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Wake Up, Tavis Smiley

With a trailblazing African-American in the White House, why does the PBS host insist on bringing lunatics together to talk about race?

04.23.10 9:52 PM ET

There seem to be just as many loons and hustlers among Obama’s chosen ethnic group as among the fatmouthed Republicans who have sold out to the Tea Baggers.

One of the best examples of this problem was witnessed last month in the Tavis Smiley rhetorical circus called "We Count! The Black Agenda Is the American Agenda," which was shown on C-SPAN and presented as a serious discussion in the spirit of Smiley’s “State of the Black Union.” With attempted gravity, Smiley once described his symposiums as exercises devoted to “critical thinking.” Not quite. No unsentimental attempt was made in any way profound enough to meet the demands of our time. Had it been, invited panelists like Louis Farrakhan and various hoodoo women no better prepared with insight than astrologers would not have been there to give the lie to the whole convoluted business. Overall, the Smiley forums presented by Smiley always had more than a whiff of minstrel show draped in militant posturing. This is accomplished by turning over the U of a coonskin smile so that it registers as a nearly constant frown. Everyone is seen as a militant. As Martin Luther King once observed, Negroes spent time listening to Malcolm X because they enjoyed hearing someone black give the white man hell. Yet they knew better than to take seriously what he was proposing—like rejecting their Christian identities, their diets, and the music and dance that had helped defined the aesthetics of American fun.

The Smiley forums presented by Smiley always had more than a whiff of minstrel show draped in militant posturing.

Such things were not discussed during the hours of attention provided by C-SPAN; there was a consistent form. A gathering of quality minds was countered and outnumbered by fellow speakers who gave little more than the lowest meaning of Tyler Perry to political discussion. I was invited to three “SOBUs” but attended only two because there was no fee offered for the third. Feeling almost a victim of the “brother hustle” in which one sacrifices pay for the “cause,” I assumed that all of Smiley’s corporate sponsorship made it possible to provide a fee for his panelists. Smiley, who I am sure is now a millionaire, disagreed, and I was glad not to be there this time, actually. I always felt a particular American blues at the end of yet another afternoon among Negroes there to hustle or be hustled.

My deeper reason for ever going at all was that the “State of the Black Union,” while largely an unintended joke, supplied the rare chance that almost any writer will take to say some things personally considered important right into the literal and viewing faces of “the masses.” When examined closely, it was never much more than an audition for speaking engagements on college campuses, an opportunity to promote badly written or silly books often focused on versions of self-help which could be autographed below the beam of a self-satisfied smile.

During the panel performance one year, there was also the chance to fill a lapse in an address with “inspirational” singing as if suddenly overwhelmed by the Lord God Himself. I was onstage with a woman whose specialty was erotic advice and discussion of bedroom techniques written for a women’s magazine focused on colored women, who apparently needed to know as much as they could learn about controlling the pressure of their lower lips. When caught up in her spiritual transformation, the fulsome, mustard-colored woman intoned “I love the Lord,” rose on the wings of an invisible force, and somehow stopped herself from breaking into the strip-show moves that seemed inevitable. When things of that sort happen, one might feel out of place if arriving there to say something that just might challenge mediocre convention.

With Barack Obama now in the White House, it would be of great assistance to the country and the special interest group supposedly represented by Smiley and others, who have gleaned much from the mint that militants built, if time were focused elsewhere and things were done differently. Approaches that can be defended not by their abstract possibility but by how successful they have objectively done what was intended—in education, law enforcement, job preparation, employment, reduction of teenage pregnancy, and so on.

There it is. Believe it or not, moaning, whining, and threatening are far less important to Negroes as an ethnic group than establishing a master list of programs and projects that can prevail on the basis of proven achievement after being scrutinized with great intensity. For instance, a remarkable program like HEAF in Central Harlem, begun in 1989, has been proven that things ain’t what they used to be. Even among the colored.

While the City of New York is slapping itself on the back for its dropout rate falling about three percentage points to nearly 70 percent, students in the HEAF program are graduating high school at 99 percent, 98 percent go on to four-year colleges, and almost 80 percent graduate in five years or less with a bachelor’s degree. If Obama were to replace No Child Left Behind with the HEAF approach, something of revolutionary national value would come out of the black community once again and this time it would rattle the education establishment.

