‘Breaking’ Presents: Juliana ‘Jewels’ Smith, Educator-Turned-Comic Writer

By Sameer Rao
April 13th, 2018

The Bay Area resident, inspired by how comics connected with her community college students, developed “(H)afrocentric” to address structural and economic racism in a funny and accessible way.

This “
Breaking” installment features Juliana “Jewels” Smith, the creator of the comic “(H)afrocentric.” She keeps an Instagram account frequently updated with new comics. She also released a paperback compilation of the comic books, “(H)afrocentric Vol. 1-4,” last November.

Hometown: Bay Area, California

Project: (H)afrocentric,” a comic book series and strip based on the exploits of Naima and Miles Pepper, two Black siblings, and their friends of color at the fictional Ronald Reagan University. The comics tackle racism, gentrification, activist culture and more with levity and humor.

Why You Should Care: After spending several years teaching community college students about social injustice and activism, Smith is using “(H)afrocentric,” to go beyond classrooms. 

Smith, who grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, first caught the academia bug as a student and college basketball player at the University of California (U.C.), Riverside. She took a class with ethnic studies scholar Dylan Rodriguez that she says influenced her understanding on social justice and education.

“[His class] gave me a language to understand the world around me,” she says. “It’s not that I didn’t know that these things existed, it’s just that I really couldn’t articulate my feelings. Learning about the prison industrial complex and Black radical tradition inspired me to read more. As an educator, that’s the greatest hope—that you leave your students with the desire to pursue knowledge on their own.”

Hoping to do the same for other students of color, Smith earned a masters degree in ethnic studies at the U.C. San Diego. “It was always clear to me that I would become a community college professor,” she notes. “Even though I was exposed to this somewhat radical education, that felt like an exclusive experience. I wanted to be surrounded by communities of color and working-class people, and make sure people knew that you didn’t have to go to a U.C. school to learn these things.”

Smith taught at several institutions throughout California, including Laney College in Oakland. She assigned the “Real Cost of Prisons Comix” in a mass incarceration unit after realizing students didn’t gravitate towards other essays on the syllabus. “It’s a three-part series dedicated to breaking down the prison-industrial complex,” she described. “After I gave that to my students, they started coming to my office hours and telling me that they were giving it to their family members. The fact that students did that shifted the way that I thought about comics and inspired me to create my own.”

Smith began working on “(H)afrocentric” in 2010. She created the comic as a form of catharsis for the pressures of her academic career, which she ultimately left before getting to use the project in her own classrooms. “It was very difficult to make a living as an adjunct professor, and I’ll just leave it at that,” she says about the end of her professorial career.

Smith describes “(H)afrocentric” as a feminist version of “The Boondocks.” It takes its name from the half-Black, half-White background of its protagonists Naima and Miles Pepper. Smith loosely based the activist Naima and laid-back Miles on her and herself and her brother. She sets much of the action at the fictional Ronald Reagan University, where the pair attend classes with friends including Elizondo “El” Ramirez, an aspiring activist with Chicano nationalist beliefs, and Renee Aanjay Brown, a mixed Black and Indonesian-American girl who identifies as lesbian and checks many of Naima’s contradictions. “Naima is a self-critique of the self-righteousness that I and a lot of activists have,” Smith explains. “(H)afrocentric” uses satire to address and deconstruct both activist culture and oppression itself. For instance, in the following comic, Naima laments the gentrification of her neighborhood, only to rush into a new café to use the free Wi-Fi:

Smith first developed “(H)afrocentric” as a comic book series with illustrator Ronald R. Nelson and colorist Mike Hampton. The team pivoted to making standalone comic strips, which Smith consistently releases on Instagram and, in 2016. The smaller format allows her to release the work more consistently.

Smith has spoken about using comics to address racial justice at New York Comic Con and the Baltimore Book Festival. The East Coast Black Age of Comics Convention recognized Smith with its Glyphy Award for Best Writer in 2016. She is the first woman to win that award since the convention launched in 2002.

As Aaron McGruder did with “The Boondocks,” Smith hopes to turn “(H)afrocentric” into an animated series. In addition, she and fellow artist Sasha Glover are developing another animated web series, “Sasha & Condi.” “We call it ‘Drunk History’ meets ’60 Minutes,’ in which these two Black girls recounts these different moments from the ‘90s and their place in it,” Smith said. “Anything from Tupac and Biggie to the big boom of Starbucks, they’re inserting themselves in that [history].” Watch a sample pilot for that forthcoming series below:

Back to Juliana “Jewels” Smith’s Author Page