Interviewing the Interviewer, Turning the Tables on Tavis
Born in Gulfport, Mississippi on September 13, 1964, Tavis Smiley was raised by his mother and step-father in a modest mobile home in Peru, Indiana along with his seven siblings and five orphaned cousins. After earning a B.A. at Indiana University where he majored in law, Tavis started his career as an aide to the late Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley.
He currently serves as the host of his PBS-TV talk show, Tavis Smiley, and he heads the Tavis Smiley Foundation whose mission is to enlighten, encourage and empower black youth. He is also the founder of Tavis Smiley Presents, an organization which brings ideas and people together through symposiums, seminars, forums, and town hall meetings.
In addition, he has authored ten books, making publishing history when “The Covenant with Black America” reached #1 on the New York Times best-seller list. Most recently, he published “Accountable: Making America as Good as Its Promise.”
In 2004, he was honored by Texas Southern University which opened the Tavis Smiley School of Communications and the Tavis Smiley Center for Professional Media Studies, making him the youngest African American ever to have a professional school and center named after him on a college campus.
Furthermore, Time named Tavis one of America’s 50 most promising young leaders, while Newsweek dubbed him one of the “20 people changing how Americans get their news.” From his celebrated conversations with world figures, to his work to inspire the next generation of leaders, as a broadcaster, author, advocate and philanthropist, Tavis continues to be an outstanding voice for change.
Here, he talks about the State of the Black Union, the 10th annual gathering of some of the most influential black thinkers, entertainers, and political leaders. This year, the event is being staged at the Los Angeles Convention Center on Saturday, February 28th and airing live on C-Span from 11 AM to 7:30 PM (ET).
Sentinel: Hey Tavis, thanks for the time.
TS: My pleasure, man.
Sentinel: Congratulations on staging another State of the Black Union. What do you have planned for Saturday?
TS: Another riveting conversation, as we enter into this Obama era. As you know, we’ve been doing this for ten years, and when we started, Kam, nobody could have ever imagined that in our 10th anniversary year we’d be celebrating the 100th birthday of the NAACP, Lincoln’s 200th birthday, the inauguration of the first African-American President, and even the election of Michael Steele as the head of the Republican Party, for that matter. So, it’s an interesting time to come together and reflect on these conversations we’ve been having for the past decade.
Sentinel: What makes the gathering so special each time?
TS: It’s the only time when, for a whole day, you can turn on live television and watch the best thinkers in black America engaged in a dialogue. It only happens that one day a year, so everybody looks forward to it.
Sentinel: Is there a theme that everybody will be addressing this go-round?
TS: Yes, making America as good as its promise. To answer your question, Kam, what we really want to get down to is how we navigate this gap between the promise of America and the possibility in America. Even with a black man in the White House, there’s a gap between the promise and the possibility in this country. There are people who think that, just because we have a black President, black kids no longer have any excuses. Well, that’s a bit naïve. There are structural barriers to other African-Americans becoming the President. So, there’s a lot to celebrate about the Obama election, and I’m on the front line doing the Electric Slide myself, celebrating. But at the end of the day, there’s still a lot of conversation to be had about how we, black people, take this moment and advance the causes and concerns that we care about so that we don’t look up four years from now and have celebrated a symbolic victory, but not have a substantive victory. That’s what the conversation’s going to be about.
Sentinel: In 2006, your book, The Covenant, made my Ten Best List, while Obama’s book, The Audacity of Hope, was # 1 on my 10 Worst List.
TS: I remember reading that piece.
Sentinel: What I appreciated about The Covenant, Tavis, was that it very specifically addresses areas where black people need help urgently, in employment, healthcare, education, housing, criminal justice, and so forth. By contrast, Obama’s book was vague if not silent in terms of the concerns of the African-American community, and amounted to little more than the transparent game plan of guileful politician. In it, he seemed to be taking the black vote for granted while clearly courting Republicans by praising President Reagan, who had supported apartheid and repeatedly referred to Nelson Mandela as a terrorist. That’s why I trashed the book in 2006, although I did support him after he threw his hat into the ring. Most black leaders seemed to clam up and were afraid to talk about any black agenda after Obama declared himself a candidate. Even last year’s State of the Black Union seemed almost like a referendum on Obama, and his conspicuous absence sort of hung over the event.
TS: You’re right, but that was hard to avoid, given all that was happening last year. It was hard to avoid the conversation being about Obama to some degree. That was to be expected when you have someone who’s driving towards making history. And he wasn’t even in the building. If you recall, Hillary did attend, and the conversation was still about Obama. This year, now that he’s President, the conversation, in a word, is going to be about accountability. How do we advance the causes and concerns of African-American people about health, about education, about the criminal justice system? Believe me, we’re going to get serious this year. Part of what happened last year was that there were many voices in the black community saying, “Let’s not discuss these issues. Let’s help the brother win first, and we can discuss these issues once he wins.” Well, that moment has arrived. He has won, and he’s safely ensconced in the West Wing of the White House. Now the moment has arrived to raise these issues. And it’s not about casting aspersions on him. And that was not what I was doing last year. My issue was with the question of accountability. And this conversation in this symposium in this 10th anniversary year was going to be about accountability no matter who the President was. What I’ve spent the bulk of my career talking about is accountability, and trying to move our people toward an accountability politics. We have to move beyond symbolism and get to substance. I believe that time for us is running out. The statistics are getting to be so damning that it would take ten generations of steady progress to turn it all around. The numbers are getting so bad for us in so many areas, pick one, education… the digital divide… health… that we may never catch up. One thing’s for certain, Kam. The only way we will catch up is if we have an agenda that we hold ourselves and our leaders accountable to. It won’t happen around celebrations of symbolism. We’ll have to get aggressive here, not unlike our Jewish brothers and sisters do on behalf of Israel.
