belittling him. But things progress to the point where he and Meena spark the start of a real relationship. She meets his family and is embraced by them. Then the prejudice her extended family and community feels for blacks gets in the way and things get messy. As it always is with race, there are misunderstandings, assumptions and fears that cause rifts. Meena’s father is reminded of his own close-mindedness – that Indians in Africa wouldn’t allow their children to marry blacks. Demetrius and his circle must confront their own racist thinking.

Everyone in this film has their own wounds and stones of racism to deal with. No one is immune. No one gets off the hook. We’re all complicit. We all have something to learn from each other. It’s what we do with race that matters.

The theme of being strangers in homelands runs rife through the film. Just as African-Americans in Mississippi were enslaved and disenfranchised and often cut off from their African heritage, Indian exiles like Meena’s family are strangers wherever they go and distant from their own ancestral homeland of India.

Meena finally asserts her independence and her father finally gets his hearing. His bittersweet return to Uganda fills him with regret and longing, ironically enough, for America, which he realizes has indeed become his new home. The simple, sublime ending finds Jay in a street market where residents of the new Uganda revel in music and dance that are a mix of African and Western influences. As he watches the joy of a people no longer living in oppression, a black infant held by a man touches his face and Jay ends up holding the boy close to him, feeling the warmth and tenderness of unconditional love and trust.

 

 

 

There’s a great montage sequence near the end where the diverse currents of India, the American Deep South and Africa converge in images that some hot harmonica blues cover. By the end, the movie seems to tell us that home is a matter of the heart and identity is a state of mind and none of it need keep us apart if we don’t let it.

I saw the film when it first came out and though it spoke to me I was still a decade away from being in my first interracial relationship. I was already very curious about the possibilities of such a relationship and I was also acutely attuned to racial stereotypes and prejudices because of where and how I grew up. Seeing the film again today, as a 15 year veteran of mixed race couplings and a 21 year veteran of writing about race, it has even more resonance than before. And having visited Uganda in 2015 I now have a whole new personal connection to the film because of having been to that place so integral to the story.

This was the second movie by Nair I saw. The first, “Salaam Bombay,” was a hit on the festival circuit and that’s where I saw it – an outdoor screening at the Telluride Film Festival. Years later I saw another of her features, “Monsoon Wedding.” I still need to catch up with two of her most acclaimed later films, “The Perez Family” and “The Namesake.”

Watch the “Mississippi Masala” trailer at:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kSrPYziDGW8

Atticus Finch-Barack Obama give way to Bob Ewell-Donald Trump in this post-“To Kill a Mockingbird” world

January 24, 2017 2 comments

 

 

Hot Movie Takes  Atticus Finch-Barack Obama give way to Bob Ewell-Donald Trump in this post-“To Kill a Mockingbird” world

©by Leo Adam Biga

Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

 

In this 57th anniversary year of the debut of Harper Lee’s 1960  novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” and the 55th anniversary of the 1962 film adaptation’s release, I reflect on some sobering truths taken from that classic, much beloved story. Truths reflective of today’s American civil-societal-political landscape.

The irony is that the story’s revered figure of Atticus Finch, a fictional white Southern lawyer who represents so many universally admired qualities, found his most direct expression in this nation’s first black president, Barack Obama. The comparison was obvious  and Obama’s admiration for what Atticus embodies was made evident when in his farewell address he quoted something that fictional character utters in the book and film. Obama said, “If our democracy is to work in this increasingly diverse nation,  each one of us needs to try to heed the advice of a great character in American fiction, Atticus Finch: ‘You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view. Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.'”

 

Barack Obama farewell

Associated Press

 

Yes, Atticus turns out to have racist leanings in the long-delayed sequel “Go Set a Watchman” but that’s hardly surprising given the time and place he came from. None of us are free of sin or fault. Good principles and actions don’t require perfection. The revelation that Atticus attended KKK meetings and opposed integration while still defending a black man accused of a rape he didn’t commit is simply acknowledgement of how complex race is and how far as a nation we have to go in addressing it. In his farewell speech Obama told blacks to learn the struggles of other minority groups and he admonished whites to acknowledge the stain of this country’s earlier generations are not gone. When minority groups “voice discontent,” he said. “they’re not just engaging in reverse racism or practicing political correctness; that when they wage peaceful protest, they’re not demanding special treatment, but the equal treatment our Founders promised.”

Barack Obama gave Atticus Finch his good name back and naturally, literature fans on Twitter

During his two terms the diplomatic, gentlemanly Obama championed social justice and opposed infringements on freedom and equality. Like Atticus, he walked the walk of virtue and idealism, of fair play and public service, and he extended his hand to the equivalents of Boo Radley and Tom Robinson in our midst. Though Obama had considerable support within the Democratic party and even more broadly throughout the nation and world, he was repeatedly criticized and stonewalled by the Republican controlled Congress. Many of us surmised this was due to the gridlock of entrenched, unwieldy party politics grinding the tried and true American system of across-the-aisles idealogical compromise to a halt. Racism may have been the bigger issue in play. The recent election revealed how reviled Obama is by a sizable segment of the American populace whose elected representatives are some combination of Republican, conservative and fundamentalist. Not every Obama detractor and Trump supporter is an out and out racist but it’s true about enough of them to show a clear pattern.

Trump’s angry man campaign was filled with bigoted, misogynistic, nationalistic rhetoric that put big business and capitalism ahead of human rights, civil rights, women’s rights, social safety nets and environmental protections. He referred to harsh law and order crack downs on those deemed to be disloyal dissidents and enemies of the state. He threatened closing borders and deporting undocumented millions. He connoted militarism with nationalism, patriotism and Christian values. In his first few days in office he seems hell-bent on following through on his alarming agenda.

