For Us, By Us: Newark’s Blackness Doing It for the Culture, the Politics, the People

People walk past a large image of Whitney Houston displayed on the side of the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., Feb. 14, 2012. Officials had discussed the possibility of holding a memorial at the Prudential Center, a major sports and entertainment venue that can seat about 18,000 people, but instead Houston’s homegoing was held at her home church, New Hope Baptist, in Newark. (AP Images)
America's Blackest CityFor Black History Month, we asked writers to explain why they think their hometown, current residence or notable place deserves the title of America’s Blackest City by defining a city’s history, music, cuisine, notable figures, and cultural touchstone/unique black fact.

Newark is so black that during the Great Migration, folks thought it was “New York,” got off the train, and stayed. True story.

Newark so black they gotta mayor named Ras, a royal title in Amharic, and you know how black people love grand names (also see: NWK native Queen Latifah— who named herself).

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New-Ark, New Jerusalem, aka “Brick City,” aka “The Bricks,” aka “Nooohk,” is so black that its homegrown legends include a slew of melanated culture slayers and innovators: Amiri Baraka and Reggie Noble; Whitney Houston and Shaquille O’Neal; Tisha Campbell and J.R. Smith; Sarah Vaughan and Savion Glover; Bill Bellamy and James Moody; Gloria Gaynor and John Amos; Matee Ajavon and Ernest Dickerson; Rah Digga and Andre J.; Shakur Stevenson and Wayne Shorter; Lords of the Underground and Driicky Graham; Noble Drew Ali’s Moorish Temple and, not least, my feminist femme fatale with the sweetest voice, Faith Evans, a real-life Helen of Hip-Hop, who stoked the flames of one of rap’s most famous—and tragic—beefs, and, who incredibly may or may not have fucked both Pac and Big, two of the greatest who ever did it.

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Then there are the those who are Newark-adjacent: Lauryn Hill; Treach, Vinny and Kay Gee (Naughty By Nature); Ice T; George Clinton; Wyclef Jean and former Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who in 1998 moved into a high-rise housing projects, the actual PJs from whence “Brick City” got its name, and stayed until they tore them down. That guy’s currently running for President. This all from the loins of New Jersey’s largest city, with a population of less than 300,000 no less—a fraction of Philly, or even Brooklyn.

And, unlike so many other inner cities who want to be the blackest, Newark is still relatively affordable (i.e., not gentrified); it is actually majority black (including a sizable Haitian and Puerto Rican population); and is not bankrupt. In fact, Newark’s on the rise. Charge it to four consecutive black mayors (since 1970) and a galvanized people. A for us by us thing, if you will.

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Newark, New Jersey, is the perfect blend of Northern mores and Southern sensibilities. It’s the hardness of urban edifices mixed with the sweetness of country tea. It’s lopping off “t’s” so “month” is pronounced “munt”. It’s BBQ beef ribs from the chicken shack and fried green tomatoes fresh from Aunt Barbara’s row house garden.

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It’s the leeeeegendary Club Zanzibar and the thumping anthem of soulful house music on par with Baltimore and Chicago; old-timey black churches like New Hope Baptist, the place where Whitney Houston found her voice and the very same place that cradled her body when God gave her her wings (it’s also where Cissy, Whitney and Dionne often brought the rain.)

It’s the Bloods letting blood in its streets, it’s the drag of addiction; too-high HIV rates and savage poverty. It’s hairdressers who will leave you waiting for three hours, but when you step out, your shit is laid. It’s skating at Branch Brook Park, and an amazing melange of all the brown Pantones crossing Broad and Market. It’s poets and entrepreneurs, dykes and athletes, bean pies and Bibles.

Newark is this weird mixture of fierce and provincial. I’ve known girls from the Bricks who ran with axes, yet, paradoxically, 97 percent of Newarkers (Newarkites?) are scared to take a 12-minute train ride into New York City—alright, maybe 73 percent if it’s a party. This always made me laugh because back in the day, Newark was no joke—you might have gotten robbed at gunpoint for your chain or had ‘em go New Jersey Drive on your car ... but somehow New York was scary.

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Once upon a time, Newark’s schools were under state control, but the current mayor, Ras Baraka, a former teacher and principal, was able to regain local power over its nearly billion dollar-budget. The mayor before him, current U.S. Senator Cory Booker, fandangled $400 million for Newark’s schools from Mark Zuckerberg (one of which is named Malcolm X Shabazz High—how black is that?).

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Baraka, son of city son, poet and activist Amiri Baraka, who kept his home right in the hood until his death, has been a progressive from the cradle. In his tenure, he’s brought reforms to a troubled police department, slashed the unemployment and violence rates; given a $15 minimum wage to city employees; and opened up a domestic violence shelter in the heart of the hood.

He also may be the only mayor who was on a (successful) rap record. It was Baraka’s voice on the interlude of Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill teaching kids about “Love.” How many mayors — even a so-called hip-hop ones — can say that?

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Speaking of other black-ass cities with black ass mayors acting real Negroid—one of Newark’s mayors did go to jail for fraud, so the black-mayor-acting-a-fool box is checked off, too. However, unlike many other cities that are perhaps bigger, and more well known, Newark’s black mayors—Ken Gibson, the first; Booker and Baraka, and even Sharpe James, who went to the pokey, collectively brought power to the people. Today, there are no more blocks of dilapidated projects, but affordable townhouses and a plan to fight gentrification. Booker and Baraka, especially, have attracted more jobs, businesses and construction, including the beautiful performance space, NJPAC, where the folk can take in a Tyler Perry play or a comedy show.

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Today, Newark’s got all the black things from Rhodes Scholars to rachet (Redman so Newark, even when he moved, the pretense is nil). Its diversity runs the gamut. Newark’s greatness is not the songs of yesteryear, but now and the future. Newark is neighborhoodly, yet wordly, humble but proud, grit and jubilee. It’s jumping at the sun to “You Used to Hold Me.” It’s its most famous daughters and sons coming back to give back. It’s the city that used to be the butt of jokes turned into a bustling metropolis that didn’t have to drive out all the blackness to be such.

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“I am trying to redistribute some wealth in this city and not put it all in the hands of a few power brokers,” Mayor Baraka said when running for re-election last year.

And if all this doesn’t convince you that Newark is indeed America’s blackest—thriving—city, here’s something to chew on: Newark so black that Erik “Bury Me With My Ancestors” Killmonger’s from there.

*Drops mic.*

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About the author

Angela Helm

Ms. Bronner Helm is a Contributing Editor at The Root. Mouthy Black Girl. Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Fellow. Shea Butter Feminist. Virgo Sun, Aries Moon.