Tavis Smiley has been catching a lot of heat lately, but he doesn’t seem to mind.
Tavis Smiley has been catching a lot of heat lately, but he doesn’t seem to mind. The host of a talk show on NPR and frequent social activist, Smiley recently hosted We Count, a conference at Chicago State University that brought together activists, academicians and social leaders to discuss the Black agenda. Smiley announced the conference during a commentary on the Tom Joyner radio show, and said that Al Sharpton would be invited to take part. Sharpton called in and disagreed about the invitation, and it was quickly dubbed a Smiley-Sharpton rift. Smiley calls that characterization “silly.” “This conversation is really about whether we need a Black agenda in this era of Obama,” Smiley told the Defender. “Do we need a Black agenda in this so-called post-racial America.” While Smiley posed the question, he admits that he was prompted by Black politicians and other leaders, including Sharpton, whom he said have backed off pressuring the federal government, and particularly President Barack Obama, to move on issues important to the Black community. “What kicked this off is that there were politicians and leaders saying the president didn’t need to focus on a Black agenda. We can’t give this president a pass on dealing with these issues,” Smiley said, noting that the Black community would not give a white president a pass. Smiley said the We Count forum was designed to give voice to issues that affect the Black community. “Black folk are living this every day,” said Smiley. “Black folk are catching hell, getting crushed. We can’t expect that our issues are going to be addressed if we don’t speak up about our issues. A child understands that. When a baby wants attention he makes some noise.” “We’ve always had a Black agenda. The Black agenda has always been the best of the American agenda. It’s always been about justice, about fairness for everybody. But the minute you say ‘Black agenda,’ people think you are being exclusive. They cast it in pejorative terms,” said Smiley. “We have to recast this conversation, redefine the terms.” “I am doing this because I feel compelled to do this,” said Smiley, who describes himself as an activist in the mold of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “It’s about fulfilling my small commitment. My life has always been dedicated to doing my small part.” He noted that Sharpton had scheduled his own conference in New York in April. “I’m all for having as many conversations as necessary,” said Smiley. “I never ever suggested that any conversation that I moderated would be the end-all. I am not trying to start any organization. I’m not trying to run any organization. I’m not unemployed. My role is to raise these questions, and to moderate these kinds of discussions. I’m trying to get us to think, get us to act.” The uninvited guest at Chicago State was the president, whom Smiley had criticized even before the election after Obama chose not to attend Smiley’s State of Black America conference. And his senior advisor, Valerie Jarrett had been invited but could not attend. Smiley subsequently discontinued his gathering, saying that he was advised that with a Black president, they would be unnecessary. “When you are President of the United States, you don’t need to be invited anywhere,” said Smiley. “In my (radio) commentary, it was not about Barack Obama. It was about us coming together as a people to have a conversation about a people.