All of this has gave permission to white supremacists and other hate mongers to react violently against people of color and different origins, to disrespectfully treat women, to ignore clear and present danger realities such as global warming and to override the will of the people by renewing projects that history tells us will deface and pollute precious lands and waters.

 

Donald TrumpDonald Trump.getty

 

It is as if Barry Goldwater, George Wallace, Ross Perot and Rudy Giuliani have somehow been melded together in the amoral heart of Trump. Just when America needs an Atticus Finch in its top leadership position, we now have someone who seemingly speaks more to the Bob Ewells of the world than to those of us who believe in the better angels of a more perfect union.

Instead of a voice of calm reason, considered compassion, resolute peace and sincere unity, we have a strident, histrionic voice of acrimony and division who speaks for the supposed moral majority and special interests of privileged white males. In movie-movie terms, I am reminded of the Franklin Schaffner adaptation of Gore Vida’s “The Best Man.” where the choice for a presidential nominee came down to a reactionary opportunist played by Cliff Robertson and a thoughtful, progressive essayed by Henry Fonda. It is unfortunate that Trump did not face anyone like the statesmen Fonda portrayed in “Young Mr. Lincoln,” “Advise and Consent,” “The Best Man” and “Fail Safe” or the socially conscious Everymen he played in “The Grapes of Wrath,” “The Oxbow Incident” and “12 Angry Men.” Hillary Clinton embodied some of these same ideals, but America just wasn’t ready for her or for a woman like her as President.

How unfortunate, too, that there isn’t someone like the noble Atticus Finch or other figures of high character that Gregory Peck played (“Twelve O’Clock High,” “The Big Country,” “Captan Newman M.D.”) to lead us.

 

 

Then again, we had our Atticus Finch situated in the most powerful post in the world and a chunk of this nation rejected him and what he espoused. Obama even sounded a lot like Atticus when he called on people who want a more perfect union to not merely be bystanders but to be participants: “Show up, dive in, stay at it…Presuming a reservoir of goodness in others can be a risk, and there will be times when the process disappoints you. But for those of us fortunate enough to have been a part of this work, to see it up close, let me tell you, it can energize and inspire. And more often than not, your faith in America — and in Americans — will be confirmed.”

For all its enduring popularity, “To Kill a Mockingbird” still only speaks to those willing to learn its lessons. Too many Americans, I’m afraid, are still unprepared to accept The Other represented by Boo Radley and Tom Robinson. Even in 2017 the notion of embracing all people, regardless of color, ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic status, physical-mental capability, is still too radical for a whole lot of folks to follow. These are the very same things Christians are called to do by 2,000 year-old teachings. Yet many bristle at the core idea of loving their fellow man even though this is the basis and essence for the very organized religions they’re baptized in and purport to believe.

 

To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus Finch, Scout, Boo Radley... Just riveting, these relationships, these people.:

 

All of which tells us we are one hot mess of a nation. There’s nothing new about that, it’s just that events of the past few years make it easier to see things for how they really are. The cloak of civility and cooperation has been lifted. Maybe it’s a good thing the hate is there for the viewing and not all concealed or dressed up as something else. Now that it’s out in the open, at least we know who and what we’re dealing with moving forward.

We need all the Atticus Finch’s and Harper Lees amongst us to stand up and be counted lest the Boo Radleys and Tom Robinsons continue to be oppressed. The conspiracy of hearts who love what “To Kill a Mockingbird” and works like it teach about tolerance and love need to raise their voices against injustice. If this book and film that have touched so many can lead to social action, then their collective impact will be far greater than all the sales, box-office receipts and rentals they’ve earned over these last six decades.

 

Leonard Thiessen social justice triptych deserves wider audience

January 21, 2017 2 comments

There is a compelling social justice triptych by the late great Nebraska artist Leonard Thiessen that should be more widely seen. Every year around Black History Month I encourage folks to visit the worship space that houses the piece for the express purpose of taking in the powerful images and ideas expressed in the work. The piece is called “Crucifixion” and it can be found affixed to a wall just inside the sanctuary at Church of the Resurrection, a small but mighty Episcopal faith community at 3004 Belvedere Boulevard directly across the street from Miller Park and just northwest of 30th and Kansas. The blended congregation is a mix of African-Americans, Caucasians and Africans.

The Thiessen work is not like anything you’d expect to find there or in any worhsip place for that matter. “Crucifixon” juxtaposes jarring, disturbing scenes of lynching, gas attacks, warmaking, want, industrialization and propoganda with the crucified Christ. Passages drawn from scripture proffer warnings about sins against our fellow man and being led astray by false prophets. These abnomitions are leavened by promises of recknoning and salvation. Thiessen created the triptych many decades ago but it is still relevant today in its rumination on things that instill fear and conflict in the hearts and minds of human beings and that cause us to look to a redemptive Higher Power for mercy and justice.

The words that appear at the bottom of the panels read:

“In time of peace, men suffer from drouth and want. Fear not, for I am with thee. I will bring they seed from the Earth.”

“They are made with machines, slaves of other machines. Be strong, fear not, your God will come with recompense.”

“Other men incite them to persecution and destruction. Keep ye judgment and do justice for my salvation is near.”

“From all sides their faith is confused and confounded. Behold, I create new heavens and a new Earth and the former shall not be remembered.”

