Lately, I have seen a lot of negative blog post regarding Tavis Smiley. Needless to say he has taken some major beatings publicly. I believe the culmination was in the way he handled himself during the presidential primary campaigns – specifically as it relates to Barack Obama. During his weekly commentaries on the Tom Joyner Morning Show (TJMS), Smiley would take Obama to task, often harshly, and warned black people not to give Obama a free pass because he happens to be black. Rather to make sure that he did not dismiss issues that are important to the black community. The final straw seemed to come when leading up to his annual State of the Black Union (SOBU) meeting, he threatened to put Obama “on blast” if he didn’t commit to showing up.
Meanwhile, Obama was in a heated primary race against Senator Hillary Clinton, and decided to campaign in battleground states like Ohio instead. He offered to send Michelle Obama in his stead. Smiley refused. (In my opinion that was a huge mistake.) With the backlash, Smiley backed up and softened his stance on the radio. He was getting supreme grief from the black community who felt he was being shortsighted and unfair to try to force Obama to prove his mettle to the African-American agenda at a time when the race was so close between he and Clinton. Black people who listened to him regularly felt Tavis was “smelling his own piss” and thought more highly of himself and his influence than what was warranted. The contention was intense. So much so that soon afterwards Tavis ended his stint as a bi-weekly commentator on Joyner’s show.
Since then it’s been on and popping. Obama beat both Hillary and McCain. Tavis’ State of the Black Union is coming up again in February and among many bloggers he is being called everything from useless and irrelevant, to a book selling fool and whore to sponsors like Wal-Mart. Reading these things I am forced to ask my black blogging friends to raise up off this cat for a minute and put some things in perspective.
Let’s go back a bit. Tavis got his start in the game by way of social activism at the University of Indiana. He then became an aid to the first black mayor of Los Angeles, Tom Bradley. Most of us became aware of him through the TJMS commentaries, as well as when he was host of BET Talk/Tonight. He left BET in a very public dispute with billionaire BET founder Bob Johnson. Johnson subsequently cut all news programs out of BET and filled those spots with booty shaking videos.
Smiley thrived in the midst of the breakup and became the first African-American to have a show on National Public Radio. (NPR) Eventually he left that show from what he called a lack of vigor on the part of NPR to reach more black and diverse audiences. He now does radio on Public Radio International. (PRI) He also has a nightly show on PBS which he owns. The SOBU started in 1999 and its purpose was to spur conversation among the black people about issues concerning black people. Topics and themes have covered economics, the black church, AIDS, health-care, and diet just to name a few. The panelist have featured some familiar faces as well as not some not so familiar. In latter years especially there have been younger high school and college students who were able to speak from their own perspective.
Now here is where I challenge my fellow bloggers who seem to disdain Smiley. Though I don’t speak for Smiley, I will give my take on some of your arguments of his relevancy or lack thereof as you put it.
Some have written for example:
1) What is the purpose of these SOBU meetings? What has ever come out of them. It’s just a bunch of talk.”
2) What legislation has it ever gotten accomplished?
3) What is the significance of his “Covenant with Black America?”
The SOBU was a formed initially for conversation. Before you can do anything significant there needs to be a conversation. Once you have conversation its then incumbent upon the people who participate either by their presence or by television to act or spur more conversation in order to begin a movement. After a few years, there were some mumblings about the forum merely being about talk. Tavis responded to that concern and this is where the covenant with Black America came into play. Its purpose was to gather black liberals and conservatives, educators and lawyers, activist and citizens, to find a set of prioritized common values that we can agree upon as being important to our community – and then present these priorities to the political candidates of the 2008 election. The message would be in essence that, “These are the items that are important to our community. And if you want our vote whether you be Democratic or Republican, you will need to prioritize these issues as well.” The first book, The Covenant with Black America (Which Tavis did not make a dime off of) set the agenda after behind the scenes discussions and email submissions were gathered from the TJMS listeners. I think it’s important to note that his approach was always inclusive of everyone within our community, not just the big names.
