Friends, I am a huge nerd!
ne of my favorite hobbies is searching the “innanets” for little-known Black history facts. Likewise, I also love researching new tarot and oracle decks. And these two worlds collided when I learned that a Black woman illustrated the coveted Rider-Waite-Smith tarot deck.
I first stumbled upon this fact on a Reddit thread, and a quick search on Google confirmed that Black Reddit came through with the facts! There are countless tarot decks in the world inspired by the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, but most publications fail to mention the iconic Pamela Colman Smith’s role in shaping it.
Pamela Colman Smith was born in England on February 16, 1878, to a Jamaican mother and a white American father. Her family moved to Brooklyn, New York when Pamela was 15, where she discovered her love of the fine arts. She expressed an aptitude for the arts, which helped her gained acceptance into the prestigious Pratt Institute for fine arts. And after she turned 21, Smith returned back to England for a career as a writer and illustrator.
Pamela met A. E. Waite in 1901 at a secret society for individuals interested in the occult and mysticism called The Golden Dawn. Consequently, Waite commissioned her to illustrate the Rider-Waite-Smith deck in 1909. In exchange, Smith got paid a one-time fee to illustrate the deck. The project took her six months to complete. Despite the popularity of the deck and her long list of accomplishments, Pamela died penniless in 1951.
Her story brings light to the constant erasure of black women in the spiritual realm throughout history. Although the Rider-Waite-Smith deck is the most popular tarot deck in the world, Smith is still widely unknown. It’s a shame that Pamela doesn’t receive the flowers or compensation that she deserves.
Furthermore, there is a stereotype that the world of mysticism is a white space. Most decks have white imagery, and some of the most popular tarot readers on social media are white. However, black women have been at the forefront of tarot for years!
When I found out this interesting fact, I was battling with a bout of anxiety. In the weeks leading up to discovering who Pamela Colman Smith was, I was considering giving up my spiritual journey. It had been a while since I touched my favorite tarot decks. My anxiety lead me to believe that I did not deserve to be blessed. I started to disconnect from a part of me that I loved the most. I even started dialing back on the types of pieces I write on here in an attempt not to “always sound like I’m preaching”.
While reading about Pamela’s life, I started to feel re-energized about continuing on with my spiritual path. As a black woman from the south, I have always felt a connection to spirit. I may not have always felt comfortable attending churches, but I can not deny my attachment to faith. Journeying through adulthood, I have found alternative ways to give praise and thanks to the Lord. Tarot is one of those methods for me. There are many ways that tarot and the Bible align and I know that God is speaking to me through the cards. Finding out that a Black woman played a huge role in the conceptualization of the Rider-Waite-Smith deck makes this experience even more personal for me.