The artist created “Crucifixion” in memory of his aunt, Wilhemina Berg, who was a member of the former St. John’s Church before it merged with St. Philip”s to create Church of the Resurrection,  The work is an example of Thiessen’s ability to employ and transform classical forms into modern interpretations. The piece is regarded as one of Thiessen’s most important.

In an interview shortly after his retirement, Thiessen said he had worked to “break down the idea that the arts were the prerogative of the elite. Nowadays the arts, like boating, skiing, tennis and wines, are all for the person in the street.”

Thiessen spoke four languages and was particularly known for his wit, often trying to slip puns past his editors at the Omaha World-Herald, for whom he was an art critic. Over the years, he taught at many area institutions, including Creighton, UNL and UNO.

He is classified as belonging to the period as the First Nebraskans, an era in Nebraska’s art history from 1901 to 1950 when the various forms of modernism were flourishing.

His vision and passion for the arts in Nebraska laid an influential foundation.

A good way to see the triptych and get a sense for the church where it’s displayed is to attend a service there. The 10 a.m. Sunday service is an intimate experience animated by the choir most Sundays and the guest band ReLeaseT the third Sunday of the month. On Feb. 26 come to Soul Food Sunday for some great eats. But whenever you come, make sure you see the triptych.

Link to the Church of the Resurrection website here:

http://coromaha.episcopal-ne.org/

 

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Link here to a Museum of Nebraska Art page devoted to Thiessen:

https://mona.unk.edu/collection/thiessen.shtml

Here is an extended bio of the artist copied from the MONA page:

Leonard Thiessen was born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska. His family was small and his paternal ancestry had roots to the Swedish and German pioneer settlers of Grand Island, Nebraska. For a very short time, the family lived in Grand Island where, as a boy, Thiessen was employed in the mail department of The Grand Island Independent newspaper. His parents, Charles Leonard Thiessen and Jean Louise Berg Thiessen, together with his mother’s favorite sister Wilhemina, were all involved in various creative endeavors and had a profound influence on Leonard’s development. His father worked in the printing industry and introduced the young Leonard to the trade. Jean was a talented self-taught artist in her own right who produced on-edge felt mosaics that are fine examples of early 20th century fiber art. (MONA has seven pieces of her work in its collection.) The Thiessens were involved in Omaha’s music, dance, and theater groups and deeply connected to the neighborhood Episcopal Church. They were not wealthy but had many friends in the community and had an impressive social calendar.

Thiessen attended Omaha’s Miller Park Public School and St. John’s Protestant School and graduated from Central High School in 1919. His school years were privileged with experiences that helped to foster his development as an artist. While in high school, he decided to follow formal study in the visual arts and began to draw cartoons and illustrations for the school newspaper. During his teen years, he worked as an office assistant for an architectural firm in downtown Omaha, a job that offered a perk that proved helpful to his future employment. During his free time, Leonard would sit and read the collection of architectural books found in the office. After graduation he worked for the Omaha Bureau of Advertising and Engineering editing illustrations and photographs for an agricultural livestock catalog.

He attended the University of Omaha (now University of Nebraska at Omaha) for three semesters in 1921 and 1922 studying journalism and fine arts and producing illustrations and graphic layouts for the University newspaper The Gateway. During this time, he worked as a gallery assistant for the Art Institute of Omaha which was located on the top floor of the old public library building designed by Thomas Kimball. Thiessen became disillusioned with the University’s conservative art courses and left Omaha to continue his studies in the School of Fine Arts at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln from 1925 to 1926. He was not interested in “serious painting” and majored primarily in design and architecture. His professors were the artists Dwight Kirsch, Louise Mundy, Francis Martin (a contemporary of the portraitist J. Laurie Wallace), and Emily Burchard Moore. In the 1920s, Lincoln, Nebraska was an incredibly fervent environment. Some of Thiessen’s circle of friends and classmates included artists as well as writers and intellectuals among them Katherine “Kady” Faulkner, Louise Austin (who had studied in Munich with Hans Hoffman), Mari Sandoz, Weldon Kees, Loren Eiseley, and Dorothy Thomas. In the late 1920s, Thiessen pursued a highly successful commercial career as an interior designer and decorator with several design and architectural firms in Lincoln and Omaha. Additionally, he did freelance work and began to receive commissions as a mural painter. Later he studied at the museums of New York City, Boston, and Miami with his Aunt Wilhemina.

In 1929, while on a trip to Paris, Thiessen learned of the stock market crash in the United States and decided to stay in Europe. He enrolled at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris where he studied drawing and painting for one summer and later moved to London to study at the Heatherly School of Art. While in London, Thiessen studied wood engraving and graphics. In 1932, he applied and was accepted at the Swedish Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm and studied with Otto Skold who later became the director of the National Museum at Stockholm. At the Academy, Thiessen studied the classical manner, graphic arts, and the traditional forms of fresco and mural painting. He described himself as a “designer of interiors and mural painter in the Middle West, U.S.” Taking several short breaks in between his studies to return to the United States, he finally received his diploma in 1938. While in Sweden, Thiessen made a trip to Tallin, Estonia, to sketch the local architecture.

After returning to the United States in the late 1930s, he found that demand for interior decorators had fallen with the depression. He used his charm and talent to persuade the editors of the Omaha World-Herald and the Lincoln Journal Star to allow him to write an arts review column. He became the Omaha World-Herald’s first art critic and his now legendary column first appeared in 1939 and continued on and off for the next 30 years.

