I had the pleasure of watching Tavis Smiley’s entire production of the “2008 State of the Black Union” on CSPAN last week—and as usual, it was quite entertaining. But while I thoroughly enjoyed the show, I failed to see the urgency of having Senator Barack Obama in attendance. I could see it if the scholars, politicians, and community leaders in attendance were actually involved in a sober discussion of the Black condition and ways to move the community forward, but that wasn’t what it was at all. What it generally turns out to be—and it was true to form this year—is a cross between the Def Philosophy Jam, an infomercial for Tavis Smiley Enterprises, and a Southern revival meeting (“Say amen, Black folk”). That’s not the appropriate venue for a man who’s trying to convince America that he’s a serious contender for President of ALL of the United States. So I don’t blame Obama a bit for not attending.
Admittedly, every year there are serious people with serious things to say in attendance, but every year there are also a host of people in attendance who are flamboyant, grandiloquent, and simply love to hear themselves talk. There were moments in this year’s proceedings, for example, that sounded more like a Mack-man’s convention than anything else. While I enjoyed it, I also enjoy Thelonious Monk, but there are literally millions of voters across this land who share neither my taste in music, nor my understanding of the polyrhythmic pronouncements of Michael Eric Dyson, no matter how profound the underlying message. Thus, Senator Obama had to ask himself a very serious question—Do I want to be elected president, or simply hold up a raised fist for Black America? How would you answer that?
Yes, Senator Clinton did attend-but at this point, Hillary would attend a dog fight if she thought it would get her an extra vote. When Hillary put out a video claiming the endorsement of Ann Richards—the former governor of Texas who’s been dead for a year and a half—that made it clear that she’s willing to do anything to become president. And besides, Hillary didn’t have anything to lose by attending. The voters knew she was just humoring Black people-or in this case, Tavis—thinking that might help her to get Black votes, which in itself should give us pause. Does she really think that Black people are so shallow that catering to the whims of a talk show host would be enough to get our vote? If she did, judging from her lukewarm reception, now she knows better. Obama, on the other hand, had everything to lose. Being a Black candidate, if some loose cannon on that stage (and their were many of them) happened to say something outrageous, Obama would have had to spend the next three weeks disavowing the remark. So as far as I’m concerned, his decision to decline Tavis’ invitation showed excellent judgement—presidential Judgement.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-Tavis in anyway. Tavis mentioned during the proceedings that some of us wanted to throw him under the bus—and indeed, some of us are like that. We see a successful young brother with a big future and everything going for himself, and the first thing we want to do is tear him down. That’s an unfortunate part of our cultural makeup. That is not my intent, however. I see Tavis Smiley as a shining star in the Black community, and an excellent role model for young Black people. As a matter of fact, I was trying to give Robert Johnson the benefit of the doubt until he fired Tavis from BET. After that, I wondered out loud, how he could flood the airways with all of that garbage, then fire the only bright spot on the network.
But we do have a responsibility to keep one another in check, as long as we do it in a positive manner, and with positive intent, so at this point I want to take Tavis to task. At one point Tavis remarked during the proceedings, “I knew Barack Obama, before he was Barack Obama.” I don’t know what Tavis’ intent was, but it implied that Obama’s newly acquired national stature has changed him in some way. I thought that was uncalled for and wholly unsubstantiated. Then, during Tavis’ infomericals, while he was shamelessly promoting his books, “The Covenant With Black America,” and “Accountability,” I felt the strong implication in Tavis’ remarks that Obama was being less than accountable to the Black community by failing to attend.
First, I’d like to point out that while Tavis is a very impressive brother, and is undoubtedly a positive reflection on the Black community, we must always keep in mind that neither Tavis, nor his production, represents the Black community. Thus, Senator Obama is under absolutely no obligation to accept his invitation as an extension of the Black community—and for Tavis to imply otherwise is both arrogant, and a gross abuse of his stature within the community.
And secondly, accountability goes for talk show hosts too-especially when they profess to represent the Black community. So how accountable is it to produce a show called “The State of the Black Union” then sponsor it with companies that are largely responsible for the very conditions that you’re complaining about? One of the sponsors was Allstate Insurance—a company that is alleged to have denied the claims of thousands of Hurricane Katrina victims. One victim, Michael Homan, alleges that Allstate denied his claim based on the position that “Katrina wasn’t windy enough.” Another sponsor was Exxon/Mobile—a company that’s raking in record profits while many Black people have to flip a coin to decide whether they’re going to eat or put enough gas in their car to get to work. Wal-Mart was another sponsor—a company that’s committed to blocking collective bargaining, providing their employees fair wages and health care, taking away jobs by running other businesses out of the community and purchasing their merchandise from outside the United States, and humiliating their customers by searching them before they leave the store. Is that accountability?
Appropriately enough, the most profound statement that came out of the entire proceedings came from the mouth of comedian, Dick Gregory. He said, “First, we told Bill Clinton he was Black, then we told Barack Obama that he wasn’t Black enough. We must be fools.”
I’d say that just about sums up the state of the Black union.
Eric L. Wattree
Eric L. Wattree, Sr. n can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.