The Tavis Smiley Show returned to Los Angeles recently, celebrating the 10th anniversary of the State of the Black Union. Thousands converged on the Convention Center to hear stimulating conversation from prominent speakers on important issues facing Black America.
Two mammoth three-hour panels featuring influential Black thinkers, entertainers and politicians expounded on topics ranging from public education, health care and gangsta rap, to Iraq, Israel and Black-on-Black violence; millions throughout the world viewed the proceedings on C-SPAN.
Panelists from the original symposium were Maxine Waters, Michael Eric Dyson, Lani Guanier, Jesse Jackson, Sr., Danny Bakewell, Sr. and Randall Robinson. Others included Tom Joyner, Karen Bass, Van Jones, Marc Morial, Al Sharpton and RNC Chair, Michael Steele. They waxed eloquent, but as is often the case, audience participation was a low-priority addendum, as was post-conference follow-up. An attentive audience was given no marching orders for dealing with the issues raised by the speakers.
Panelists' remarks were generally enlightening. Cornel West and Michael Eric Dyson provided their patented crowd-stirring oratory. Author and global activist Randall Robinson hushed the crowd with a penetrating discourse on George W. Bush's racist policies, foreign and domestic, also asserting Obama's backtracking (accommodation) on certain issues was cause for legitimate concern.
State of the Black Union is a misnomer since there is no Black Union: Smiley's symposia might be more aptly named "The State of Black Unity," a much discussed but elusive goal. State of the Black Union might be better considered the first phase of a contiguous process that is completed and validated by the second-phase-follow-through. The forums are more a compendium of individual perspectives, rather than collective endeavors.
The critique of Smiley's Youth Foundation's Young Black Scholars Forum is another matter. This year's program addressed issues facing youth like health, family, economics, politics and justice. The foundation reports that over 6,000 teens have gone through the program that "…..centers on identifying leaders and provides training to help them succeed with exposure to positive ideas and opportunities." This sounds like real follow-through.
Tavis Smiley's recently published book, Accountable: Making America as Good as Its Promise, is the third of a series: Covenant with Black America (2006) was followed by The Covenant in Action (2007). The mission of Accountable is "To equip citizens with appropriate tools to assess the performance of (elected) leaders and us." Smiley adds, "…Accountability is the yardstick for measuring whether our leaders, and we ourselves, have satisfied our respective duties in this democracy." He insists that President Obama be held accountable for both his political record and campaign promises. "….Obama can be a great president only if we help make him a great president by being the kind of active citizens democracy demands."
Many take umbrage with Smiley's saying that Obama too must be held accountable like the rest of us. I share his view, but suggest the caveat is that Blacks must give Obama proposals and demands for which he can then be held accountable. Wishful thinking that the president of the United States will automatically address Blacks' special needs is a self- serving myth.
Smiley describes Accountable as, "an invitation for readers to exercise the power of the private citizen. It is the logical successor to its predecessors…and a yardstick for measuring whether elected officials and citizens have fulfilled, or are satisfying their respective duties in our democracy." In other words, the book is intended to serve as an accountability report card for both public officials and citizens.
Each chapter addresses one or more of the original ten issues outlined in the Covenant. In order to ensure that Obama and other leaders deliver on their promises there are a series of "Promise Charts" to compare their performance with the Covenant's 10 point agenda. This laudable blueprint will not be succeed without doable strategies and resources essential to enforce such accountability.
The book does not take into sufficient account Black leadership's pervasive lack of accountability. It tackles critically important issues but fails to identify specific methods and resources (human or otherwise) necessary for organizing and mobilizing broad based advocacy. Accountable is the most useful of the trilogy because it recognizes and emphasizes the need for accountability in all sectors at all levels.
Tavis Smiley's Wal-Mart sponsorship remains problematic, particularly in light of his intense insistence on accountability by Black leadership. Nonetheless, Accountable, unlike State of the Black Union symposia, moves beyond captivating theater towards common ground that transforms conversation into unity, Blacks' most daunting challenge.
Larry Aubry can be contacted at e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org