He had exhibitions at Morrill Hall, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, in 1938 and Omaha’s Joslyn Art Museum in 1940. He also resumed his friendships with artist Milton Wolsky and Alysen Flynn. Later he accepted a position in Des Moines as Iowa’s State Director of the Federal Artists and Writers Program of the Works Projects Administration in 1941. The program employed 300 people and Leonard supervised over 100 individuals in eight departments. Thiessen left Iowa in 1942 to join the Army and was officially promoted to the Office of Intelligence in 1944. Because of his training in architectural design and graphic arts, Thiessen was particularly suited for the position of draftsman in the intelligence department. He studied and made reports of pertinent visual data, maps, and serial photos during the war. He was stationed in Kettering, England, the place that would become the subject of many of his works on paper.

In the 1950s, Thiessen made another trip to London, returning to the United States to serve two years as director of the Herbert Memorial Institute of Art in Augusta, Georgia. In the 1960s, Thiessen took several other trips to Europe and returned to Nebraska where he immediately continued his involvement with the Omaha World-Herald, the Joslyn Art Museum and the Sheldon Museum of Art on the campus of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. By this time he was recognized as the authority on Nebraska’s developing art history and served as editor of the catalogue, Nebraska Art Today, by Mildred Goosman, curator at the Joslyn Art Museum published in 1967. He was instrumental in the establishment of the Nebraska Arts Council becoming its first Executive Secretary (a position now known as Executive Director) from 1966 to 1975. In addition, he taught classes at Isabella Threlkeld’s studio in Omaha for eight years. He became a close friend and professional colleague of the professors at Kearney State College (now University of Nebraska Kearney) and encouraged the establishment of the Nebraska Art Collection in the 1970s. He served on the board of the Museum of Nebraska Art for over ten years and was one of its founding members. In 1972 Thiessen received an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts from Creighton University and was honored with the first Governor’s Arts Award in 1978. His work can be found at Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha; Sheldon Museum of Art, Lincoln; Kansas Wesleyan University, Salina; the Alfred East Gallery, Kettering, England; the Herbert Memorial Institute of Art, Augusta, Georgia; and in many private collections

Thiessen lived in Omaha, Nebraska, for most of his adult life. He eventually converted two upstairs rooms of the now famous house on Stone Avenue for his studio. Artwork dominated both floors, much of it his own. Thiessen remained a bachelor his entire life, and had an amazing number of friends and colleagues from the various Nebraska arts communities. He was respected by many prominent Nebraska artists who honored him by making him the subject of their work including Kent Bellows, Bill Farmer, Larry Ferguson, Frances Kraft, Paul Otero, John Pusey, and John Thein.

Leonard Thiessen died March 27, 1989.

The Museum of Nebraska Arts holds 109 works by Leonard Thiessen in addition to archival material.

Researched and written by Josephine Martins, 2002

NOTE: Biographical information was derived from a variety of sources, including unpublished biographical notes by William Wallis, 2001,  a recorded interview with Thiessen by Gary Zaruba, 1983 and compilations by COR member Keith Winton.

Camille Metoyer Moten: With a song in her heart

December 26, 2016 3 comments

Omaha has a corps of performing artists who command a level of admiration and respect that rises above the norm. These special entertainers have earned this status by the high craft and integrity they exhibit. When it comes to musical theater and singing, Camille Metoyer Moten is pretty much at the head of this class. She’s been captivating audiences for some four decades. She’s won all kinds of accolades and awards for her artistry. Not one to rest on her laurels, she’s as busy today as ever and she may just be in her prime now in her 60s. She’s as smooth and unruffled on stage as one can be, but don’t mistake her carefree manner for being untouched by trouble or pain. She’s seen plenty of both. Her from-the-gut performances draw on a lifetime of experiences, some of them tragic and traumatic, others joyous and blessed, and always informed by her deep faith, unflagging spirit and unflappable demeanor.

My New Horizons cover story on Camille appears in the January 2017 issue hitting stands and arriving in mailboxes the last week of 2016. My blog leoadambiga.com also features earlier stories I’ve done on Camille and other Omaha songstresses. Link to some of these stories at –

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/02/15/omahas-black-sirens-of-song-and-spoken-word/

And here are links to yet more stories I’ve done on popular Omaha singers:

Mary Carrick

https://leoadambiga.com/?s=mary+carrick

Anne-Marie Kenny

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/05/28/life-is-a-cabaret-the-anne-marie-kenny-story-from-omaha-to-paris-to-prague-and-back-to-omaha-

Karrin Allyson

https://leoadambiga.com/?s=allyson

Quiana Smith

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/01/23/quiana-smiths-dream-time-2/

 

 

Camille Metoyer Moten: With a song in her heart

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the January 2017 issue of the New Horizons

 

Lady sings the blues

Classy, sassy Camille Metoyer Moten has entertained with her cabaret singing and musical theater performances since the late 1970s. Besides being much beloved, she’s considered a real pro. Her much sought-after stagecraft has earned critical acclaim as well as Omaha Community Playhouse and Theatre Arts Guild awards.

The free, easy way she handles a song and wins over an audience belies the family tragedies and personal struggles she’s endured. Listen and look close enough and you’ll detect the wistful blue notes of the jazz vocalists she grew up listening to. Like them. she knows about pain. Her late parents were at the forefront of Omaha civil rights work before their lives were cruelly cut short. Her mother Lois died of brain cancer at age 43. Seven years later her father Ray was shot to death at the family barbecue joint at age 52.

