Smiley articulates Black frustration
He was one of 10 children who grew up in poverty. His home was a trailer with three beds: one for his parents, one for his grandmother and two sisters, and a third king-sized bed for the eight boys in the family. Today he is the host of the late-night television show “Tavis Smiley” on PBS. He is the author of 29 books, a publisher, an activist, and a compelling public speaker.
Smiley came to Lehigh University Oct. 1 to participate in the Notations Series lectures, which “strive to give audiences an opportunity to engage with artists, authors, poets and other literary writers in a collegial atmosphere.”
Introducing Smiley to the audience, James Pearson, director of Africana Studies and associate professor of English, called Smiley an “outstanding voice for change” and noted that Time Magazine called him “one of the world’s one hundred most important people.” When Smiley took the stage, grinning, he commented that Peterson’s introduction was the second best he had ever gotten. The first took place in Chicago when the announcer didn’t show up, “so I did it myself.”
With that, Smiley quickly got to the point. He told the audience that he has been all over the world, and there is no place on earth he would rather be than the U.S.A. But, he added, despite the fact that many Americans think that their country is the greatest on earth, “America is not living up to its promise and never has.” When Donald Trump utters his promise to “make America great again,” Smiley wonders when that might have been – when Indians were driven off their lands maybe, or perhaps when African Americans were enslaved.
The problem, he said, is the huge divide between the promise of America and the possibility for all its citizens. When 1 percent of the people have 40 percent of the country’s wealth, we do not have a democracy, Smiley maintained.
Over the last 10 years, African Americans have lost ground in every single economic category, and “Black hope is being suffocated. “ When people have lost hope and try to get others to listen, America doesn’t want to hear it. Smiley went on to say that you can’t maltreat people and then tell them not to protest. You don’t have the moral authority to do that.
Smiley told the audience that when John Mellencamp, American musician and singer-songwriter, has been asked to perform the National Anthem, he has never obliged because it is all about war and victory, not the statement we want to make about this country. If he were asked, the song he would sing is “This Land is Your Land.”
Black life in this nation does not have the same value as white life, Smiley said. And then he asked, “Is anger going to be channeled into hate or into love and justice? Justice will arrest the development of hate. Love means everybody is worthy just because.” If every life is precious, he argued, shouldn’t everybody have a good education, drink clean water, have access to healthcare, and earn a living wage?
“Your position, the degrees you have, the car you own don’t matter,” he said. “What makes you great is loving and serving others.”
Citing Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, Nelson Mandela and others, Smiley wondered whatever happened to the notion of love in our public discourse. We will be proud of this nation when we see all people as being as worthy as we are, he said.
During the question and answer part of the program, Smiley was asked what inspires him. “People who find ways to hope against hope,” he said.
In response to another question regarding social change, he said it is hard to find any movement for social change that didn’t involve young people whether it was the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, the rebellion in Tiananmen Square, or the one in Soweto, Johannesburg.
A male African American audience member asked how to stay safe when stopped by the police. Smiley, who has been stopped numerous times by police, said the most important thing to do to avoid becoming a victim is to listen and do what the officer orders you to do.
In that connection, Smiley recalled how, many years ago, he was invited to debate Jack Kemp, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development from 1989 to 1993. He agreed reluctantly, lacking Kemp’s political experience and expertise. After the program his mother telephoned him about his grandmother who was alarmed. A former sharecropper, she was terrified that debating a white man would result in her grandson being lynched.