First published: Spring 2020
As the Kohler Arts Center celebrates the work of Dr Charles Smith – Vietnam veteran, activist and minister – his political messages and untold African-American histories spread his faith
Tall, thin and muscular, (b. 1940) wears dark aviator sunglasses and a pith helmet bearing the United States Marines insignia. His stature and voice are strong. One cannot write about Dr Smith – visual artist, historian, activist and minister – without reflecting on his time in Vietnam. At the age of 24 – married, and active in the Civil Rights movement for the previous six years – he was drafted into the Marines; not through his own choice but on an order meted out while he was in the induction office.
Stokely Carmichael, 1985–99; concrete, paint and mixed media; 20 x 46 x 7.5 in. / 51 x 117 x 19 cm, Dr Charles Smith: Aurora installation view at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, 2019, photo: Jeffrey Wolf
He went to Vietnam feeling like a “second-class citizen”. Four years later, in 1968, he was discharged from service with a Purple Heart. He says that Vietnam coverage rarely addresses the black experience, and that it was “on their backs” that the war was fought. Almost 7,500 African-American soldiers lost their lives, a fact rarely mentioned publicly.
Much like former Vietnam veteran artist Gregory Van Maanan, Smith’s initiation to the battlefield came quickly, a harsh awakening to the danger. As fate would have it, both men left their foxholes just before bombs hit, killing everyone in them.
Smith says that in response to the order to “kill everything that moved, and burn down everything else... the only way to survive was to do exactly as you were told.” In battle, race didn’t matter – it was a “Field of Blood,” he says – and memories of fellow veterans, brothers, black and white, will live with him forever. He needs to justify his wartime behaviour to himself every day. He quotes The Bible, James 2:18: “Show me your works apart from your faith and I will show you my faith by my works”.
In its discussion of the life-changing experiences of veterans, the book Vietnam: Reflexes and Reflections (The National [Vietnam] Veterans Art Museum, 1998) says that some “develop a fire in their mind that consumes them... that, if they live, they will fulfill a destiny”. That destiny of fulfillment is evident in the work that Dr Smith has done and continues to do to this day.