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