Suzanne Smith, a finalist for the Annual Library of Virginia Literary Award, is a professor of history here at Mason. Photo by Ahsan Zaman

Suzanne Smith, a professor of history at George Mason University, has been named a finalist for the Annual Library of Virginia Literary Award.

The award is given to influential Virginian authors in the genres of poetry, fiction and nonfiction.

“My overall interest as a professor is the history of black entrepreneurship and the history of how blacks engage in capitalism and business,” Smith said.

Smith, who received her Ph.D. from Yale University in American Studies, is being recognized for her nonfiction book, “To Serve the Living: Funeral Directors and the African American Way of Death.”

The award will be presented on Oct. 15 at the Library of Virginia in Richmond.

“I have been told by the organizers that I will receive a medal for being in the top three,” Smith said. “The award is acknowledging the quality of my writing; my ability to tell the story of these funeral directors. Beyond it just being good history, I think it’s good history as well, but I think it’s acknowledging my skills as a storyteller, which is kind of exciting.”

The book talks about black funeral directors who firmly supported the long struggle for freedom while fulfilling their duties of burying those who had passed away.

“In general, the black funeral directors tend to still have black consumers,” Smith said. Her book discusses the effect of racial integration on the businesses of black funeral directors.

“On my funeral director book, I was invited to be a speaker at the National Funeral Directors Association meeting last fall in New Orleans and I got to speak before all these funeral directors and they acknowledged how much my book meant to their profession,” Smith said.

Smith has also written a book called “Dancing in the Street: Motown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit.”

“My first book is called ‘Dancing in the Street: Motown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit’ and that was focusing on analysis of what the Motown record company and its music meant to not only the United States in general in the sixties, but specifically the black community in Detroit,” Smith said.

The book discusses the cultural activists and black civil rights movement in Detroit.

“When I was drawn to the Motown story, it’s historically one of the most successful black, if not the most successful black corporations of the 20th century. I was interested in the music, but I was also interested in the history of Motown as a business,” Smith said.
The book was very successful, and won third prize in Rolling Stone magazine.

“I was really proud of that award because it was given by Rolling Stone magazine for excellence in the history of popular music writing,” Smith said. “I was very aware at that awards ceremony that my book was reaching a much wider audience. The Rolling Stone Award was probably the biggest award I have [received].”

According to Smith, Billboard magazine editor Timothy White called Smith’s book “kind of a ground-breaking re-analysis of the influence of Motown music in America.”

“He did a whole editorial about my Motown book in Billboard which was a tremendous honor,” Smith said.

The Berklee College of Music invited Smith to come speak in Boston, Mass., last year and a concert was held in honor of Smith’s work.
“People in the music industry tell me my book is valuable to them, and the people in the funeral industry tell me the book changes how they see their own industry. That’s fantastic,” Smith said. “What’s really exciting to me about my scholarship is that it bridges all these other different areas, like I said the music industry and the funeral industry. People really connect with my work.”

Smith also attended the African American Funeral Directors Convention last year.

“I was the keynote speaker in August 2010 at the African American Funeral Directors Convention,” Smith said. “I gave a whole presentation on the book, and at the end of the talk I got a standing ovation. They caught [on] how much I cared. They saw that I had recovered a history that they hadn’t been able to get themselves because they are busy funeral directors and they are not historians, and they appreciated it and it was a very emotional, powerful moment for me.”

“I love researching, I love being a historian, and I love African-American history. I love what I do,” Smith said.