Sentinel: Yeah, you notice how Rahm Emmanuel’s father assured the Jewish community when his son was named Obama’s Chief of Staff that, “Obviously, he will influence the president to be pro-Israel. Why wouldn't he be? What is he, an Arab? He's not going to clean the floors of the White House."
TS: Exactly. That’s my point. We’re going to have to get serious about an accountability agenda and about accountability politics. I don’t apologize for that. I just don’t see any way that we are ultimately going to advance the cause of our people.
Sentinel: Your colleague at PBS, Gwen Ifill, has a new book out, The Breakthrough.
TS: Yeah, I’ve read it.
Sentinel: In it, she quotes my review of the 2006 State of the Black Union in which I say that the younger leaders on the dais for the late afternoon session “were unfortunately given short shrift since long-winded speeches and CPT delays meant little time was left when they finally got their chance.” Is there any way to abbreviate the long introductions where the luminaries tend to hug and lavish praise on each other before getting down to business? And will the next generation of black leaders be allotted more time?
TS: I hear your concern. First, it’s important for you and others to understand that this event only happens one day a year, so most of these people don’t see each other but this one day a year. It’s not like we get together all the time. Number two, the greeting is part of the black custom. We don’t roll in cold as ice like other people and just go right at it. It’s just part of our tradition that we are warm and brotherly and sisterly with each other. That being said, there are a couple of things we’re doing differently this year. On Friday, the 27th, we’re hosting a youth symposium on the campus of USC in conjunction with MTV. Taking nothing away from young people, let’s be honest. The truth of the matter is that it’s hard when they’re trying to hold their own as part of a dialogue with Cornell West, Michael Eric Dyson, Jesse Jackson, Charles Ogletree and Julianne Malveaux. It’s not that we gave them short shrift. If I didn’t have young leaders on there, somebody would complain that no young leaders were included. When I do include them, Kam complains that I don’t give them enough time. I catch hell either way. I’m a big boy and I can handle that. But it does require that people be a little sensitive about the challenges of putting on the program. Like I said, this year, on Friday, we’re having a panel specifically for young scholars. And the entire audience will be young people. Another thing we’re doing differently this year is we’re having a one-hour blogger’s panel at the end of the Saturday’s program. And some of the original panelists are going to stick around to engage in dialogue with five, pre-selected African-American bloggers. That bonus conversation will not be on C-Span, but a live webcast on the internet. So, yeah, we’re trying to evolve.
Sentinel: Sounds good.
TS: I remember that we were in Houston the year you referred to, specifically. It was when I had that youth panel at the end. They were young influencers who weren’t really very well known. But nobody had ever thought of putting all those people on the same stage together before. We got a good hour and fifteen minutes in that day. It wasn’t as long as I’d planned, but at least we introduced them to the nation. Remember, this is television, and to get this thing televised nationally every year…
Sentinel: You have to bring the big names.
TS: Exactly. It’s all a part of the process. So, I understand it when people want to take their shots, it’s cool, but I have a sense of what I’m doing here, because ten years ago, this didn’t exist at all. I don’t take that criticism personally, but I know what I have to do to make the event successful. And I can’t please everybody.
Sentinel: I’ve always given the event a very positive review, so I was surprised to see the excerpt Gwen used in her book.
TS: Gwen just took the negative part, that’s all.
Sentinel: Yep. The Columbus Short question: Are you happy?
TS: Very much so.
Sentinel: The Tasha Smith question: Are you ever afraid?
TS: Yes, of death.
Sentinel: “Realtor to the Stars” Jimmy Bayan question: Where in L.A. do you live?
TS: I live right in Hancock Park.
Sentinel: The bookworm Troy Johnson question: What was the last book you read?
TS: Ooh, great question. Looking for Lincoln.
Sentinel: The music maven Heather Covington question: What music are you listening to nowadays?
TS: I have the most eclectic musical taste of anybody. Right now, I’m listening to a lot of Sixties soul music… Stax… Motown… Chess… because I’m working on a film documentary
Sentinel: The Rudy Lewis question: Who’s at the top of your hero list?
Sentinel: Is there a question no one ever asks you, that you wish someone would?
TS: [Chuckles] That’s a good question, but no, I get asked more than enough questions.
Sentinel: The Laz Alonso question: How can your fans help you?
TS: That’s another good question. By being the leader that they are looking for.
Sentinel: Thanks again for the time and good luck on Saturday.
TS: Thanks, Kam. See you, brother.
For more information about the State of the Black Union, visit: