Black Voice News
The Voice of the Black Community in California
Last Updated on December 6, 2022 by BVN
Story by Phyllis Kimber Wilcox | Photos by Aryana Noroozi
The main room of the house is defined by light colored floors and walls covered in bright paintings. Dr. NTR HMT Rev. Queen Shamala Bessie Davis Fayemi Smith is the artist. There’s a particular painting which she speaks about. It’s called Initiations. “I was working on it when my mother made her transition,” Queen Shamala explains.
The colorful painting is thick and tactile, in some places three dimensional. There’s a central figure made up of different colors and patterns.
“It’s the energy of life surging throughout the figure and it came out through the mouth. That energy, in some African cultures, is called Ase, the breath of life. It shows everything is in one accord. It was like the universe said Ase to her life and her death,” Queen Shamala says, explaining the colorful spray coming from the mouth of the central image in the painting.
The hands in the painting are holding a scroll close to the heart. It is the book of life. The colors represent the chakras or energies of the body. According to Queen Shamala, the inspiration for the shape of the head were pictures of the [Egyptian Pharaoh] Akhenaten and his family. The circles represent bubbles of life energy.
“You can touch it. I want people to touch it,” she encourages, explaining how her art is meant to be experienced.
The feeling in the room is intimate and welcoming. There’s a work desk and office chair along the wall with two intricately carved wooden chairs facing each other in the opposite corners of the room. A comfortable couch on a wall faces a dining room table, positioned in front of a large window looking out to a small enclosed yard.
A child’s chair and toys rests along the backside of cabinets from the kitchen, which also opens to the room. It is light and cozy and gives only a hint of everything there is to see. Beyond the front room, the house is much larger than it appears, full of family and artwork where rooms open on to other rooms and generations live together.
In a large grassy backyard with fruit trees, the jazz trio, AKA (the initials of its members), plays to accompany the beautiful fall afternoon. The music, breezy and sunny, matches the weather and the mood of the day. Skylark is playing while guests, mostly dressed in white (a ceremonial color in African culture) at the author’s request, arrive and talk, eat, drink and laugh.
At the far end of the yard is a see-through plastic tent where a large table with chafing dishes are set up for the meal. The food is being prepared by Chef Yealang (Smith Shakir), the author’s daughter. A separate table is set up near a pair of orange trees for pre-orders of the book. Brightly colored t-shirts featuring the author’s art work are also being sold.
The music stops as a man dressed in white exits the house into the yard, playing an African drum. A tall woman with long locs walks behind him. She is smiling. Dressed in a white pantsuit, long white tunic and matching jacket, Dr. NTR HMT Rev. Queen Shamala Bessie Davis Fayemi Smith makes her entrance and takes a seat among the guests waiting in a circle.
After an introduction by Dr. Shari, Queen Shamala’s scholar friend, the author begins reading from her new book, Breaking the Cycles of Pain: Soul Secrets. The book is the first in a trilogy featuring the story of her life. Some of the names have been changed and some people have been left out, but it is her story of trauma and how she overcame it.
Born in North Carolina, Smith’s father was a minister. Her mother cared for the children. However, the family lived with secrets of infidelity, abuse, incest and mental illness that defined them. At an early age, Smith’s older sister was sexually abused by her father, resulting in a pregnancy at age 12. The child was stillborn. This revelation changed the family and caused the young Smith, angry and confused, to question everything she thought about their lives together. As Smith began asking questions of those around her, the story of her family’s pain and trauma unfolds.
A Taboo Subject
In her coming of age story, Queen Shamala focuses on a subject that, although it continues to devastate families, remains taboo. That subject is incest. A recent study estimates that “over 90% of all childhood sexual abuse is perpetrated by family members, friends of the family, or other people that children know closely. In 1986, the U.S. Department of Justice provided a composite picture of issues surrounding father-daughter incest. The survey found that “one in 20 women has a history of being sexually molested by a father or father surrogate during childhood or adolescence.”
Engaging her audience
After reading from selected sections of her book, Queen Shamala takes questions from the audience. Several guests raise their hands, ask questions and speak of their own trauma. Some have experienced child sexual abuse or know others who have. A woman raises her hand. Sexually abused as a child by a friend of the family, she says she was paid by her abuser for years. She was also exposed to adult sexual behavior from an early age, sleeping with her parents and witnessing their intercourse.
Several guests asked the author how she was able to heal.
“The book, the writing healed me from those old lingering thoughts,” she says.
“When I put it on paper, I was able to release it,” Queen Shamala responded. It took a long time to forgive her father, she says. It was not until she went through a formal ceremony that she was able to remember the good things her father had given her and to release the anger and resentment she had carried for so long.
“It was at an ancestral ceremony. You had to bring a picture of your ancestor. The only person I had to deal with was my father,” Queen Shamala says. “I didn’t have a picture of him. [During the ceremony] we were walking down the aisle and this voice spoke to me. It said, ‘You have to forgive your father ‘cause he’s on the other side now and he can still help you. You’re always praying to your mother and your grandmother and all your other deceased [relatives], but when you don’t include him, your prayers are incomplete.”
