When Did it Become Okay to Hate Tavis Smiley?

August 16, 2011  |  

By Charing Ball

Why is it suddenly okay to hate Tavis Smiley? I ask this in all seriousness and sincerity because honestly I just don’t get it.

Tavis, along with Cornel West, has embarked on a road trip to highlight the plight of poor people of all races, colors and creeds so they will not be forgotten, ignored, or rendered invisible during this difficult and dangerous time of economic deprivation and political cowardice — this according to the tour’s website.  But with the 25 million both unemployed and underemployed; the unemployment rate among blacks hovering around 16 percent; the number of children living in poverty of all colors rising by 10 percent and the greatest transfer of wealth happening faster than we ever seen, it would be an appropriate time for someone, anyone, to give a voice to the countless number of Americans still waiting for that change we can all believe in, right?

But, as you might imagine, West and Smiley are getting a lot of criticism over this tour. Together they have been labeled as self-promoting, self-serving Obama haters, using the plight of the poor to line their own pockets.  Former friends and fellow radio personality Tom Joyner has accused both Smiley and West, but particularly Smiley, of fostering and encouraging the kind of atmosphere that leads to open disrespect of the President.  Even slightly funny comedian Steve Harvey has gotten in on the act and suggested the two were “Uncle Toms”.  Ouch.  This Uncle Tom comment is coming from someone who hosts the Hoodies, which gives, among other things, awards to the best fried chicken and the best nail salon.  Surely he is the last person who needs to be referencing stereotypical caricatures of blackness.

So when did it all of a sudden become in vogue to use Tavis Smiley as the whipping boy for the black community?

Okay let me not tell false truths, I do know part of the reason: Smiley made the faux pas of speaking out against then senator Obama on the Tom Joyner Morning Show, after Obama “dissed” him for not showing up at one of his televised forums.  And over the last few years his heavy-handed criticism of the president’s policies – or lack thereof – in regard to a black agenda has left many in the community with a bad taste in their mouths, believing the president has to be leader of all Americans,  not just us.  I can somewhat understand why folks may want to flip him off with a “whatever Tavis” from time to time, but this whole idea that if you don’t agree with the administration’s policies, you somehow deserve to get ignored, publicly abused and kicked out of the black race, is past the point of ridiculousness.

Folks apparently have a short-term memory regarding Smiley and the valuable service, he used to offer to the community.   There was a time, way back in 1996, when Smiley was the go-to personality for black thought and public discourse.  It started with his talk show on BET called “BET Tonight”, where he would put forth issues facing the community and soon after was followed by a list of socially-themed books, including his New York Times bestseller (the first time that ever happened for a black non-fiction author) “The Covenant with Black America”, which sought to lays out a national plan of action addressing the African-American community’s primary concerns.

The book was followed by a national tour of the same name, which in most cities was standing room only.  I went to Philadelphia leg of the tour and was pleasantly surprised to see the room full of a range of people coming together to address our issues.  And folks did not complain one bit – even though I, and quite possibly a few others, thought that the whole thing was just a clever marketing ploy to push books.  However, the larger Black community’s silence on Smiley perceived ulterior motives was largely due to two things: one, the event was free and the choice to buy a book was solely up to you; and two, there really weren’t many public forums where black educators, elected leaders and Hill Harper could address strategies for effectively dealing with healthcare, public education, the criminal justice system, affordable neighborhoods, democracy, strengthening rural roots, economic prosperity and environmental justice in the community.

Likewise, Smiley gave us the same opportunity for public discourse in the televised-form through the State of Black Union forums, which had just about everybody and their mammas calling their cable subscribers to find out exactly where C-Span 1 or 2 (or 3) was on their cable dials.  Not since “Tony Brown’s Journal” had there been that a chance to see the likes of Al Sharpton, Louis Farrakhan, package Gregory, Randall Robinson, Dr. Julia Hare, Lani Guinier, and a gang of other folks all on one stage pontificating on economic, social and political issues facing black America.  That might not mean anything other than a bunch of talk, but I, for one, appreciated seeing black folks on television thinking and speaking on a certain truth, without holding tongue or fearing what white folks would think.  This sort of candor in our community is missing today.  And unfortunately, a lot of this has to do with the election of our first black president.

Don’t get me wrong, I totally get it.  With the persistence of racism in our country, including the mindless attacks and sheer obstruction from those on the right, it is hard not to want to wrap a protective bubble around President Obama and support him no matter what.  However, our love and support of the country’s first black president has left us impotent on issues facing our community and unable to hold him accountable when the change for all Americans fails to trickle down to us.

My favorite quote is by G.B. Stern,  “Both optimists and pessimists contribute to our society. The optimist invents the airplane and the pessimist the parachute.”  I don’t know much about G.B. Stern other than he has a very valid point.  And in the case of Smiley, I don’t agree with everything he says or stands for but I am at least willing to listen and consider what he has to say before writing him off.  Besides, where would we be as a community if it weren’t for the likes of W.E.B DuBois and Booker T. Washington, readily defending and representing the interest of the two (or more) nations of black America?

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