The Elements of Style

Born a working-class Negro girl from podunk, Pennsylvania, in a world designed to minimize her, B. Smith set out to build herself a new one. The empire she's built may be about food and frivolity, but its cultural significance hints at the coming face of race in America.

Notwithstanding her annoyance at being known as the "black Martha Stewart," B. (Barbara) Smith, the restaurateur and lifestyle author, has managed to turn herself into a $17 million franchise on gracious living. The publication of B. Smith: Rituals & Celebrations is timed to coincide with the release of Smith's new lifestyle magazine, B. Smith Style. Her half-hour weekly TV show, B. Smith With Style, is entering its third year, airing in 22 countries. Much more than just the hottest new style guru, however, the 49-year-old Smith's true power lies in her ability to make both black and white America the kind of offer it has difficulty refusing: upward mobility. She's teaching women to live like landed gentry, and to not feel shy about it. But, already awash in debt and materialism, do we really need someone else to convince us that the antidote for an unfulfilled life is to be found at Crate & Barrel? And what exactly is the significance of the fact that America is taking deportment lessons from a sister?

B. Smith: Rituals & Celebrations is intended to "let us in on the tricks of entertaining with flair and personal style." It offers modularized celebrations for each month, complete with menus, recipes, and guidance on making them special. Her successful first book, Entertaining and Cooking for Friends (1995), was among the first tabletop entertainment books by an African American; there isn't another similar in scope, sales, or interracial appeal. It's that appeal, of course, that makes assessing Smith's impact so complicated. She's dark-skinned but sounds white. She parties with the rich and famous but serves them chitlins. Seventy-five percent of her audience is white, yet a large segment of her audience is the black bourgeoisie that has always lived lavishly but somewhat clandestinely. For centuries, black women have been culturally understood as hopelessly masculinized. So when Smith advises them to leave a lipstick kiss on a mirror fragment as a Valentine's memento, black women realize that they've been waiting to exhale for more reasons than they'd been able to articulate. Smith is leading America to reimagine black women as black ladies.

B. Smith is leading America to reimagine black women as ladies.
photo: James Kreigsman
B. Smith is leading America to reimagine black women as ladies.

It's legitimate to wonder if Smith is a bourgie sellout-why she doesn't point out how many of her people can't afford the pâté she's spooning onto toast points. But there's also the argument that by incorporating what she pleases from the mainstream (which blacks have always done) and exporting to it what she pleasesfrom black domesticity (which has never been done), Smith is bringing the two closer together. This may be shrewd packaging, but the result is a cultural conundrum. Smith doesn't try to transcend her race. She entices whites to transcend theirs. The lack of friction eases their transition into black living, where Smith then feeds white curiosity and their unquenchable need to (safely) consume the "other." If Smith can induce whites to attend, let alone host, a Juneteenth party, she will have, to some small degree, changed America. Is that micron of progress worth a bittersweet celebration neutralized out of its sharp edges? Is it even progress?

Smith isn't really peddling recipes and crafts; she's peddling dreams. She's preaching that anybody can be anything, as long as they're willing to do the work. So, she seems to say, if you'll get your tired ass out of bed early on Saturday and watch her show, if you follow her instructions "it's about passion, rather than perfection," you can aspire to living on a private beach with a handsome and successful man who worships you and a well-adjusted stepdaughter who doesn't want you dead. Yours might be just a cookie-cutter tract home, but on the inside? Sag Harbor. Celebrity guests. A harmonious household where everyone dresses for dinner. For some, Smith is a charm-school oasis; for others, more anesthesia for the already inert and quiescent.

Smith's most startling act is her frequent invocation of her maid mother and steelworking father without ever mentioning their oppression. Instead, they were "the original Martha Stewart and Bob Vila." Homeboy Bob and Martha routinely made something magical from nothing, throughout a childhood that Smith recalls as filled with food, family, and festivities. The collards Smith once ate fresh from their make-ends-meet garden, she now sautées in olive oil and slathers on frittatas. She realized that her love of style and, more important, her determination to be in control of her surroundings could be forced upon the outside world the way Christo tries to wrap the world in pretty colors.

Her aim in writing the book, she claims, is to give people a reason for a party a month. Whether canny idea for an overcrowded market or recognition of an epidemic of existential angst in America, Smith charts out a year of unreflective fun. None of her scripts have teeth, no matter how weighted the event. The Juneteenth celebration she templates carries no more psychic weight than the Chinese New Year gala. (Smith blithely appropriates others' culture in the same way that blacks' always has been. She's pictured in a cheongsam, that tight Suzy Wong dress with thigh slits and frog closures offset at the neck and the kind of gold-braided yachting hat that just screams whites-only clubs.) It's equally easy to see her as a manipulator of whites or as a carpetbagging profiteer, deracinating and mass-producing significant events boiled down to broth so as not to choke massa. But there's a third option. Could it be that blacks have finally earned the right to cultural laziness? No one weeps over the travails of Revolutionary ancestors at a July 4 barbecue.

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