Audrey Smedley

Photograph of a woman sitting indoors
Image description: A woman wearing short, dark curly hair sits in front of a white wall with a picture hanging on it. She wears a long-sleeved black jacket with a white collared shirt beneath it.
Caption: Audrey Smedley

1930–2020

We mourn the death of Audrey Smedley, a pioneering social anthropologist who peacefully passed away at her home in Beltsville, Maryland, on October 14, 2020, 16 days before her ninetieth birthday. She received a BA in the History, Letters, and Law Program at the University of Michigan in 1954 and in 1957 an MA in anthropology, concentrating in history, from the same institution. In 1967, she graduated with a PhD in social anthropology from Victoria University of Manchester, England. She was professor emeritus at Binghamton University and Virginia Commonwealth University in anthropology and African American studies.

Born in Detroit, her parents, Ulysses, who worked at Ford Motor Company, and Mattie, a beautician, gave her an understanding of the world that influenced her seminal thinking and scholarship on the origins of racism. Her childhood experiences made her aware of racism’s impact on the lives of all Black people.

While her major contribution to anthropology is her conceptualization of race as a worldview, her most underappreciated work, based on her 1967 dissertation on the Birom of Northern Nigeria, is Women Creating Patrilyny: Gender and Environment in West Africa (2004).  In it, she argued against prevailing perspectives on women’s universal oppression and explained the conditions of gendered agency that enabled women to experience some measure of freedom. She revealed that manifestations of men’s dominance were more equivocal than conventionally assumed.

Smedley’s major contribution to the social sciences and society is her classic textbook, Race in North America: Origin and Evolution of a Worldview (1993), in which she showed how folk culture popularized race while science, through white power and privilege, gave the social construct authority. Because of the significance of this award-winning book, the American Anthropological Association (AAA) asked her to prepare its official 1998 statement on race, and in 2006 she was a consultant on the AAA’s initiative, “Understanding Race and Human Variability: A Public Education Program.” She was also featured in the influential PBS documentary series, Race: The Power of an Illusion (2003).

In 2012, Westview Press published a fourth edition of Race in North America, its top-selling textbook. This edition was coauthored with Smedley’s son Brian Smedley, cofounder and executive director of the National Collaborative for Health Equity. Their collaboration resulted in the inclusion of a new chapter on health, which focused on the causes and severity of racial health disparities in US society. The book’s four editions and readers’ demand for them attest to Smedley’s far-reaching impact across the social and behavioral sciences.

We talked with her many times not only about racism in her life but also about the things she had seen but not written about. In our discussions, she spoke while we listened and learned more about the history of white oppression. Goodbye, our friend.

Smedley is survived by her younger brother Laconia and her two sons, Brian and David, who is a sculptor and former coordinator of the Sculpture Program at Howard University. She also has two grandchildren, Avery and David.

(Janis F. Hutchinson and Faye V. Harrison)

Cite as: Hutchinson, Janis F. and Faye V. Harrison. 2020. “Audrey Smedley.” Anthropology News website, December 7, 2020. DOI: 10.14506/AN.1551

Comments

I remember Audrey, not with short curly hair but long waist length hair and a regal bearing when I met her in Japan in 2001. Her work had inspired me in my own research on the underlying commonalities between various forms of discrimination such as caste, race and gender and meeting her in person was an experience I cherish till now. She had graciously invited me to her home , an invitation that unfortunately I could not fulfill. Her appreciation of my work gave me inspiration and courage and she remains like a beacon for me to continue on the path of solidarity and critical analysis to uphold the voices of the discriminated and the marginal. Not through rhetoric but through painstaking scholarship like hers.

Post a Comment

Want to comment? Please be aware that only comments from current AAA members will be approved. AN is supported by member dues, so discussions on anthropology-news.org are moderated to ensure that current members are commenting. As with all AN content, comments reflect the views of the person who submitted the comment only. The approval of a comment to go live does not signify endorsement by AN or the AAA.

Commenting Disclaimer

Want to comment? Please be aware that only comments from current AAA members will be approve. AN is supported by member dues, so discussions on anthropology-news.org are moderated to ensure that current members are commenting. As with all AN content, comments reflect the views of the person who submitted the comment only. The approval of a comment to go live does not signify endorsement by AN or the AAA.