Suzanne Smith: ‘My Man’s an Undertaker’

Posted: October 25, 2010 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: October 25, 2010 at 9:22 am

Suzanne Smith. Creative Services photo

The Hylton Performing Arts Center is the setting for the next Vision Series lecture at the Prince William Campus on Tuesday, Nov. 9, at 7 p.m.

Suzanne Smith, associate professor of history and art history, will explore the vivid and varied roles of funeral directors in African American life.

Author of the 2010 book, “To Serve the Living: Funeral Directors and the African American Way of Death,” Smith will explore in her talk how the tension between the funeral directors’ reputations as community leaders and con artists worked together to create a legendary, sometimes notorious, status in African American culture.

Despite this reputation as a hero, helping families in need and supporting communities through philanthropy, the undertaker was also perceived by many in the black community as a racketeer who cheated customers out of hard-earned money for needlessly extravagant funerals.

Some African American funeral directors even participated in informal, underworld economies and used their businesses as fronts for gambling and other illegal activities, sometimes funneling this money to black community members in need.

Moreover, this prestige functioned to keep the ideal of black capitalism as a strategy of racial empowerment alive even as racism generally kept black entrepreneurs on the margins of America’s capitalist economy.

Smith’s first book, “Dancing in the Street: Motown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit,” examined Motown and its relationship to the black community of Detroit and the civil rights movement.

Her research interests include the relationship of popular culture, music and art to social protest; the study of film and collective memory; and the history of death in America.

Smith has also contributed to various public history projects, including the film “Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring” for the American Experience series on PBS, and the series, “I’ll Make Me A World: African American Arts in the Twentieth Century,” from Blackside Productions.

Smith has a PhD in American Studies from Yale University.

This is a free, nonticketed event.

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