Tavis Smiley used to be the darling of black America. Once upon a time his keen critical commentary, ubiquitous media presence and undeniable charm brought delight to the hearts and minds of many black Americans. No matter whether he was providing social commentary on Tom Joyner's morning radio show or conducting interviews on his television talk show, Smiley's voice and views seemed to always find a large ready audience in the black community. At the height of his popularity, Smiley hosted a highly celebrated, nationally televised "State of the Black Union" symposium that comedian Chris Rock once hilariously called "the annual black people listen meeting," which featured some of the best and brightest of the African-American community.
But things changed in 2007, when then-Sen. Barack Obama announced his candidacy for president of the United States of America. Since this time Tavis Smiley and many black Americans have been engaged in what can only be described as a lovers' quarrel. As the story goes, many in the black community either turned on or tuned out Smiley when he persisted to publicly challenge, criticize, and correct President Obama for not putting forth a "black agenda."
While Smiley has argued that his critique of the president has been rooted in principle and based on his love for black people, many black Americans still aren't buying it. In their opinion Smiley's critiques are nothing more than insincere verbal attacks that stem from envy of President Obama and too much love for himself and his own legacy.
This quarrel was reignited last week when Smiley, during an interview on Huffpost Live with Marc Lamont Hill, said, "The data is going to indicate that black people lost ground in every single leading economic category during the Obama years." As one might suspect, Smiley's assertion did not sit well with many black Americans, and they have effectively put Smiley back in the dog house of public opinion.
Over the last several years I have watched this lovers' quarrel with a burdened heart and bewildered mind. On one level the dismissive, and in some cases downright nasty, nature of the discourse has made it difficult for my heart to watch this soap opera unfold. Instead of simply disagreeing with Smiley on the issues, far too many individuals have opted to engage in simple-minded labeling, like calling him a "hater" or comparing him to a "deluded teenager in love with the smell of his own piss," as Stanley Crouch did back in 2010. This type of carrying on, though entertaining to some, does nothing but cheapen the discourse and distract from the real issues. Moreover, this type of rhetoric attempts to reduce all of Smiley's years of service to this one political moment, which, in my view, is unfair and intellectually dishonest.
I am unashamedly a critical supporter of the president, but my support of the president has never once diminished my respect for the work of Tavis Smiley (or his partner in protest, Dr. Cornel West). I have been able to hold in tension the fact that President Obama has been forced to govern from the political center (and in some cases right of center) due to the ridiculously partisan chicanery of those who claim to represent us in Washington. At the same time I recognize that President Obama's political pragmatism and fear of being seen as engaging in racial-identity politics has caused him to shy away from addressing certain policy issues that directly affect black Americans.
Holding these thoughts in tension has enabled me to neither lambaste President Obama and his supporters nor denigrate his black American detractors. And, to be honest, I'm shocked and disappointed that more black Americans have not embraced a similar tension as it relates to Tavis Smiley and many other highly visible black critics of the Obama administration.
In fairness, long before many black Americans knew of Barack Obama, they were buying Smiley's New York Times bestselling 2006 book Covenant With Black America, which outlined key policy initiatives that were central to black Americans. As a result of the success of Smiley's "covenant," a minor movement was started to hold all elected officials accountable on where they stand on the policy issues listed in the covenant book. Certainly there were many blacks who never heard about or bought into the covenant movement. But, on the other hand, there were a significant number of black leaders and others who pledged to hold all presidential candidates in 2008 accountable to saying where they stand on the covenant policy initiatives.
Though many have forgotten now, the Rev. Al Sharpton was once a supporter of the "covenant coalition." At Smiley's 2007 "State of the Black Union" symposium in Jamestown, Virginia, Rev. Sharpton, in direct reference to then-Sen. Obama, said:
[W]e cannot put our people's aspirations on hold for anyone's career, black or white. If I were giving advice to Sen. Obama, I would tell him, "Get every vote you can, but tell them where you stand. Choose this day who you will serve. Will you serve us, or will you serve others? Just because you are our color don't make you our kind. We want to know who you represent."
As it turns out, Rev. Sharpton has become an advisor to the president, but he's changed his tune substantially. Instead of holding the president accountable to the black agenda outlined in the covenant, he has chosen to embrace the president's more pragmatic, racially nonspecific political agenda. And perhaps he's right to do so.
Whatever the case, I understand Smiley's disappointment with certain black Americans, given the fact that so many of the individuals who pledged with him to hold the president accountable have decided otherwise. But then I also understand why many blacks question Smiley's motives, given the reality that he didn't hold President Clinton or any other elected official to the same standard of criticism that he's held President Obama.
For these reasons the quarrel between Tavis Smiley and the black community that he loves will probably continue, and perhaps only history will tell us if Smiley's plight was justified.