America’s Second Most Important Black Man (at least that’s how he tends to see himself), Tavis Smiley, announced 2010 would mark the end of his “State of the Black Union Conference.” For ten years Smiley had invited African American scholars, politicians, entrepreneurs, and entertainers to discuss the burning issues of the Black community.
I greet this as good news. America now is spared the unlovely sight of Smiley stroking his monster-sized ego in public.
Not to worry though. You can relive all your favorite moments of the State of the Black Union (or SOBU as Smiley dubbed the event) by purchasing the DVD box set for the low, low price of $150 (plus $11.50 shipping and handling). Relive the magic moments in 2003 when Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was still a respected leader instead of a disgraced jailbird. My, my, where does the time get to when you’re having fun as a self-appointed Black leader.
“I will be on the campaign trail every day in states like Ohio, Texas and Wisconsin talking directly to voters about the causes that are at the heart of my campaign and the State of the Black Union forum such as affordable housing, economic opportunity, civil rights and foreign policy,” Obama said in his letter. He had offered to have his wife, Michelle, speak in his stead at the State of the Black Union, but Smiley had declined. “I ask that you reconsider,” Obama wrote. “Michelle is a powerful voice for the type of real change America is hungry for.”
“I think it is a miscalculation on his part not to appear and a missed opportunity,” Smiley said on The Tom Joyner Show.
The only missed opportunity was Smiley’s delusional belief that Obama should have come off the campaign trail to appear at the State of the Black Union to kiss his ring or some other part of his anatomy. At it’s best, the Black Union gave airtime to Cornel West, Julianne Malveaux, Nikki Giovanni, Michael Eric Dyson and many others that would rarely if ever show up on network and cable television programs. Whenever something jumps off that requires a Black “expert” to speak on it, CNN calls up Jesse Jackson on speed dial. Smiley broadened the parameters of the debate.
But only to an extent. If you weren’t part of the Smiley clique, you weren’t getting any face time on any of his programs. Certainly if you’re Black and conservative.
Following the election, President Obama made an appearance via satellite at last year’s State of the Black Union, but even then Smiley couldn’t resist patting himself on the back.
“That the president of the United States felt compelled to join us live to acknowledge the power of this symposium over 10 years, and what it had accomplished, raising the kind of issues that helped him get elected– that was significant,” Smiley said. Compelled? Really, Tavis. You could almost hear the smirk in a crack like that.
I’ll miss the State of the Black Union for the exposure it gave to African-American voices whom are normally overlooked by the mainstream media and the public airing of issues of a special concern to African-Americans.
But I won’t miss watching Tavis Smiley’s head swelling up by two sizes. He’s still got his television program on PBS where he throws softballs to his guests and I guess his radio show comes on somewhere. Plus, there’s a whole mess of windy books Tavis cranks out flaunting his importance and offering up his own peculiar brand of homeboy philosophy merged with motivational speaking.
Not to worry about Mr. Smiley. He’s the type of brother who always finds a way to fall upward. This is a guy whose last book (I think it’s his last book. He cranks ’em out so fast I might have missed a couple) Accountable was all about how cool it is that we’ve got a Black president and all that, but that doesn’t mean we should cut the man any slack. And who exactly was going to be doing this accounting of Obama? Why Tavis of course. Who’s better qualified than him for the gig?
It’s not Smiley’s sincerity I question. He seems to be honestly trying to bring about a positive change in people’s lives. What I question is how so much of it seems to be wrapped up in selling Tavis Smiley as a brand name. For all of Smiley’s supposed “fight the power” posturing, he enjoys a cozy relationship with Corporate America. The State of the Black Union was frequently underwritten by such sponsors as the union-busting Wal-Mart, Exxon Mobil, Nationwide Insurance and Wells Fargo. Smiley severed ties with Wells Fargo after reports emerged that their 2005 “Wealth Building” seminars hosted by Smiley steered Black participants into high-rate subprime loans.
I’m all for holding Obama accountable. But let’s not stop there. Let’s hold all politicians accountable and including those who happen to share a skin pigment with 30 million other Black folks. We should also hold the athletes, entertainers, talk show hosts, authors and self-styled “leaders” accountable.