Pamela Colman Smith and The Erasure of Black Women in Metaphysics

ShaVaughn Elle
Jan 9, 2018 · 5 min read
Image for post
Image for post
Pamela Colman Smith photographed by Gertrude Kasebier

This is a new journey for me.

I’ve had a lifelong a fascination with Tarot. I enjoyed historical fiction. Those old European movies and shows sprinkled with fantasy and mythology fueled my imagination. Found myself enchanted with the aesthetic of carnivale Seers and in LOVE with Witches. Obsessed with crystal balls, tinctures, and potions. Wanting to cast spells but unsure if the magic was real. Watched ladies dressed in jewels, peasant tops, and long flared skirts pull cards which spoke of the unforeseen. The Unicorns and Faeries were an added touch, coupled with battles of good and evil which always felt real.

It didn’t dawn on me until I got old enough to pay attention, but the lack of Black and Brown faces were prevalent. As if we didn’t exist or voyage beyond our African and Middle Eastern country lines. All the stories were one-sided. The more I watched Old Europe, the more I recognized the length of erasure from spirituality and metaphysics.

When I began my divination journey with Tarot as a modality, I searched for decks where the characters looked like me. I’ve been a practitioner of Santería for ten years, so I looked for an Orisa deck. Although only a few exist, they aren’t favorable with many in the religion since they’re watered down the depictions of Orisa. Not being illustrated or produced by anyone Black doesn’t help either, so I get it. Most decks on the market are good; however, I always look for representation.


Because Rider-Waite-Smith is considered the “beginner deck,” I made it a point to purchase it to build my skills and better connect with the images of the Major and Minor Arcana. To my surprise, I became more apt to buy the RWS deck when I learned a vital piece of information: the illustrator is a Black woman.

Folks sure kept that quiet.

Image for post
Image for post

I like to thank Tatianna Tarot for sharing this key piece of information. In my quest to find posts and other think pieces about our Tarot Godmuva Pamela Colman Smith, I found a few. The few I found only addressed her being a woman erased from the legacy of a legendary deck that’s surpassed a century. The erasure of Pamela Colman Smith is beyond a woman being erased, it’s a further perpetuation of Black women being erased from the metaphysical and spiritual communities.

Why is this important?
Have a seat right quick.

Image for post
Image for post
Pamela Colman Smith (known as Pixie) pictured with her illustrations

Pamela Colman Smith is an English woman born of a Jamaican merchant from Brooklyn in 1878. She was an early 20th-century illustrator, influenced heavily by Art Nouveau of the 19th century. Aside from being an illustrator, she authored children’s books, was a set designer, as well as an active member of the 20th-century occultist movement. A member of the Order of the Golden Dawn, A. E. Waite chose her to collaborate with on the illustration for the famed Rider-Waite-Smith deck. Despite her clear signature on each of the 78-cards, it is constantly referred to as Rider-Waite, not Rider-Waite-Smith. Her name dismissed as if she was a work for hire providing a service.

Even the cards over the years were slowly white-washed from the original brown shade they once were.

The demonizing and dismissal of Black people and spirituality go back as far as I can trace. We’ve been the heathens due to our religious ideologies of Gods and Goddesses; yet, it was the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten who invented monotheism. It is the Orisa repurposed into Greek and Roman mythology, the Scribes, and Oracles of various Traditional African Religions made to appear sacrilegious and satanic. Even the witchdoctors, Shamans, and medicine women of many African lands were dismissed. Their knowledge cast aside then rebirth in other European lands as if it were some new shit on the market.

Black women have been at the helm of metaphysical practice and holistic healing for centuries; yet, this truth gets skipped over like cracked concrete.

It’s embedded in our DNA. It is innate in us to provide holistic healing, offer divination and counsel, serve in mediumship between the 3D and 5D realms, as well as speak for the Spirits who have a message for the living.

If I had a viable explanation as to why Pamela Colman Smith and others are easily erased from the history of divination and metaphysics, I’d share it here but I don’t. I don’t know why or understand the reason our names are constantly and conveniently forgotten. I’m unsure why it’s necessary for Black women to be displaced from the movement as if we have no voice. A twentieth century Pamela Colman Smith gets muzzled, just as every Black woman in the 21st.

Image for post
Image for post
From my “beginner deck” collection

I recognize the importance of scribes like myself and others, to revive the truths of Black women other folks try to keep hidden as if our stories aren’t relevant or don’t add value.

We are of value.

If you are a diviner, be it Oracle, Tarot, or Diloggùn, purchase a Rider-Waite-Smith deck. Even if you don’t use it. It’s one of the best ways to honor a woman who played such a pivotal role in divination and was tossed aside because of her gender AND her ethinicity. Pamela Colman Smith is our Egun. She is the ancestor of the diviner, the occultist, the artist — an Intuitive Creative. It’s important to say her name and the names of all Black women who are subject to erasure.

Quiet is no longer an answer for the Black Witches, Spiritualists, and Magicians. Our mothers will speak from their graves and we will say their names, so they may be no longer erased.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store