Tavis Smiley: America's Next Media Mogul
One doesn't just read The Covenant With Black America. Rather, to read this nonfiction manifesto-cum-workbook is to become part of a multimedia movement aimed at increasing black political and economic power.
While it's hard to judge now whether this movement will have legs, the fact that the book hit the New York Times bestseller list in March and continues selling like hot cakes suggests that its message is striking a chord with lots of Americans. Its publisher, the Chicago-based Third World Press -- the nation's largest independent black-owned press -- has shipped more than 400,000 copies since its publication early this year.
The man responsible for editing The Covenant and masterminding its omnibus approach is Tavis Smiley, a self-described journalist-activist viewed by some as a brilliant, modern-day cross between Marcus Garvey and Martin Luther King Jr., and by others as a self-promoter. Whatever the case -- and both perceptions may be accurate -- Smiley has perfected a linking of different media vehicles that is noteworthy: He hosts a two-hour weekly radio talk show; a half-hour late-night talk show; a popular website, TavisTalks.com; and a vast public-speaking, book-publishing and foundation enterprise.
"He is using the best of our new communication outlets to both energize and educate the community and is doing it in the King tradition. This is unprecedented," said Cornel West, professor of religion at Princeton and a frequent commentator on Smiley's nationally syndicated Public Radio International (PRI) talk program, The Tavis Smiley Show.
Reflecting perhaps Smiley's determined if peripatetic sensibility, The Covenant requires Dear Reader to exercise an interesting kind of cognitive double duty: While reading its brief essays by leading black scholars, activists and politicos (including West; former U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher; and Oleta Garrett Fitzgerald, Southern regional director of the Children's Defense Fund) and its brief recommendations for activism, one is constantly aware of Smiley himself. Though his introduction to The Covenant is brief, Smiley reigns unmistakably throughout the text, hovering over the shoulder of each contributor.
In The Covenant's bite-sized chapters, its checklists, its brief boldface subtitles, we get relentless if subtle reminders of Smiley's catch-all approach to Improving the Lot of Black Folk. As I reached its end, my overwhelming reaction was: Whew. Thank goodness he's using his power for good.
For the record, Smiley doesn't claim affiliation with any political party but says unequivocally that his worldview was shaped by the life, letters and work of Martin Luther King Jr.; moreover, during his long stint as a commentator on the wildly popular, nationally syndicated urban radio program The Tom Joyner Morning Show, Smiley regularly covered progressive issues.
Then there are his philanthropic efforts, including a million-dollar endowment in 2004 for the journalism school at Texas Southern University, a historically black college. That gift was separate from Smiley's ongoing scholarships, which are funded in part by big corporations, and which provide modest, one-time scholarships to African-American high school students. His annual State of the Black Union conferences draw thousands of civic-minded audience members, and possibly a few million more via C-SPAN broadcasts. More than any other Smiley enterprise, the conferences have become high-profile extensions of Smiley's activism. And since their inception nearly a decade ago, these conferences have made it clear that political leaders see Smiley as a force to contend with.
At this year's gathering in February in Houston, for example, Smiley read statements from Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean and Republican National Committee chair Ken Mehlman, in which both men essentially pledged on behalf of their respective parties to pay attention to the needs of black Americans.
The party chiefs' statements were greeted enthusiastically by the Houston audience, vocal evidence of Smiley's appeal to both establishment party leaders and the masses of black Americans they seek to reach. Further, at many of the stops on Smiley's twenty-city whistle-stop tour to promote The Covenant earlier this year, thousands of predominantly black audiences packed halls from Los Angeles to Washington to see Smiley, West and other Covenant contributors. Smiley's flood-the-zone promotional strategy, plugging the book on his website, in personal appearances and via the Tom Joyner radio show, helped push the book onto the Times's bestseller list, a rare feat for a nonfiction book about black issues. In purely commercial terms, then, The Covenant seems to be a success.
What's not as clear is whether Smiley can turn the book, and his growing perceived political clout, into lasting on-the-ground action. When I phoned Smiley seeking answers, I got a call back from his publicist, a Hollywood veteran named David Brokaw, whose client list also includes Bill Cosby. Brokaw smoothly told me that the "operational phase" of The Covenant will be rolled out in the coming months. It involves a plan in which leaders of black churches, civic groups and advocacy organizations will begin carrying out The Covenant's recommendations for increasing African-American political and economic power.