Bigotry and bias have confronted her. Illness has attacked her.

A strong faith, a sure sense of self and a rock solid marriage to husband Michael Moten have helped Camille cope with loss and setbacks and thus avoid the pitfalls many of her idols suffered.

Music was all around her as a girl. She and her sister Lanette, also an award-winning musical theater artist, inherited their singing chops from their mom. Lois would harmonize, scat and sway to records she played in the family’s northeast Omaha home.

“She was a wonderful singer,” Camille recalled. “We grew up listening to lots of jazz albums. Dinah Washington. Billie Holiday. Sarah Vaughan. Nancy Wilson. That was her thing. She was so into it.”

Her mom oft-told the story how she auditioned for and was asked to tour either with the great Count Basie or Duke Ellington but turned the opportunity down. Though flattered by the offer, Lois was engaged to her future husband, Ray Metoyer, a serious Creighton University student not about to let his fiancee go on the road.

Camille began showing off her own pipes as a toddler.

“I wanted to sing but I didn’t know a song, so I would sing about the furniture and anything that came into my view.”

Encouraged by her mother, Camille learned lyrics to standards but was timid to have an audience around.

“She loved that I would sing but I was really shy to sing, so I would be like in the basement singing and if I’d hear somebody coming. I’d stop. I would always pretend there was a microphone.”

Her first time on stage came in the first grade at Sacred Heart School when she, Lanette and their brother Raymond sang “Do Re Mi.”

“I just remember being so scared but I wanted to do it so bad.

Everybody was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this little girl with this big voice.’ I think my desire to perform really got reinforced then because people made a big deal of the fact my voice was fuller. The more I sang for school programs the more compliments and confidence I got.”

 

SWING!!

 

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A wide music repertoire

Even early on she drew on diverse musical influences.

“There were so many things I liked. I loved the jazz. I also loved the musical theater. And I also loved classical music.”

The same holds true today.

“It’s a mishmash of several things. A lot of it’s Barbra Streisand. I always liked the way Nancy Wilson presented herself. Lena Horne, too.

Just very classy. So I always want to at least appear classy on stage because I’m really kind of an awkward person. But when I’m on stage I feel like I have a little more finesse.”

She holds Barbra in special regard.

“I think her voice is amazing. I just got to see her in concert for the first time in August in Chicago. My children bought me a $500 ticket. It was so awesome to listen to her. She’s 74-years old but she can still soar up to those high notes.”

No wonder then Camillle’s stoked about a March 31 tribute concert she’s doing in honor of her idol. The “Bubbly with Barbra” show at the Playhouse is a fundraiser for the theater’s operations.

“I’m so excited about it because I’ve been worshiping her since I was 11-years-old,” Camille said.

Kathy Tyree, Dave Wingert and Jim Boggess will join her on select numbers.

 

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Race

The role of Fanny Brice in Funny Girl that Streisand made famous on stage and in film resonated strongly with Camille, who made playing the part a life-time ambition she realized in 1994.

“I related to that character so much. She’s this odd little duck that has talent that nobody could appreciate because of her package,” said Camille, whose light-complexion, blonde-hair and green-eyes made her conscious of her nontraditional African-American appearance.

“I got a lot of comments about my look.”

The many shades of black were inescapable, she said, because “my family’s all different colors and it’s something that really sticks out.” She added, “My father was very fair, my mother was pretty brown, so all of us came out different. I came out with all the recessive traits.”

Descendants on her father’s side are of mixed race Creole heritage. Both her paternal and maternal family trees owned property in the South. There’s quite a story behind her father’s family line in Louisiana. The first Metoyer there built a plantation and his son Claude Thomas Pierre Metoyer befriended a family that owned a slave, Marie Coincoin, with whom he became infatuated. He built a plantation for her and she lived in the house with him and they had children together. Threatened with excommunication by the Catholic Church, he built her a separate house in back. When he decided to have white heirs, he gave her her freedom and let her keep their children. She became a leading entrepreneur in the state, even building her own plantation. The black branch of the Metoyers lived as aristocrats.

Lanette and Camille dream of making a musical out of the story.

Their mother grew up in Mississippi and though their father was born in Omaha, thier grandfather Victor came from Louisiana. Victor worked as a railroad dining car waiter for Union Pacific. He and a fellow waiter opened a BBQ eatery. They alternated operating it based on their UP runs. When Victor was on his Omaha to California run, his partner manned the joint, and when his partner was on his Omaha to New York run, Victor handled things. Grandpa Victor also co-founded the adjacent Key Club. Eventually the Metoyer family owned the restaurant outright. Three generations ultimately ran it.

Camille’s father dropped out of Creighton just short of earning a degree in order to support his family. He worked many years as a Boys Town counselor. Camille and her siblings got to know some of the boys. One escorted Lanette to a homecoming dance. Raymond vacationed at Lake Okoboji with students his father brought to camp.

At night Ray Metoyer helped his father Victor run the family barbecue place. Ray’s eldest son Raymond, who became a television news reporter, partnered with his father and grandfather in the business.

Camille knew her dad caught flak the way she did.  “We looked alike, so he was very sensitive to making us understand that it doesn’t having anything to do with anything.”

Both parents made sure their kids knew that light or dark needn’t define them.

“They always impressed upon us that that didn’t make a difference,” Camille said. “That was their main thing with us – it doesn’t matter what you look like. Your blackness has nothing to do with your physical appearance.”

