Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Tavis' State of the Black Union 2007'' This Weekend

By Denise Watson Batts, The Virginian-Pilot
© February 6, 2007

WHEW, A WHOLE 10 minutes on the phone with Tavis Smiley. That's a coup considering how swamped he is, he says, serving his people.

Time magazine has called Smiley, now 42, one of America's top young leaders. There's his foundation for young people, books, including his work with "The Covenant With Black America," a New York Times best-seller last year, not to mention his down-home hell-raising.

He's known for his shows on Black Entertainment Television, National Public Radio and PBS, and the popular (national)radio program "Tom Joyner Morning Show"

Smiley and Joyner's on-air crusades to mobilize listeners are the stuff of legend, including a successful campaign to get major retailers, such as CompUSA, to advertise more in black-owned media outlets.

Smiley visits the area this weekend for discussions at The College of William and Mary on Friday and for his annual "State of the Black Union 2007" symposium at Hampton University on Saturday. The theme of the latter ties in with the Jamestown 400th anniversary; more than 11,000 people from across the country have registered for the free event, according to organizers.

From California, Smiley recently answered questions from The Virginian-Pilot and readers about the prospect of a black president, Jamestown and his own agenda. His answers have been edited for length.

Q. What can people expect at the Saturday event?

A. A conversation about the significance of the African American imprint on America. In addition to that conversation, we'll be talking about the new book, "The Covenant in Action," which is the follow-up to "The Covenant With Black America." The first book essentially addressed the "what" question of our agenda. This is the "how to," how you take the Covenant and put it into action. It's really a conversation looking back over the last 400 years, vis-a-vis the Jamestown settlement, and then also looking forward. So it's going to be a wonderful and comprehensive conversation, ultimately about one thing: How to make black America better. If you make black America better, you make all of America better.

Q. I listened to you earlier on the "Tom Joyner Morning Show," and you mentioned not forgetting the funk. Can you explain that?

A. Jamestown reminds us that we are approaching 400 years since our ancestors first arrived - of course, the first arrived in 1619 - so when you look at the timeline in the book, you see all of the funk, all of the hell, that we have had to endure. From the Dred Scott decision to the Newark riots... there's just so much we've had to endure to arrive at this place where we can be celebrating two brothers in the Super Bowl.

We can never, ever forget from whence we have come.... When we talk about the American experience, people typically want to talk about Ellis Island. Nobody talks about Jamestown; everybody didn't come through Ellis Island, certainly not our ancestors. Ellis Island is a much more sexy story - give me your poor, your tired, your huddled masses. We didn't come here as immigrants.

Q. I asked some people in the community for questions. This is from Lindsay Powell, an 18-year-old in Virginia Beach: "There is a possibility that a black man might be elected in the 2008 election. Do you think that America is ready for a black president?"

A. I think America might be ready. The question is, is Barack Obama the right person?

For example, when you look at the polls now, he is trailing Hillary Clinton two-to-one inside of black America. Here's a guy who black America is, at the moment, skeptical about. Could that change? It could.

The other thing is that Barack Obama has not had the quintessential black experience in America - raised in Hawaii, spent time in Indonesia, biracial family. He didn't grow up in Mississippi or the South Side of Chicago. Most black folk got to know Barack the same way white folk got to know him - two years ago when he gave that speech at the Democratic Convention. Barack Obama is no Jesse Jackson. For that matter, Barack Obama is no Shirley Chisholm. When Shirley Chisholm ran in '72, when Jesse ran in '84 and '88, they had long-standing relationships with the black community.

So there's some courting here that Barack is going to have to do. I don't know whether or not, after the courtship, if black America is going to decide that we're going to date, much less be wed to him.

I personally don't like the idea that the majority community is basically telling us who our candidate ought to be.... The point here is that there is not a black groundswell, at the moment, saying, "Run, Obama, Run." You follow me?

And I know Barack well - he's a friend, a personal friend. I'm just answering your question honestly, that there is a courtship that needs to happen.

Q. Here's a question from Delceno Miles, Virginia Beach businesswoman: "Many people of color continue to come to this country with very little in terms of possessions or wealth yet seem to find a way to succeed in business and education by sheer determination. What lessons can be learned from them that can be applied to the black community?"

A. I'd flip the question and say that those are the lessons they have learned from us.

I understand the point, but at the end of the day, again, that's what this Jamestown conversation is all about. We have taught this country more lessons than anyone about hard work, about discipline, about self-reliance, about self-respect.

And so I think it's not about us learning from them as much as it is one recognizing that we taught them; we wrote the book on overcoming. The second part of that would be, if anything, we need to go back to our own playbook. It's not about reading somebody else's playbook. Nobody in this country has had to endure what we've had to endure, and we're still standing 400 years later.

Q. This one is from local minister Carlton McLeod of Calvary Revival Church Chesapeake:"How should we address consumerism and materialism in our community?"

A. That's a good question. Every year, the focus of these conversations change. Last year, the focus was on economics, and you can go to the Web site (www.covenantwithblackamerica.com) for more information.

The short answer is that we blame other folk, talking about economics, for coming into our communities, taking our money, yadda, yadda, yadda. You can't blame other folk for 98 percent of your problems and give them 100 percent of your money. We have to recycle dollars in our own community.

Number two, we have to focus on not just spending but on saving. We have to stop living above our means. I say all the time the problem with us is too many of us spend money we don't have, to buy stuff we don't need, to impress folk we don't even like.

Q. O.K., I'm going to try to get this question in. Much has been said about the shortage of eligible black men in America. You're still single?

A. I am.

Q. When are you going to do your part in addressing this problem?

A. (He chuckles.) The minute I find some time. I'm one of 10 kids, so I love family and look forward to the day when I can perhaps have my own. The short answer and the truthful answer is that I have been so wed to the cause of our people that it makes it challenging.

I think people sometimes don't truly grasp how much energy and effort goes into trying to make all this happen. Even for people who were married and had families, you read their books, listen to them and they will tell you - Jesse Jackson, never home. Dick Gregory, never home. Dr. King, never home.

Somewhere in there, they found a way to get married and make some babies, but the struggle of our people, when you love our people and when you are in service to our people, it takes a lot of energy. And, then again, that's not to say that for me it won't happen at the right time....

But it is on my agenda, if I can put it that way.

Q. O.K., so there's an agenda for America, and there's an agenda for Tavis?

A. (Laughing more.) Yes.

Reach Denise Watson Batts at (757) 446-2504 or denise.batts@pilotonline.com.

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