Damu Smith: A Life of Giving

Kim D. Hunter

Posted October 15, 2006

I WAS ATTENDING  an event to honor the scholar and Detroit activist Charles Simmons, who is recovering from cancer, when Maureen Taylor, another activist, told Simmons he should begin to pay as much attention to his own well being as he did that of others. She said when the plane in flight loses cabin pressure, you’re instructed to first put the oxygen mask over your own face before you help anyone else.

Perhaps if Damu Smith had heard that advice and had a chance to heed it, he might still be with us today. As it turns out, by the time he had a seizure while on a peace mission in Palestine in March of 2005, the cancer in his body was too advanced to stop; he died May 5, 2006 at the early age of 54.

Damu Smith  had not secured his own oxygen source. He was too busy with the two organizations he had founded, Black Voices for Peace and the National Black Environmental Justice Network, too busy with his weekly WPFW radio show “Spirit in Action,”  and too busy with the countless speaking engagements, rallies, meetings and fundraisers that activists of his stripe take on.

Indeed, Smith’s list of activities reads like a recent history of the Black Liberation Movement: Executive Director of the Washington Office on Africa, co-founder of Artists for a Free South Africa, United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice, the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, the National Wilmington 10 Defense Committee, and the National Black Independent Political Party just to name a few.

After his collapse in Palestine he returned to the United States, where he was diagnosed with colon cancer and given only a few months to live. He refused to surrender to the diagnosis. The call went out far and wide that he was ill and in need of assistance. My wife and I were among the many folks who held fundraisers for him. The fundraisers netted over $150,000, a good amount but not overwhelming for an uninsured cancer patient.

We were heartened to hear that Damu’s cancer seemed to be in remission. He went back to hosting the show. This was a great sign that, among other things, his 12-year old daughter might not be left fatherless at such a young age. With that hope dashed, we can now only hope that his daughter can surmount difficulty as well as her father did though his difficulty was more material than emotional.

Smith told author Steve Lerner in the book Diamond: A Struggle for Environmental Justice in Louisiana’s Chemical Corridor: “I know what it is to go to school without heat at home and study by candlelight and not have enough money to get adequate clothes… I grew up under food stamps and welfare and government handout cheese and milk and meat and all that… So I have great sensitivity to the plight of poor people.”

Smith’s sensitivity was manifest in a lifelong struggle for justice on many fronts. I met him at the first Detroit Environmental Justice Summit, an event that effectively launched Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice back in 1993. By that time he’d established a history of work against environmental racism, which included coordinating the historic National People of Color Leadership Summit in 1991 and founding the National Black Environmental Justice Network.

Among other things he’d conducted Toxic Tours as a member of Greenpeace in Louisiana’s infamous Cancer Alley. He was one of first national leaders to recognize that people of color and poor people are disproportionately exposed to and harmed by pollution from a variety of sources. The United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice, with which Smith worked, documented and publicized environmental racism long before the term was commonplace.

Born in St. Louis, Missouri as LeRoy Wesley Smith, Damu changed his name to Damu Amiri Imara Smith. In Swahili, Damu means blood, the blood he said he was willing to shed for his people. Amiri means leadership and for him it was leadership in service to his people. Imara means strength, strength to wage the many battles he engaged in.

Damu was lucky enough to attend a Jesuit-run, after-school program for “disadvantaged male youth”. As part of that program he got to attend a Black Solidarity Day and hear the likes of Amiri Baraka, Nina Simone and Jesse Jackson. He also saw the handiwork of white supremacists that had sprayed homes with bullets. Later Damu said “Seeing those bullet holes…that changed my life.” In fact it changed many lives.

Donations can still be made to his daughter through the Asha Moore Smith Trust, c/o The Praxis Project, 1750 Columbia Road NW,  2nd Floor, Washington, DC 20009.

Kim D. Hunter is a Detroit poet and a cultural and political activist.