 

Image may contain: 2 people, people standing, plant, tree and outdoor
Camille and her brother Raymond on the family home’s backyard, circa 1970s

 

 

Civil rights

Camille’s parents were both active in local civil rights efforts. Her father was part of the social action group the De Porres Club whose boycotts in the late 1940s and early 1950s forced businesses to hire and serve blacks. He also headed the Urban League of Nebraska when it hosted Malcolm X and Jesse Jackson in separate events. Camille met both leaders and recalls Malcolm X as a very tall and tender man who mentioned that she reminded him of his daughter.

Her folks also participated in demonstrations by the 4CL or Citizens Coordinating Committee for Civil Liberties in the ’60s. The Metoyer kids got dragged along to organizing meetings at Zion Baptist Church.

“It seems like it was always in the summer. It was so hot and packed in, everybody sweatin’ on each other,” recalled Camille.

She and her siblings were young when the civil rights marches and speeches filled the airwaves.

“I don’t think we understood the whole significance nationally. I understood there needed to be change and it was going to make the world the way it should be. Our parents sort of instilled in us this is what it’s going to be, this is what we’re working for, this is where we’re going to get to. They were dedicated to lifting black people to the place that we deserve to be. That was their focus. That, and impressing upon us that you’re just as good as anybody, so there’s no reason feeling like you’re falling short.

“It was very important to them. Sadly, we’re not there all these years later. As I reflect back on it, I appreciate more or understand better the sacrifices they made to do the things they did.”

Social justice was discussed in the Metoyer home.

“We were the family that all sat down to dinner together and all the conversation was about what was going on.”

Once, Camille was with her folks and others at a protest when they were all arrested.

“We were protesting for open housing down at the City Council chambers. I was in the fourth grade and my parents decided it was important I participate. The police came and we all sat down. I sat on my dad’s lap and when the police picked us up they had to pick us up together. He was going to make this as difficult as he could for them.”

A press photographer snapped a pic that went national of cute little Camille in braids, tortoise shell frame eyeglasses and dress carried by her indignant but dignified father like a precious bundle.

“This picture of my dad carrying me out went out on the Associated Press all around the country.”

“I remember being excited because there was so much energy. I knew what we were doing was something very important about fighting for our rights as black people. I remember being just a little bit scared by the police but my dad was there so I felt very safe with him.”

The poignant photo got new life five decades later when Camille and Lanette appeared in Having Our Say, a play about the real-life Delany sisters living through generations of racism. The themes echoed things the Metoyers experienced themselves.

Doing the play brought Camille and Lanette, who’ve always been close, even closer together. The project also gave them a chance to honor figures like their parents who had the courage of their convictions to stand up and be counted.

“It’s like finally they’re having their say,” Camille said.

 

Camille and her sister Lanette in Having Our Say
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Camille’s late parents Lois and Ray Metoyer

 

Strong stock

Hardly a day goes by Camille doesn’t think of her parents.

“My dad was the epitome of a professional, educated man, although he could be very crazy as well. But I never heard him swear. But my mother on the other hand would come out with a few things if she got irritated enough. His thing was always about professional appearance and how you present yourself. My mom was concerned about that, too, but she was more of a gregarious, outgoing, earthy person. She was maybe a combination of what Lanette and I are now,”

Her parents’ fight for equal rights got personal when her family integrated all-white Maple Village in 1966.

Camille said, “My father wanted to have a closer commute to Boys Town and he felt the education we were getting in North Omaha schools was not equivalent to what west Omaha schools offered.”

Even aspirational couples with the desire and means to live outside segregated areas had to take special measures to get around red lining practices and restrictive housing covenants. The Metoyers had black realtor George Thomas secretly negotiate with NP Dodge to arrange for the family to purchase their new house.

“We had to go through the backdoor to get that house,” Camille said.

‘We surprised the neighborhood because they didn’t know a black family was coming.”

Lanette recalled, “It eventually was known blacks had purchased the house and therefore our dad, grandfather and several white male employees that worked for my dad would spend nights at the house until we moved in.”

Camille said, “We had a lot of backlash. It was crazy.”

A petition circulated to try and prevent them from moving in.

The family moved in late at night to avoid a scene but some neighbors gathered outside to glare.

For several nights. Camille’s father and grandfather stood armed guard inside. It reminded her mother of what she thought she’d left behind in Mississippi.

“We knew it was something kind of groundbreaking but we were prepared because all of our lives we’d been taught to be on the front-line,” said Lanette.

The siblings remember threatening phone calls, nails scattered in the driveway, strange cars pulling up at night to train headlights in the windows, tense looks, awkward exchanges. Once, the house got egged and shamed neighbors hosed off the mess.

At their various schools the kids encountered racism.

“If things happened at school we’d come home and talk about it. We always just knew how to handle it. Before we moved there, our parents anticipated there would be issues. They warned us. But they added we have every right to be where we want to be and don’t let anybody tell you anything different.”

Camille said her parents admonished she and her siblings to  “always address discrimination from an educational standpoint,” adding, “They were like, ‘Don’t get mad, just be enlightened.'”

Whatever the sitaution, like the family being refused service at King Fong’s downtown, it became a teachable moment.

“My mom explained how it was their loss and we would encounter people that would not like us without ever knowing us. I guess they always gave the impression there was something wrong with those people – there was nothing wrong with us. They told us when you come across people who are ignorant you educate them, you don’t argue or get angry, because they need help. To this day, if I have the opportunity to enlighten somebody, I will, as opposed to getting angry. That works with my whole Christian faith.”