That was at least five years ago and it was very well received, but it had no effect on Smiley or any of the other panelists. That was not surprising because one does not expect hot-air specialists to work at anything connected to black issues other than making or maintaining six figures a year from speaking engagements.

That was proven by the descent of the forum to the point of Smiley trying to push Barack Obama into attending his 2008 gathering during the presidential campaign and refusing to accept Michelle Obama in his stead. At that moment, I thought that Tavis Smiley had melted from a clever and resourceful man down to a deluded teenager in love with the smell of his own piss. I think that once Smiley could not be a kingmaker of any sort, he decided to chain himself to the fence of the White House and beat that chain against the concrete so loudly that the president would have to respond.

After his once-loyal listeners on the Tom Joyner radio show became almost hysterically irritated with Smiley’s carping at Obama during the campaign, our man Tavis had to pack his bags and go. For a little while.

But Smiley could not stay away from a gathering of pretentious importance and organized this year’s forum, entitled “We Count,” at a Chicago gymnasium at a local college. All of that was fine until Smiley introduced the panelists, which suddenly and fundamentally became an absolute fraud when Louis Farrakhan was brought on as though he was a tough-minded civil-rights leader rather than the chief of a cult made despicable by its fundamental racism.

While every member of that panel could wet down the world with the obligatory crocodile tears shed for the saber-rattling Malcolm X, not one seems to recall that Louis Farrakhan was caught on film in Brother Minister making what sound like very ominous claims for the Nation of Islam. In 1993, Farrakhan is seen addressing a shouting and applauding assembly on the subject of the most famous man from the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X. Before his assasination, the former mouthpiece for the Nation had left the cult, bitterly accusing Elijah Muhammad, his mentor and the founder of the cult, of misleading his followers and fathering children by teenage women. A few years ago, Christopher Hitchens wrote with outrage in Slate about what Farrakhan went on to say: “We don’t care nothing about no white man law when you attack what we love. And, frankly, it ain’t none of your business. What have you got to say about it? Did you teach Malcolm? Did you make Malcolm? Did you clean up Malcolm? Did you put Malcolm out before the world? Was Malcolm your traitor or was he ours? And if we dealt with him like a nation deals with a traitor, what the hell business is it of yours?”

None apparently.

Neither Smiley nor the rest of his panel showed any interest in “speaking truth to power” when it came to questioning or exposing this smiling stain on their militant dinner dress. Caught up in the tomming before a totalitarian, both were seen and heard co-signing Farrakhan in a way as disgusting as it was consistent.

Jesse Jackson was there and, as I once said to him in Washington when Al Gore brought a number of black people down to dinners in which the color troubles of America were discussed, “I am sure that you are aware of the fact that the worst mistake you ever made was to bring Louis Farrakhan out of the dark and onto center stage when you were running for president in 1984.” Jackson had nothing to say.

Nor did anyone else on Smiley’s recent panel go beyond mum's the word because they have yet to understand the difference between complete honesty as opposed to profiting and gaining attention from their purported victim status. That does not allow them to see and understand the gravity of actual engagement through real politics, not sweating us all down with unending typhoons of hot air. The kinds of solutions provided by the members of HEAF and all of the others are right down there on the ground giving the devil all of the trouble he can stand.

Someday, Tavis Smiley will bring together a group of people who have had demonstrable success at reducing “black suffering” and we will then see what the president has to say when faced with the facts of hard-fought-for accomplishments that need to be spread from coast-to-coast and border-to-border. That recognition, as Abraham Lincoln would say, will provide us with “a new birth of freedom.” It will not be too late or too long coming.

Stanley Crouch's culture pieces have appeared in Harper's, The New York Times, Vogue, Downbeat, The New Yorker, and more. He has served as artistic consultant for jazz programming at Lincoln Center since 1987, and is a founder of Jazz at Lincoln Center. In June 2006, his first major collection of jazz criticism, Considering Genius: Jazz Writings, was published. Next year, the first volume of his biography of Charlie Parker will appear.