History and Erasure
It's an old trope now that the victors are the ones who write history, which is shorthand for saying that those who hold power- usually in institutions and governments- have been able to accept and reject versions of history to benefit themselves. In some cases this was purposeful and targeted (Thanksgiving in the U.S.) and in some cases it is perpetuated through assumptions that educational institutions aren’t susceptible to bias and have all the “real” answers (they are, and they don’t). But, and this is a big but, textbook histories and nationalist teachings have not gone unchallenged.
Today we can look back at the histories in books, films, and schools, and ask the necessary questions. What is the source? What is the bias? What’s left out of this story? Who are we not hearing from? Where can we get this information? What types of resources are we drawing from? There is one huge problem though- what happens when the information we could use to challenge a dominant idea of history doesn’t exist anymore?
You might be wondering what this has to do with tarot cards. Well, the history of the metaphysical community, including tarot, suffers from erasure like anything else. For example, the Romani people are often left out of the conversation when their survival-based practices shaped our communities, in particular, the card community. This also means the stories of certain practitioners in the world of Western metaphysics have been either erased, modified, or left ambiguous. This is certainly the case with Pamela Colman Smith as well.
A Brief (and Incomplete) Biography
Who is this mysterious woman? Her most notable work was a one off project that she was contracted for: The Rider-Waite Tarot deck, or as it is now often called, the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot deck. This is pretty clear cut erasure. The deck retained the name of the publisher (Rider) and the originator (Arthur Edward Waite) who contracted her- but Pamela Coleman Smith’s artistic contribution has long been elided, despite the fact that she created the iconic illustrations.
Her illustrations are still the best known and most widely used tarot images but she died without financial security or much recognition. This can be partly blamed on the fact that the RWS Tarot wasn’t widely distributed until the 1970s but nonetheless, she is still a little known figure.
Part of the problem is lack of information or misinformation. There's been speculation on her racial identity and her sexual orientation, sometimes stated as fact. This causes confusion from many angles, but first a basic biography:
Smith, also given the nickname “Pixie” by friends, was born February 16th, 1878 to American parents in London. Here’s where things get tricky. I’ve seen claims that she was British and adopted and that she was biracial because her mother was Black and/or Jamacian (those authors assuming Blackness via national identity). But her racial identity is still unfounded, as there's no evidence of Black heritage. There were also plenty of white, European descended families in Jamaica at this time - the result of colonization, which adds another layer of confusion. The records on her mother’s side indicate ancestors who arrived to the U.S. colonies in the early 1600s from Europe and were part of a wealthy class.
This doesn’t mean she doesn’t have Black heritage. We know all too well that family members can be erased or ‘white-washed’ to preserve a certain racial/ethnic identity. Still, the evidence simply isn’t there, so where did this idea come from? There is something else interesting happening here. And it's not just speculation, but the encouragement of ambiguity.
Speculating on Identity
Pixie grew up first in Manchester but then her family moved to Jamaica for her father’s work. She would enroll in the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn while she was still a teenager, to study art. Eventually she moved back to the UK, but between 1888 and 1900 she spent a lot of time going back and forth between New York and Jamaica- and Jamaica had a huge influence on her. She contributed to two Jamaican folklore books, published her own collection of West Indian folktales with her own illustrations, and regularly performed these folktales in private art salons. There's a wonderful, in depth discussion of these performances as a form of minstrelsy by Thea Wirsching (1). In her blog, Wirsching discusses all the nuances of Pixie as an American illustrator collecting and using Black folklore in contrast to Black American writers like Zora Neal Hurston, including arguments surrounding appropriation and preservation, and how Pixie is distinctly American.
These performances, in which Pixie used West Indian dress and impersonated Black storytellers, are obviously part of the speculation about her racial identity. She also ‘played to the crowd’. It seems she encouraged speculation via spectacle (2). According to biographers she was viewed as an “other”, in part because she played into racial ambiguity, not exclusively with Black identity either, also with Asian identities. I should say, again, that no one can definitively pin down her heritage but by all accounts she was a white woman, interested in Black, specifically Jamacian folklore, and put on performances in a persona that imitated that culture.
So … What about the cards?
Ah yes, the tarot cards. Even if Pixie was not erased as a Black woman, she was the woman who created what are still the most widely known tarot images. She was commissioned in 1909 by Waite to do the deck based on his instruction, but the illustrations themselves and much of the rich occult symbolism, particularly on the minor arcana cards, come from Smith. It seems she was somewhat influenced by the Sola Busca deck, made in the 1400s for a wealthy Milanese family, but she also contributed much of her own symbolism. These are still powerful images, which many tarot card creators use as the basis for their decks, and so her influence as a woman, who went to art school, traveled, and supported women’s suffrage is by itself a significant addition back into occult and tarot history.
Even more speculation …
Prior to the deck, she had been a part of London’s Lyceum Theater group, led by Ellen Terry, one of her speculated lovers. By the end of her life she had converted to Catholicism after leaving the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, where she studied the occult, metaphysics, and the paranormal. After she became Catholic she received a house in Lizard Peninsula in Cornwall as part of a family inheritance. She lived there and ran a business with her friend Nora Lake, also speculated to be her lover. It’s true she never married and was never tied to any romantic liaisons with men, but again speculation can be a problem. We have purely circumstantial evidence. While to me it seems entirely possible she was a queer woman, unfortunately that part of her history, if it did exist, has been lost.
What we DO know
By the end of her life, Pixie had slipped into obscurity, never receiving financial security or recognition for her contribution to the ‘classic’ RWS tarot deck. She died in Bude, England and there have since been exhibits and books written on her. Still, much of the information about her is lost or simply a bit ambiguous. It's important to acknowledge both her wonderful contributions to tarot and the fact that she arguably appropriated Black Jamaican culture - which still leads to confusion today. History is not clear-cut and relies on interpretation of evidence (or lack thereof). The story of Pamela Colman Smith is a perfect example of how history gets written and rewritten over time. I hope it also serves as encouragement to look for the people and stories who are missing from history as we know it now.
For more of Pixie’s history:
(article by Thea Wirsching)
(interview with Elizabeth Foley O’Connor who contributed to Pamela Coleman Smith: The Untold Story)
(includes a detailed family biography)
(Deviant Women podcast episode on Pixie)