Finding a foundation for her music and faith

The Metoyers found acceptance if not fairness. Auditioning for a role in Guys and Dolls at Burke High School, Camille said the music director opposed her being cast on account of her race. Camille had an ally in her drama teacher, who swore “she’d never let that happen again.”

Despite resistance, her passion for performing wouldn’st be denied. She planned going to California to pursue a singing-acting career but then her mother became ill. Losing her mother, she said, “really took me off my path.” She wasn’t sure what to do next when a friend of her father’s who ran the music department at Xavier University in New Orleans convinced her to give it a try.

“It sounded just great to get away. I went and auditioned and got a       scholarship. That’s how I ended up there. The great thing about Xavier is that I got classical training but I also sang with the jazz band,

so now I’m able to do all of that – which makes me marketable.”

Still bereft by her mother’s death and far away from home, she searched for answers and came of age as a young woman.

“I was really angry and I became kind of agnostic. I thought how could God take such an amazing person. I lived like that for awhile. I hooked up with Michael and we were into the fast scene.”

Getting high became her lifestyle. Then one day Michael had a born again experience.

“He was completely changed after that day. I was still getting high and just out there and suddenly we were incompatible because he didn’t want to do the things I wanted to do anymore. My own born again experience took a while. I refused to go to church with him and continued to party while in my heart and mind knowing I wanted what he had. I just didn’t want to give up me.

“Finally one evening he was going to church and he begged me to come with him and I said no. He was literally in tears. I found out later he was thinking that if I didn’t come this was to be the end of our relationship. After he left for church I felt bad, so I drove to the church. When they had the altar call he took me down but I didn’t want to go – I was not ready.”

Her willfulness wilted in the following days.

“God made Himself more and more real to me until finally one day I agreed to pray with Michael and some of his new friends from church.  That night as I prayed God took over my tongue and I spoke in a heavenly language which the Bible explains is God’s spirit dwelling in us. And by that spirit being in us we can now be saved.

“From that moment my life changed – no more getting high, no profanity. My view of mankind changed and my purpose changed. It was no longer about me but about Him.”

 

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Camille and her husband Michael Moten back when they were first married
Image may contain: 2 people
Camille and Michael today

 

A new beginning from a terrible end

Her faith was soon put to a severe test when her father was murdered at the family restaurant on a late summer evening in 1979.

“A year before there was a woman that got hired at the restaurant. He caught her taking money and also soliciting the male clients and so he fired her and she didn’t like that. She would call the house and tell people she was her man. She harassed him for a year and it was getting more and more severe: a window broken out in the house;  showing up at his job and security escorting her off campus.”

On September 17 the woman went to the restaurant and confronted Metoyer with a small caliber gun. She fired it once and the bullet struck him in the neck and he bled out on the scene.

Not long before, Camille and Michael, who were by then married and raising their first child, interviewed to be family teachers at Boys Town and they were hired. They moved to Omaha to start their new life and career in the shadow of Ray Metoyer’s senseless death.

“The thing that was so difficult about it at the start was that it was two weeks after my father was murdered, so I was coming to the place where he worked. i heard over and over again how much they admired and respected him and what a loss it was, so I was constantly reminded of him.”

It was the most challenging period of her life until a bout with cancer 30-plus years later.

“I moved across country, I lost a loved one and I had a 2-year-old. I had all of those stressors. Today, Michael looks back and says, ‘How did you get through that?’ Through a lot of prayer and believing this is where God wanted us to be.”

The decision to be a family teacher continued her parents’ legacy.

“That’s how we were raised. It’s always about giving back, contributing, making a difference, helping however you can. Besides, once Michael and I  gave our lives over to Christ it seemed like a natural thing to do..

“We had the very first girls program. Boys Town had just started the family teaching model. We had an off-campus home at 35th and Davenport. Our girls were all local, so we were able to work with and counsel parents. Then we moved to campus, where we had a transitional living home for boys to learn to live independently.”

It took some adjusting for Camille and Michael, too.

“Initially, the greatest challenge if you have children is being able to divide your time in a way that everybody has a significant amount of you without sacrificing one for the other. A lot of family teacher couples are not successful with that. My kids became very close with a lot of those Boys Town kids.”

She said an important lesson she learned is “don’t take things personally and understand what’s happening.” She added, “There were some kids that can really get under your skin but you can’t let them get under your skin. I would always think, If only I could have had you as a baby. I would have loved to have given them what they should have had early in life. That always made me soften my anger.”

Feeling burned out after 16 years, Camille left Boys Town for a job at the YWCA coordinating programs that introduced girls to nontraditional careers. Then she applied her behavioral management skills to the former Western Electric plant then recently renamed Lucent Technologies, where her sister worked.

 

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A performing life

Meanwhile. Michael, an ordained minister, felt the call to form a church, One Way Ministry, in 1994, that he still pastors today. For years, Camille served as music director and only recently stepped down so that she can sing in the choir.

All the time she worked regular day jobs she rehearsed and performed musicals and concerts evenings and weekends. Her music career took off when she joined a cabaret troupe formed by old friend Becky Noble. They’ve long paired as Nebraska Arts Council touring artists. Camille’s performed with the Omaha Symphonic and Opera Omaha chorus and she’s toured with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra. She sang with Soli Dep Gloria Cantorum on a concert tour to Barcelona, Spain.

She’s enjoyed a long collaboration with Chuck Penington and his band. She also headlines her own band. Her keyboardist, David Murphy, offered his take on what makes Camille such an enduring favorite.

