Newark Suffers Loss of Prominent African-American Intellectuals

The recent deaths of two critical figures in the pantheon of Newark's intellectual and political leadership that came to prominence in the 1960s and 1970s, coming in close succession to the passing of other key figures from that era, brings Newark to a cerebral crossroads at a critical moment in the city's history.

As a long-anticipated economic revival appears to be in motion as Newark redevelops and rebuilds, a mental construct also needs to be addressed: who will now provide the institutional knowledge needed to give context to Newark's reconstruction and revival?

The recent spate of losses in academic, artistic and political circles in New Jersey's largest city has been considerable.

Curvin-Sharif_collage.jpg

Robert Curvin and Carl Sharif

On Sept. 29, Robert Curvin, 81, who who helped to found the Newark chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality, a national civil rights organization, and who was on the ground advocating peaceful protest in the midst of the city's 1967 civil disturbances, died at his home in Newark's Vailsburg section.

Curvin, a Ford Foundation member and a former New York Times editorial board member, left behind a profound body of work, including his book “Inside Newark: Decline, Rebellion and the Search for Transformation,” a probing look at the city's post-World War II struggle to deal with violence, corruption and change.

Carl Sharif, 72, a political strategist who took the tutelage he received from Newark's first black politicians to help get Kenneth Gibson elected the city's first black mayor in 1970, was a potent behind-the-scenes political force for decades, orchestrating the later mayoral race victories of Sharpe James and now-U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ). He died a few days afterCurvin.

The losses of Curvin and Sharif added more salt into the psychic wounds experienced by Newarkers after the recent demise of other critical cultural and scholarly figures whose work also impacted the city's politics.

clemprice.pngAmiri Baraka, 79, a world-renowned poet, street-savvy activist and black power advocate, died in January 2014, just four months prior to the victory of his son, Ras Baraka, in the Newark mayoral race.

Clement Price, 69, the revered Rutgers-Newark professor and city historian who framed Newark's turbulent history within erudite bounds of grace and dignity, so much so that it was rumored that he would named the city's interim mayor after Booker's departure, passed in November 2014, removing from the scene the man who many saw as the city's secular saint.

These snapshots of the respective careers of Curvin, Sharif, Baraka and Price do not alone paint the full picture of how they added to the wider mosaic of Newark's civic life. As much as they formed the DNA of the civil rights movement and the foundation of future progress for a city that for decades seemed transfixed by decay, they at times seemed more like atoms colliding against each other, with resulting unpredictable fission.

These differences, not just in professions but positions, often played out most dramatically in politics. Price advised generations of city politicians, but parlayed his growing influence in an academic setting, not an ongoing street fight. Curvin, Sharif and Baraka were united in backing Gibson's seminal victory in the 1970 Newark mayoral election, but eventually split apart, with the resulting cracks visible even recently: Darrin Sharif, a former city councilman and the son of Carl, went up against the son of his former ally Amiri Baraka in the 2014 mayoral race.

Yet at a time when the ears of suburban New Jersey could not, or would not, hear any hope of a future renaissance, all four men continued to bang the drum slowly in Newark's name and lived to see the city they loved on the precipice of a sustained revival. They were united in a belief that the city would survive and thrive again, and that cities in general across America still mattered, a message spread from their different professional platforms and personal perspectives.

With the successive losses of these four civic evangelists who promoted the gospel of Newark's evolving growth, the question of who will succeed these city stalwarts as Newark's new prophets remains open.

"These men were all brilliant, but Newark is changing," said Guy Sterling, a veteran journalist, author and historian who lives in downtown Newark. "They won one battle to make sure that African-American voices were heard in this city. Who will have the reservation of knowledge about these battles as the city moves forward, that's the question."

"When these men spoke people listened. But we also need to hear more females voices," added Celia King, the CEO of Leadership Newark, a non-profit organization that seeks to develop leadership potential in the city through its fellowship program. "Society can move slowly, but with specific aims, these new voices can have a specific impact."

amiri_baraka.pngAnd while the impact of Baraka, Curvin, Price and Sharif in a variety of disciplines is widely acknowledged, several of Newark's remaining resources of social and cultural perspective cautioned against looking to only a few figures who have faded away.

"We have to democratize the rest of the people here who together who have the pieces of what we have lost and put a new picture together," said Richard Cammarieri, director of special projects at New Community Corporation, a non-profit community development organization based in Newark of which Curvin was a founding board member. "When these men were alive, they were sowing the seeds so that their work for equality and social justice would carry on."

"You have to have the power in the streets to go along with the power in the [corporate] suites," said Junius Williams, civil rights fight veteran, director of the Abbott Leadership Institute at Rutgers University-Newark and author of the book "Unfinished Agenda: Urban Politics in the Era of Black Power," as he looked around a city where a rising stream of economic development funds are flowing in. "That's the only way we will get to the next level of power and have that power in our hands."

"Newark is not so fragile that it means that there aren't new leaders among us. Governance doesn't have to be so steeped in a place that you are blind to the present and to the next generation," added Roland Anglin, director of the Joseph C. Cornwall Center of Metropolitan Studies at Rutgers-Newark. "We don't want to throw people's voices away. That is not what these people who we have lost fought for."

Mo Butler, chief of staff for Booker when he was mayor and now the senator's New Jersey chief of staff, moved from Philadelphia in 1999 and noted how Newark sucked him in to civic life.

"This city, gritty on the surface, is all-consuming. That's what Newark does," said Butler, 42, a former Leadership Newark fellow. "I learned from the best, from the people who passed who had so much institutional knowledge about this place. Now we have to be the grown people in the room. We have to be the steadying force."

"Regardless of ideology, those who are gone shaped Newark's narrative and made sure the next generation was looking forward," said Tai Cooper, 33, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka's chief policy advisor. "Part of their legacy is that we have to push the needle forward."

Eric Dawson, one of Sharif's sons, paused from mourning his father to examine Newark's future in a tone that was not elegiac, but energized.

"People like my father, and the people in his generation, gave us a road map," said Dawson, 50. "We just have to keep talking to each other to thread the pieces of that map together."

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