Coffee With...Aseloka Smith

In mid-July we sat down—each of us in our houses, in front of our respective computers—with Aseloka Smith, the host of the podcast The Colored Girl Beautiful. A senior salesforce administrator in the Office of Technology Services for four years, Smith has received notice from The New York Times for her show about Black womanhood as explored through Emma Azalia Hackley’s 1916 book, also called The Colored Girl Beautiful.

Aseloka Smith in her home studio
Photo courtesy of Aseloka Smith

Q: How did you discover the book The Colored Girl Beautiful?

A: In graduate school (at the University of Baltimore) I was taking a class, and one of my classmates used it for a reference for her project. As a design student you work on your project, you throw it up on the board and everyone in the class gives their opinion. I had never heard of this book so I started to ask her questions about it. I Googled it and became obsessed with it from there.

Q: Why?

A: An etiquette book specifically for Black women that had been written over 100 years ago—I didn’t know there was anything like that in the world at the time. Once I started to read it, I was really struck by the things that were in the book. There was so much of what I read that I found relevant 100 years later. There was a lot that I disagreed with. I had such a guttural reaction reading it that I made it the subject of my graduate thesis.

Q: What spoke to you?

A: One of my favorite things in the book is the line when Madam Hackley says ‘A woman’s life is what she makes it.’ That’s not something I would have thought would have existed for a Black woman in 1916. I think of it as being a very oppressive time for women. That she thought enough of those words to write them down and distribute them in a book that she wrote really stuck out to me.

On the flip side, there’s a line in the book that says, ‘Women should not be conspicuous except to be conspicuous by quietness,’ which is to say women shouldn’t be noticeable unless we notice how quiet they are. This idea that we don’t deserve to be heard was something that struck me as, ‘Oh no, that’s not okay.’ And while I didn’t agree with this line of thought, I think it’s important to acknowledge the things I don’t agree with even if only to better clarify what I do believe to be true.

Q: So how did you make the jump from reading this book to doing a podcast around it?

A: I am a podcast junkie. There’s only a handful that I listen to regularly, but I subscribe to over 100. I really love storytelling. I love listening to stories and learning about new things. I think it was just in my heart to create content in this way.

Q: What is the show about?

Broadly speaking it’s about Black womanhood. It’s my take on specific topics that are covered in the book in relation to being a Black woman and [the thoughts] of Black women who I interview on the show.

Q: What are some of those topics?

Personal appearance, self-acceptance, marriage, work, religion, love, to name a few.

Q: What have you learned from some of the women you’ve had on the show?

A: I really enjoy hearing other people’s perspectives. Sometimes people don’t see things necessarily the way that I do. Episode 4 was one of my favorites. It’s about racial responsibility. In the book, Madam Hackley talks about this idea that we as Black women have a particular responsibility to our race to excel and to do well in life and to be an example. There was something about the way that [she] describes it in the book that felt like a very heavy burden. I think a lot of that has to do with my personal experience. I’ve had a lot to deal with in life, including the loss of both of my parents. [In the episode] I talk to Heather, [who’s] a chef and she talks about racial responsibility. Before the conversation, I hadn’t seen things from her perspective. She talked about it in this way that was so loving. It made me reconsider what I had been looking at, to some extent, as a burden.

Q: How has the show been received?

A: We’ve gotten some really great feedback from people. We’ve seen a significant uptick in numbers as of late. I’m pleased with the direction that show is going and hope to continue doing this for a very long time. We’re in the middle of production for season 2 currently.

Q: How have the last few months, since the murder of George Floyd, impacted you?

A: It’s been heavy. It’s been difficult. I have found it really hard to go about my day to day. I think the most frustrating thing is that the murders that have happened recently, this is not the first time. This is not a new thing. Just seeing everyone all of a sudden pay attention now is frustrating. On the one hand I appreciate it, but on the other I feel like, why did it have to come to this? Every Black person I know for the past couple of months has been in some state of distress.

Q: You’ve said that the show focuses on ‘What being Black and being a woman has meant to me.’ What has it meant to you?

A: It’s been a journey for me figuring out what that means. It took me a long time to come around to my Blackness as something that I own and not something that I have to adhere to. I felt for a long time that there was a certain way I was supposed to be as a Black person. Eventually I came to realize that it doesn’t have to be like that. I am Black, and however I decide to express that, it’s perfectly acceptable. I also have a lot of what I feel like are prescribed notions of what it is to be a woman. There are some things in Madam Hackley’s writing about being modest and being quiet that very closely echo what I was told growing up were desirable traits in a young woman. I have found that those are not necessarily things that I care a great deal about. I feel like, societally, there is a lot of pressure to make yourself small, as a woman. That’s not something that I subscribe to, and that’s okay. In either regard, it’s been this journey of coming to terms with who I am and being 100% fine with that.