“The reason the community loves her is she’s authentic. She’s the real deal. She walks the walk and sings her heart out. It all comes from her soul. She intuitively manages to find the heart of any song,” including ones he’s penned. “It’s about the music and not about her. She consistently respects and enhances the material she tackles and still makes it her own. I absolutely believe she could’ve gone to either coast and had a brilliant career as a performer. Omaha is lucky to have her.”

When Camille’s two kids were small she dragged them to rehearsals. Even today, with her kids grown and out of the home, she’s busy booking, preparing and doing shows. Though her schedule can be draining, she said performing “fills you back up.”

Even though art should be color-blind, race can be an issue, as when she broke color barriers as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl and Eva Peron in Evita, and when her voice and repertoire aren’t what people expect.

“I don’t have a gospel voice. People expect that because I’m black. I was raised Catholic, so I didn’t have that whole gospel thing. Jazz and musical theater are my influences.”

She’s also a rather subdued performer.

“It’s the purity that I’m into and not all that other stuff and I think people eventually appreciate it.”

At the invitation of friend and sometime collaborator Kathy Tyree she sang at Salem Baptist Church last summer for a gospel program.

“I don’t have gospel arrangements, so I sang ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ because I find that song very spiritual and they loved it. It was the most talked about song of the evening amidst all these amazing gospel songs. It was the purity of that that people related to.”

Her muted voice blended with Tyree’s big sound for a Divas By Design show they did at the Blue Barn Theatre last fall. The two go way back.

“Camille and I did our first show together 26 years ago: Sophisticated Ladies at the Playhouse,” said Tyree, “What I admired most about Camille back then is what I admire most about her now and that is her peaceful spirit and how beautifully and easily she shares her gifts. She’s not only an amazing artist but a beautiful person as well. Her unshakable faith in God keeps me in awe and her love for people is one of the many reasons I love her so much.”

Not long after Camille’s spiritual awakening in New Orleans and her resettling in Omaha, she landed the role of Mary Magdalene in a production of Jesus Christ Superstar at the Orpheum Theater. She went in to audition for a spot in the chorus but got the plum female part. Her performance won raves and established her as a bright new talent. But she was wary before the opening night curtain rose.

“I had never done anything other than high school-college shows. It was a big leap. I remember standing backstage looking out at that full house and my heart going ker-thump, ker-thump, ker-thump. I started saying a prayer and I heard God say, ‘What is wrong with you, this is your dream, I’m giving you one of the desires of your heart – would you please enjoy it.’ He made me think how trivial this really is compared to homelessness and sickness and that I should just go out and do what I do and entertain the audience.

“I don’t think I’ve gotten nervous-nervous like that again. It just calmed me right down.”

Whether doing a play or a concert, her approach is “very consistent.”

“Doing musical theater, whatever that character is, that’s who I am. Doing cabaret, each song is like its own little vignette, so every song is its own character. When I perform my purpose is to take whatever the composer and lyricist wrote and try to interpret it with whatever he or she had in mind and bring the audience into it. I want to be true to that.

“Somebody told me a long time ago it’s not only about a pretty voice. and it really isn’t it. If you think about all the successful entertainers it really in’t about their singing … but it’s what they do with a song, it’s the passion they bring out of a song. Once you know the song and once you understand what’s behind the song then that’s what happens.”

Her sister Lanette’s seen her on stage perhaps more than anyone and she marvels at Camille’s “persistence to step outside her comfort zone and create any character she tackles and make it believable.”

 587447Surviving health crisis and moving on

Everything was coming up roses for Camille personally and professionally when she got diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012. As a woman of faith, she sought healing through prayer. Heeding her Higher Power, she canceled a surgery and found a new doctor.

“She confirmed I still had the cancer. I told her my story and she revealed she is a woman of faith, too, Most doctors don’t talk about it.

She said, ‘First of all, I understand where you’re coming from spiritually and secondly you’ve had this cancer for a really long time – it is a slow growing cancer and if you’re not ready to have surgery then we don’t do the surgery because then you won’t heal.’ She had total respect for my belief. I knew God provided me her. He got me to the right team.”

Camille underwent radiation chemo treatments, hormone blocker regimens but in the end she required a mastectomy. She continued performing during most of the journey, even proudly displaying her bald head. She had reconstructive surgery in 2014 and 2015.

Not one to dwell on anything, she’s moved forward from the experience.

“The mindset I had at the time is my mindset and it goes along with my philosophy – that’s over, it was a little side step.”

She chose to share her cancer odyssey with the public via Facebook posts. She and her “prayer warriors” exchanged messages of hope about the challenges, indignities and joys of the journey. Her observations ranged from silly to sweet to sublime. Thousands followed her progress, including the inevitable ups and downs, and she later compiled her affirmations into a book.

“I just want to be able to make people understand that Jesus is our healer. We use medicine also but it doesn’t always work. He’s the plan and medicine is the backup plan. I think the more people understand that the better the outcome is.”

Camille’s as busy as ever these days. “I just think of it as this continuum that keeps going.” It’s not like she’s slowed down since realizing her dream of playing Fanny Brice. “That was a high, high point for me but then as things developed there’s been so many other high points.”

It always comes back to keeping it real and finding the root.

“Somebody told me not too long ago, ‘When you sing, you sing from here,’ putting her hand on her midsection. I said, ‘Oh, thank you very much,’ and she said, ‘I mean that, not everybody sings from there.’ And I think she meant from my core, from my heart. That’s what I strive for, that’s my intent.”

From her gut, springs all the glory.

Visit www.musicbycamille.com.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

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