As she continued walking down the aisle, Queen Shamala says she began to remember some of the good things she learned from him. “[He] taught me how to take care of myself.”
Queen Shamala holds several degrees, including an associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s degree in psychology, a doctorate in Theology and is currently pursuing a PhD in African Spiritual Science. She made a career in public education as a high school English teacher, counselor and magnet school principal. She also led an on campus group for high school students who were victims of abuse and currently teaches workshops in art, healing and writing.
The Need to Heal
The question and answer session completed, the author moved from one group of guests to another, thanking them for coming and taking pictures. Guests ordered books and then quickly lined up for dinner. The meal included macaroni and cheese, fried chicken, baked salmon, salad, cornbread muffins and red beans and rice.
The jazz trio continued playing through the meal while Queen Shamala’s three-year-old granddaughter Malika joined in on harmonica.
BVN spoke with several people in attendance, including Maria Cuadros, a former counseling student of Queen Shamala who spoke warmly about how she (Queen Shamala) had been more than a counselor and more like a mother figure. Queen Shamala arranged for the make-up classes Maria needed to graduate, and also helped purchase a dress for her quinceañera.
A couple, Bramashati and Chionesu Fudail, who attended writing classes with Queen Shamala before the COVID-19 outbreak in early 2020, spoke about the need for men to take part in healing and were looking forward to a workshop the author will facilitate in the coming months. Another guest spoke about the need to heal from abuse not suffered directly by themselves but by someone close to them.
One on One with the Author
After the program BVN sat down with Queen Shamala to discuss her book.
BVN: I noticed that a lot of people were very attentive to your reading and they seemed to respond to the story well. Had you shared your story with anybody before you decided to write the book?
QS: A little, some of my friends knew it was about sexual child abuse but a lot of the people I shared it with were not here. [Some of] the people who were listening knew it, most of the people here today didn’t know.
BVN: People were very moved by what you read to them. Were you surprised at the response? What made you decide to write the book?
QS: I always loved writing. After the incident that happened when I was five, I started trying to write it down. I didn’t know how to write when I was five but by the time I was eight, one of my sisters gave me a diary. I didn’t know she had been watching me trying to write stuff secretly. She made a joke of it. She said, ‘Now you can write your little stories and you don’t have to hide.’ I remember the diary had a lock on it.
BVN: In your book, you write about some of the struggles your mom had. Do you think she was depressed?
QS: She was depressed. She had postpartum depression. My dad said she had always been depressed. It would come and go. As I grew up, sometimes she was fine, then she would be depressed again. She was probably depressed about my father and what was happening in the house. He had other women, he had children with other women. He was a minister too and he had a job. He had a lot of money coming in but it didn’t necessarily reflect in the kind of house we lived in. We lived in one of those “shotgun” houses and also in the projects. He had money coming in, but split obligations.
BVN: Do you think that that probably had a lot to do with your mother’s depression?
QS: When I was five, she forgot to enroll me in school because of her mental state. She would forget stuff. Overtime, her mental state got worse, so my father had to admit her to a mental hospital. She would be there for four or five months. She would get better and come home and then she would get worse.
BVN: In your book you also talk about your own abuse. How old were you when it started?
QS: I was twelve when my father first approached me. I ran. I was afraid because I knew what he had done to my sister. I was afraid he was going to do it to me.
BVN: You came of age during the Civil Rights movement. In the book, you talk about how when the movement came to your town, you got involved. Can you tell me a little about that?QS: My daddy told me not to get involved. ‘It has nothing to do with you,’ he said. Of course, I didn’t listen to him. I went to jail several times, but they always released the kids. In fact [they released] everybody except the recognized organizers, so I never spent a night in jail.
If you suspect a child is a victim of incest or some other form of abuse call or text the Childhelp National Abuse Hotline at (800) 422-4453 where you will be connected with a trained volunteer. The Childhelp Hotline crisis counselors are unable to make the report for you, but they will walk you through the process and advise you regarding what to expect.
Breaking the Cycles of Pain- Soul Secrets is available on Barnes & Noble , Amazon, Walmart and Target. To learn more about Queen Shamala and her art work visit www.queenshamala.com.
Black Voice News photojournalist Aryana Noroozi was born in San Diego, California and graduated with a master’s degree from The Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Her love for visual storytelling led her to document immigrant and deportee communities and those struggling with addiction. She was a 2020 Pulitzer Center Crisis Reporting Fellow and a GroundTruth Project Migration Fellow. She is currently a CatchLight/Report for America corps member employed by Black Voice News. You can learn more about her at aryananoroozi.com. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As a newspaper that publishes in the spirit of the Black Press, the Black Voice News has given voice to the voiceless and shined a light on systemic inequities and disparities since 1972.