Unapologetically Loves the Arts, Black Lives and All Things Newark City’s Arts and Cultural Affairs Director Continues to Break New Ground
One of the greatest rewards from being a journalist is the thrill that comes when a writer makes a new discovery – crossing into unchartered waters where they uncover a new historical landmark, find the missing piece in a once unsolvable puzzle or become entranced with or inspired by an unsung hero or heroine.
Such was the case recently when this writer, while researching the contributions of women living or working in the City of Newark, came upon a name that continued to be referenced with words of high praise and respect: Fayemi Shakur.
Shakur, the director of arts and cultural affairs for the City of Newark, proved to embody the characteristics, skills, vision and spirit of the kind of sister that the poet, Maya Angelou, undoubtedly had in mind when she penned, “Phenomenal Woman.”
Born in Plainfield, New Jersey, Shakur moved to Newark 20 years ago, bringing with her a cornucopia– a horn of plenty – which she has willingly shared to improve the quality of life for Newark’s diverse community through the arts.
A writer, interdisciplinary artist, arts advocate and cultural critic count as just a few of the many “hats” she wears – and she wears them all well. But as one pulls back the layers, what stands out in this writer’s mind are two traits that remain common among other phenomenal women of the past and present: her reluctance to toot her own home and her unwavering commitment to her people – all her people.
“Newark is the place to be,” she said without hesitation. “When you look at the state of American society, living in a strong Black city like Newark really feels good. It’s a welcoming community and we’re fortunate to have a mayor like Ras Baraka at the helm who’s impressive and inspiring. But what really makes this a great place is that our mayor is committed to ensuring that our residents feel good about living here more than he is about attracting newcomers with deep pockets. He fights for everyone –all of Newark’s citizens.”
The Arts Continue to Flourish, Despite the Pandemic
Unlike many metropolitan areas that have been forced to shutter their doors and put their programs on hold amid the COVID pandemic, Shakur said Newark has been fortunate, continuing to move forward with a vibrancy that makes her both proud and grateful.
“With the mayor’s and the city’s support, our artists have been doing quite well,” she said. “Because of a grant I designed, we were able to launch a creative catalyst fund in 2020 that provided support to both individual artists and to small and mid-sized arts organizations over the past three years totaling $2.3 million. I’ve been working in the arts sector for 20 years and believe me, it made a profound difference for a lot of people and organizations.”
In another collaborative initiative that will fittingly occur during Women’s History Month, Shakur and her staff are making final preparations for a March 9 press conference that will mark the unveiling of a Harriet Tubman monument. Two days later, they’ll be among a team who will present Community Day: Her Story/Our Story – a daylong celebration slated for March 11 at the Newark Museum of Art.
“Representation is very important for all members of society but what makes this so special is the fact that monuments in public spaces rarely portray people of color or women,” she said. “Even in today’s climate where there’s a growing trend among Americans to ban certain books and to limit what’s taught in Black history courses – even to overturn the gains made with affirmative action – we’re still doing this work. Black history matters just as the history of slavery in our country is still relevant – not just for Blacks and those within the Diaspora but for all Americans.”
“If anyone demonstrated the importance of democracy and freedom, it was Harriet Tubman. She provides the link to Newark’s contribution to the Underground Railroad network and our city’s history –a history that we want our children to learn and to know because it gives them a sense of pride. We all need figures in our lives that we can look up to and stories that will encourage each generation. Harriet Tubman is that kind of woman.”
“This is more than just erecting a monument – we have removed the statue of Christopher Columbus and are renaming Washington Park to honor Harriet Tubman. Was there pushback? You bet. But the mayor made it plain when he gave his approval. Americans have a complicated history that can live side by side. No one is erasing history. However, we must tell all of it – the entire story.”
“The current heated conversations about banning Black history say so much about our society – the stories that some people do not want their children to know including the truth about slavery and why that legacy can only be resolved through the paying of reparations which many Americans want to avoid.”
An Ardent Soldier in the Fight for Women’s Equality
Shakur remembers taking a Black Women’s Genders Story course in college which she said both politicized her and helped her understand why Black womanist thought was so important and how it differed from feminist philosophies. In fact, that course and her interaction with the provocative works of women like Alice Walker, Toni Morrison and especially Ntozake Shange, would have a profound effect on her.
“I remembered seeing the cover for Shange’s ‘For Colored Girls . . .’ and was just memorized by its beauty,” she said. “But I was only 9 or 10 and I just didn’t understand many of the concepts. Then, I read it again in college and . . . I got it, totally. I would later see a photograph of those pioneers of womanist thought including Walker, Morrison, June Jordan, Audrey Edwards and others and I was inspired.”
That inspiration would lead to Shakur founding “A Womb of Violet,” a collective of women who would publish two volumes of poetry, expressing themselves in ways that resonated with other likeminded Black women while also offering mutual support as they attempted to maneuver through life’s daily obstacles – those simple and complex.
And yet, as she admitted reluctantly, the work continues. “I see art as a tool for healing and it brings me joy – joy to be of service to my community and to be surrounded by such incredibly thoughtful leaders who inspire me every day,” she said. “But I also grieve
and worry about so many things – so many needs still unmet and desires unfulfilled.”
“We still need to look at the violence against women from domestic violence and sexual assault. We need to remain vigilant in our healing of our communities surrounding those issues. That means, we must undo generational trauma – something which can only be done if we’re willing to talk about these issues so that healing can occur. Like it or not, as goes the woman so goes the nation.”
“It’s also time we came to terms with understanding and being attentive to the needs of the LGBTQ community. Many Black communities have opted for willful ignorance around human rights for queer people – that must end. After all, Blacks, if no one else in America, understand what it’s like to be treated in inhumane and cruel ways because of the color of our skin. How can we do the same to our Black brothers and sisters because they have embraced a way of life within the LGBTQ community?
First in a three-part series on “Phenomenal Women.”