Everybody wants a piece of Tavis Smiley.
Downstairs, in the Central Library's Microsoft Auditorium, seats are filling up fast, even though it's 5:50 p.m. and Smiley won't go on for another 40 minutes. Upstairs, on the blood red fourth floor, a security guard stands watch outside a conference room. Inside the conference room, at a little after 6 p.m., a group from the Central District Forum for Arts & Ideas awaits the media sensation. A photographer joins them. Everybody chats to fill the time. But still no Smiley. He's set to speak at 6:30 p.m.; right now, it's 6:17 p.m. Where is he?
Well, other than the room, Smiley's just about anywhere with a radio, cable or internet connection. He got his start back in the early '90s thanks to "The Smiley Report," short radio segments that aired on a popular Black station in L.A. With segments tackling such issues as institutional racism, his star rose among listeners. By 2000, Smiley, along with syndicated radio host Tom Joyner, began hosting town hall meetings addressing "The State of the Black Union," drawing in Black leaders and professionals. C-SPAN carried them. The more people enjoyed what they heard and saw of him, the more his star kept on rising.
National Public Radio offered him a talk show, "The Tavis Smiley Show," which aired until late 2004; he can now be heard on Public Radio International. On TV he hosts the talk program "Tavis Smiley," seen late nights on PBS. He's written and/or co-authored eight books, with the most recent, "Accountable: Making America as Good as its Promise" (Atria, $19.99) bringing him to Seattle. Which in turn draws a crowd of folks out to see him.
The clock's minute hand shifts to 6:20. And here comes Smiley, walking in the conference room door, accompanied by a tour producer and a man who seems perpetually adhered to a cell phone (his personal assistant?). After shaking everyone's hand and getting a group picture, Smiley chats with the people from CD Forum. Meanwhile, the clock hands never stop moving.
By the time Smiley sits down to be interviewed, the clock reads 6:24 p.m. But first: He reminds the man on the cell phone to make sure he (Smiley) has a copy of "Accountable," so when he gives his talk, he'll be ready. The cell phone man nods at Smiley. Then Smiley nods at me: He's good to go.
So, with the second hand on the clock making its continuous sweep and his tour manager, a clipboard cradled in her arms, trying to keep him on schedule, Smiley holds forth on civic engagement, the difference between the people in the yacht and those in a dinghy and knowing what something is when you see it.
You billed [this event] as a "town hall" meeting. Why'd you pick that kind of forum?
Typically I do book tours like most authors: You go to a book store, you say a couple words maybe, then you sit and sign books. The very nature of this book -- about accountability -- requires each and every one of us to situate ourselves in rewriting this new American story in this Obama era, which requires each of us to get engaged. Obama's not a president if we don't engage, and people engage at very different levels obviously: a new level for a lot of people. So this tour seemed to me to be screaming for more than just going into a bookstore for an hour, but really giving people a chance to engage in a dialogue about how we maximize this moment, how we make the most of this moment that I think is so pregnant with possibility.
And see, I love Seattle, because the people are curious, people read in Seattle, they're educated in Seattle -- more than most cities. I just love the city. [Radio station] KUOW has just been such a great partner on my radio show. Seattle for that, for this subject matter -- about engaging -- is just the right city.
You have a chapter in your book about retelling the "American story." So, briefly: How do you define the current American story and why does it need to be retold?
This needs to be retold because we now live in the most multicultural, multi-racial, multi-ethnic America ever. And there are expectations on this new president that we can move America -- [he taps the book] as the subtitle suggests -- a step closer to becoming a nation as good as its promise.
Here's the problem: There's a divide, a disconnect, a gap between the promise of America and the possibility in America for everyday people, even with a Black man in the White House. So we got to rewrite this narrative, retell this story, figure out a way to advance people who, everyday, still find their humanity contested. Whether it's homophobia, racism, ageism, sexism -- Too many Americans, as a result of these issues that they wrestle with, their humanity is being contested in so many ways. So we argue in the book that it's time, by engaging ourselves in the process, that we take advantage of this moment that is pregnant with possibility to try to start rewriting this American story.
My sense is this: Everyone of us, never mind the distinctions -- Black, white, red, brown, yellow, rich, poor, educated, illiterate, suburban, urban, Republican, Democrat -- all want the same thing: to live in a nation that is as good as its promise. Nobody's asking for more; nobody ought to settle for less. But at some point we've got to move this country to a place where people live in a country that is as good as its promise. The hope that an African-American president gives us now is a significant place to start, but if we stop with the symbolism of his election and never get around to the substance of what it really means to shrink that gap, to do away with that disconnect, that divide: Then it's empty.
This struggle -- the movement in this country that so many of us have engaged in, that our ancestors have engaged in -- was not about getting a Black man in the White House. That's a part of the struggle. That's why I reject the notion that Obama's election, as some argued when he won, was the fulfillment of [Martin Luther] King's dream. There were folk in the Civil Rights Movement who worked with King saying, "This is the fulfillment." I said, "It is not!" Jesse Jackson and I had a "Come to Jesus" meeting about that. I said, "Negro, would you stop sayin' that this is the fulfillment. It's not! It's a significant down payment." And he acknowledged it.
I'm finding just too many progressives -- too many white and Black and other progressives -- who are just so caught up in the reveling of this victory -- which is significant -- but somehow don't understand that was the easy part, comparatively speaking. We obviously have gotten people to accept an African-American president. That doesn't mean it's a post-racial nation: It means it's a less racist nation. The real hard part now is doing the work. So that people who look like Obama [chuckles] can get more respect.
Okay. [Looks at my sheet of prepared questions.] Last question. Real quick. You can pick one. Whatever one you want.
Okay. So you were on the "Today" show a little while ago talking to [co-host] Meredith Vieira and you mentioned that we need a "poverty agenda." What would that look like?
We've talked about Wall St., we've talked about Main St.: no real talk about the "Side St." where everyday people live. Three presidential debates between Obama and McCain: The word poverty never comes up. Even now, we don't have an agenda around the issue of poverty. I'm hoping that this president will get really serious about putting together an agenda.
There are all kinds of texts and blue- and white papers, and presentations by all kinds of persons from [Nobel Prize-winning economist] Paul Krugman to Jim Wallis [editor] at "Sojourners" [magazine] to former candidate -- although he had his own issues, he's done some great work on this -- John Edwards. There's so much work out there now, quality scholarship that's been done on how we can, in 10 years, really do some significant damage to this notion of poverty in the country. What Obama is on right now is this notion of an economic policy that equates essentially to a rising tide that lifts all boats. Here's the problem: The rising tide lifts all boats, but when we get up, you're in a yacht, I'm still in a dinghy.
The problem with this economy -- [he looks toward his tour organizer] and I'm gonna run out here -- is this: The rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer, the middle class are stagnating. It'd be different if everybody were getting richer, and the richest were getting richer at a faster clip, but that's not the case. We're losing people. There's a whole underclass of people that are going to get trampled in the coming months and years [if] we do not find a way to commit ourselves to a poverty agenda.
So I'm not arrogant enough, or expert enough, to tell you what that agenda ought to look like. I'm just telling you, we'll know it when we see it. And we ain't seen it yet.
[Rises from his chair.] Sorry for rushing, man. [Shakes my hand, then heads for the door.]