This plan ranges from urging people to take responsibility for improving their own and their family's lives and their communities through steps like eating healthier, refraining from drug and alcohol use and voting in every local and national election, to joining PTAs, police department citizen commissions and other official and quasi-official groups -- all while pressing for accountability and changes that are in keeping with The Covenant's goals.
All of this sounds strikingly similar to a "get involved" platform that you might hear from an ambitious novice City Council candidate. And yet it is tempting to believe that Smiley's media-honed cudgel -- however narrowly focused thus far on blacks -- may someday succeed where other, more traditional attempts to grow black political involvement have failed: Stephanie Robinson, president of the Jamestown Project, a Yale-affiliated nonprofit aimed at furthering democratic principles, told the San Francisco Chronicle that she intends to lead a movement to get New Haven city officials to adopt The Covenant's civic-improvement goals.
At the same time, for those of us who came of age after the civil rights movement, Smiley's showmanship can be a bit off-putting: It may be heretical to point out (and I do so at the risk of teeing off any number of Smiley loyalists) that the rhetorical hot air one is required to endure on the way to reaching Smiley's good-deeds message can be exhausting. Part of the bluster undoubtedly comes from Smiley's early exposure to the florid speech patterns of the Pentecostal churches in which he was raised.
Growing up near Kokomo, Indiana, Smiley lived in a trailer with twelve other people, including several cousins adopted by the Smileys after their mother was killed. Led by his devoutly religious mother and adoptive father (Tavis's biological father didn't marry his mother), Smiley and his siblings spent a lot of time in the pews. Their father worked at a local Air Force base, but with so many mouths to feed, money was tight.
As described in his upcoming autobiography, What I Know for Sure: My Story of Growing Up in America, the hellfire vehemence of Pentecostalism kept Smiley on the straight and narrow for most of his young life (he is now 42) and imbued in him an understanding of the power of language. After listening to hours and hours of speeches by King, having checked out stacks of recordings from the local library, Smiley writes, in his early teens he felt he'd found amid his family's threadbare Dickensian living conditions a guiding light.
These many years and many leaps up the economic ladder later, we hear in Smiley's speaking patterns the over-enunciations and rhetorical flourishes peculiar to black public speakers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. When listening to his interviews, on his PBS talk show and especially on his PRI radio show, one often wishes he'd choose brevity over loquaciousness -- and that he'd not pronounce the word "again" as a-gain.
Of course, these are stylistic quibbles, hardly worth mentioning -- except they possibly hold the key to Smiley's relative invisibility on the Big East Coast Media radar. The New York Times, for example, has yet to publish a major in-depth look at Smiley and his many lucrative enterprises, despite The Covenant's presence on its bestseller list.
For all his ubiquity, it appears that Smiley exists everywhere and nowhere all at once, a modern-media paradox that I chalk up to the same old cultural myopia that has plagued mainstream American newsrooms for decades: If the prevailing establishment-media arbiters -- the predominantly white, upper-middle-class book reviewers and film and media critics -- don't consider black media personalities part of the mainstream, their lack of coverage creates a parallel universe in which even a "successful" black TV or radio host never manages to penetrate the center of the cultural zeitgeist.
Smiley's current radio show on PRI represents his determination to work around this dynamic: His first run as a national radio-show host, at National Public Radio, ended poorly nearly two years ago, and he admits in his autobiography to having displayed unhelpful bouts of egotism. Smiley also, though, takes NPR to task for failing to sufficiently promote the show in urban markets. His criticisms were disputed by NPR, but now, with the network engaged in a similar debate with Smiley's replacement, the veteran black broadcaster Ed Gordon, it's worth wondering if NPR is capable of offering more than window-dressing minority programming. In fairness to NPR, that same question, of course, can be asked of nearly all mainstream news organizations. Tavis Smiley may indeed be a new breed of journalist-activist, but he is also a bit too black for some mainstream media gatekeepers.
I give Smiley props for taking the onrushing, multi-platform-media bull by the horns and wrestling it into the service of blacks and other underrepresented Americans. And yes, it is satisfying to point out that even without getting onto the cover of Time, Smiley, with his adept cross-breeding and ownership of so many media outlets, puts even right-wing PT Barnums like Ann Coulter to shame. Given what he's already achieved, the best response to the question of The Covenant's long-term influence seems to be: Stay tuned.