Usually when people create great things, it’s because they’ve identified a need. They’ve discovered a gap — a space where nothing else like it exists.
This was the case for Juliana “Jewels” Smith, a cultural worker, organizer, writer and educator. She’s also the creator of the comic strip (H)afrocentric, which “stars a posse of disgruntled undergrads of color as they navigate their way through Ronald Reagan University.”
She explains: “(H)afrocentric is a response to my experience being a young educator in community college, musing on the relationship between my brother and I, my hometown and my life in Oakland. My interests in issues of race, class, gender and sexuality are told through humor, developing what I call a ‘liberatory science fiction.’”
Juliana, a native of California’s Bay Area, started teaching while she was in graduate school in 2008 (she has a master’s degree in ethnic studies from University of California (UC) San Diego and a bachelor’s degree in sociology from UC Riverside). While she was teaching a class on the prison industrial complex at Laney College in Oakland, California, Juliana says she needed a tool to breakdown the complexities of the prison system. So she explored an unconventional resource — a series of comic books, The Real Cost of Prisons Comix. And then she had her “aha” moment.
“[The students] responded pretty well to The Real Cost of Prisons, and that’s when I really started to think about using comics as a pedagogical tool,” she says. “I’ve used The Boondocks in class before, and I think it was a good jumping-off point to talking about a number of different issues such as race or class or gender and things like that. Using the comics was really helpful in breaking some of those difficult phenomena down.”
Thus, (H)afrocentric. What originally started as a tool Juliana planned to create in order to use in the classroom eventually evolved into more than that.
“As I kept writing it, it became a self reflection,” she says. “I was writing about the things that were going on in my life at the time and also reflecting on my own experiences. The characters Naima and Miles are a reflection of my brother and I. And the other characters are amalgamations of people that I know.”
(H)afrocentric launched in 2010 as an independently published comic book (it is now released weekly as a comic strip), and Juliana works with illustrator Ronald Nelson and colorist/letterer Mike Hampton to bring the characters to life.
There’s Naima Pepper, the main character, who is a “self-proclaimed radical black feminist … desperate to follow in the footsteps of Angela Davis.” Her twin brother, Miles, is an “apolitical drummer who reflects a popular culture aesthetic and mindset.” And then there are their friends: Kwame and Rahsaan, Elizondo “El” Ramirez and Renee Aanjay Brown — all of them different but united in their efforts to create their own identities while remaining true to their cultures and the very things that make them unique.
Creating this body of work, though, was somewhat of a challenge for Juliana; when she started, she didn’t even have an illustrator. “When I began to write the comic book, I didn’t have any of the tools in place to even make it happen,” she says. “But sometimes, you just have to do. You just have to create, even if you don’t have all the proper tools and things in front of you, because eventually, you’ll get there. I know a lot more about this now than I did five years ago, but I wouldn’t have figured it out if I didn’t try.”
Juliana says that before (H)afrocentric, she’d never embarked upon any type of creative venture. “But I feel like I tapped into something that everybody has — the ability to be creative. We all have ways that allow us to think differently about things,” she says. “What I realized was that comics gave me an outlet to talk about anything I wanted to talk about. It opened up a world that I didn’t know existed. This is one of the places where I can be free.”
Through the voices of her characters, Juliana addresses gentrification, race, politics, patriarchy and all the other things we tend to see in our everyday lives or in the news.
“I’m inspired by what’s happening in the world or in my life, and I speak to that and hope it resonates with folks,” she says. “I’m overwhelmed just like every other black person in this world because these days, it seems like there’s a tragedy every day. Thankfully, I have an outlet where I can talk about the things that affect us, but in a humorous way.”
And in a place where those in the “minority” are underrepresented in all forms of media, (H)afrocentric is a breath of fresh air, providing characters and dialogue as complex as real people actually are.
“In a world where you’re inundated with so many things that tell you that your skin isn’t beautiful or that you’re not good enough, to have characters that reflect the kind of humanity you see in yourself, that’s a beautiful thing,” she says. “I hope when folks read it, they can relate to it on that level and can identify with the characters. Or hopefully you just find it funny, and it brightens up your day. If I can just lighten everybody’s day and make it better, then I’m doing my job.”