Four years ago, I purchased my first Rider-Waite deck, the best-known tarot deck, from a bookshop in Greenwich Village. Squeezing past the crowd of customers swarmed around a table filled with crystals and pendulums, I scanned shelf after shelf of tarot decks: cat tarot, vampire tarot, mermaid tarot. I didn’t know where to begin. A woman nearby asked if I was looking for a deck for myself or for a friend. Afraid of sounding like a newbie, I lied and said that it was for a friend. “Try the Rider-Waite,” she suggested. “It’s a classic.”
Once I got home, I slid out the vibrant cards. They felt familiar and mysterious at once. After shuffling through the Major and Minor Arcana, I reached for the black-and-white booklet that came with the deck. As I read through the first few pages, I came across the name of the artist who designed the cards that surrounded me: Pamela Colman Smith. Her contributions to the deck boiled down to two small paragraphs, Smith’s life and legacy felt like a footnote in the shadow of the occult scholar Arthur Edward Waite. A biography released earlier this year, Pamela Colman Smith: The Untold Story by Stuart R. Kaplan, Mary K. Greer, Elizabeth Foley O’Connor, and Melinda Boyd Parsons explores Smith’s life, but her name and story continue to be largely glossed over in discussions of the deck.
Born on February 16, 1878, in London, Corinne Pamela Colman Smith, also known as “Pixie,” grew up abroad and split her formative years between England, Jamaica, and New York. Smith’s penchant for narrative manifested itself in various mediums: illustrations, oil paintings, poetry, folktales, miniature theatre, costume design, and ultimately tarot. Smith began her studies at the Pratt Institute at the age of 15. In 1899, she published a collection of illustrated Jamaican folktales and soon met W.B. Yeats, who commissioned illustrations from Smith to accompany his work. While working with Yeats, Smith became a member of the Isis-Urania Temple of the Order of the Golden Dawn. Shortly after, she met Arthur Edward Waite. In his autobiography Shadows of Life and Thought, Waite describes Smith as “a most imaginative and abnormally psychic artist.” Waite asked Smith to design the 78 cards that later became known as the Major and Minor Arcana. Although this project would introduce countless generations to Smith’s work, she herself considered the project “a big job for little cash.”
Originally published in 1909 as the Rider deck—later known as the Rider-Waite and, most recently, the Smith-Waite deck—Smith’s iteration of Waite’s vision became the standard for future iterations of tarot and a touchstone deck for tarot practitioners and students alike. Despite this, many are still unaware of her story and the expansiveness of her work. In honor of Smith’s legacy, I spoke with five women of the African diaspora who practice tarot—Courtney Alexander, Vei Darling, Staci Ivori, Bri Luna, and Rachel True—about the power of tarot and representation and how learning about Smith’s contributions to tarot is an affirmation.