Tavis then took this “Covenant” and became the first African-American to hold presidential forums for both the Democratic and Republican parties in 2007. Obama and Clinton did attend this forum by the way. McCain didn’t attend for the Republicans, but names like Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney did. In this form he asked specific questions that dealt with issues that concerned the black community from the covenant – questions that would NOT be asked by any of the other mainstream local and cable news network debates. Never in the history of America had such an event happen. And there was resistance too. I got into a heated discussion with the program director of my local PBS affiliate who felt it was better to show an old black and white movie during the time of the forums – ignoring the significance of black voices. Having enough influence to bring presidential candidates together during a campaign season shows that Smiley had the powers that be listening. That alone can help to promote favorable legislation.
“The Covenant in Action”, is a document of things each of us can do in our own communities to make a positive difference. I happen to know this because I read it. Instead of waiting around for the big movement – I use those suggestions in dealing with my own family, not to mention the young people I influence and mentor on a daily basis. There is a wealth of information that anyone can do locally that makes an immediate impact.
For those of you who are wondering what benefits these specific books carry, again I suggest you read them before judging them. I never thought the purpose of the books or the symposiums were to “change the world.” It was to give voice to different black voices from various backgrounds who we could listen to in order to catch the vibe from varying perspectives. Have you ever watched “Meet The Press” – or any of the other Sunday morning shows? God bless Tim Russert, and Tom Brokaw, but you’d be hard pressed to find any black faces on Sunday morning unless they preaching! Ya hear me?
As a side bar: When did it become illegal or immoral for a brother to try to get paid? Do you feel he can make more of a difference if he were broke? Does he not give back in the form philantrhropic ventures such as the 11 million he pledged to Texas Southern University for a communications school? What about the jobs he’s created for people from his businesses and programs? Is it bad for a progressive black man who has served the black community for years to have such a communication’s building named after him? Is he robbing us or taking advantage of black folk? I mean WTF?
Now let’s deal with the Obama issue. Cause that is where I think Tavis lost a lot of us. I totally agree that he took critique of Obama too far and it seemed personal. By his own words, he came off as a “spokesman” for Black America and seemed to want Obama to prove his worth to African-Americans by answering to him. Even if that was unintentional, it came off that way. I understand and agree that Obama could not ignore us, but I understood like most the common sense that Obama could not go Stokely Carmichael on America or else he would never be elected. I figured if he did his due diligence as a community organizer on the south side of Chicago and as a State Senator towards black folks, I can give him a certain amount of latitude. Whether one agrees or disagrees with that thinking, still I think in some cases the form of heat Tavis got (some calling him a betrayer of his race) was also out of line as well. If you study his work, truly you will find a man who passionately loves black people. That should never have been questioned. Still I took Tavis to task strongly for his behavior and felt he should reassess himself in this regard. I think we were right to challenge him. But clearly this has gotten out of hand.
You mean to tell me that we as black people can look at this brother’s body of work and just throw him under the bus for one disagreement? Are we to discount his level of influence and what it has done to get our issues out there? He accomplished to some degrees what he had in mind in just bringing our issues to the presidential forum. That has taken years of service and hard work. How many of us can gather the local leaders in our own cities to listen to us? How about our neighborhoods?
I am reminded of the words of a frequent guest of the SOBU, Dr. Cornel West. He speaks often of criticizing one another in love. There is no substance in being divisive and destructive in how we challenge one another. If anyone has earned the right to be loved and appreciated by black people, it’s Tavis Smiley.
Finally, I enjoy blogging and I really enjoy reading much of what I read from the scores of us who have this forum to express ourselves and share with one another. We have to be careful to challenge ourselves as well not to become too self-grandiose in pontificating from on high. In terms of Tavis, our response should have been, “Brother we appreciate your work and what you’re trying to do, but you’re going about this wrong!” Instead we just went with the hate. It was disgusting and sad to me. Very sad. We as black folk can be some fickle ass people.
Cause while ya trippin – we are all glad that Obama will be our next president. I saw Jesse crying too. But it wasn’t that long ago that he was talking about castrating the brother. A lot of them older Civil Rights brothers were hating on Obama because he didn’t come through their rank and file. That’s another blog about the generation gaps between us. But please my people, even if we disagree with one another, please let us continue to love and embrace those of us who continue to fight in the struggle. Tavis is your brother.