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The candidates were never directly asked a "when will you get us out of Iraq" question, despite

the fact that African Americans are more against this war than anyone.  One would think we

deserve to be able to evaluate the candidates on this important issue side by side.



Books by Tavis Smiley


My Story of Growing Up in America  / The Covenant with Black America  /  The Covenant in Action


Never Mind Success: Go for Greatness  /  Keeping the Faith   /  Black Rage, Black Redemption


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The Tavis Smiley Presidential Forum

 "Showtime At The Apollo!"

By Leutisha Stills



4 July 2007

Tavis Smiley's presidential forum, before a black audience, with questions by black journalists, focusing on the issues ignored or bypassed in the mainstream media, but vitally important to the African America community, was billed as a historic occasion.  But what we got was something else --- a game show format, driven by shallow sound bytes, all of it summed up for us by the same Republican pollster who gave us the "Contract For America" and the "death tax."  Tavis Smiley's presidential forum shows what we get when we confuse black celebrity with black leadership, and marketing with journalism.

Despite the claim of at least one Democratic candidate, there still is a Black America and the social, economic, social and political gulf between it and white America remains very real.  So a presidential debate with questions from African American journalists on topics of particular concern to black voters and communities was an exciting prospect. But the disappointing product Tavis Smiley delivered last Thursday showed the limits of what African Americans can expect when we confuse black celebrity with leadership and black marketing with journalism.

I've attended and written about Tavis's events before.  As always, I hope for the best, and this was no exception. This time, I imagined that we might come away with something more constructive, comprehensive and decisive as to which candidate would be the best one to lead America.  I hoped we might see a discussion particularly sensitive to the issues of Black America, one that would not take our vote for granted. In other words, I wanted - we wanted - these Presidential candidates to actually hear our cry, our complaints and our concerns, and not buy us off with platitudes and canned rhetoric to make us feel good.

First the good news:

The Tavis Smiley presidential forum was fairer than CNN's.  CNN grouped its favored candidates Clinton, Obama and Edwards together at center stage, and managed to give them not just all the best camera angles but most of the question time, too.  By contrast, Tavis promised to assign candidate positions randomly, and to give everyone the same amount of time.

The Smiley forum did feature questions from three journalists of color (DeWayne Wickham, Michel Martin, and Ruben Navarette, Jr.), who presumably played some role, along with Tavis, in selecting the questions. Tavis also allowed members of the public to submit proposed questions in advance over the internet.

Smiley's studio audience was mainly black, and a black man, Tavis himself, got to sit in the moderator's chair.  The affair was held at historically black Howard University.

There were questions you'd never hear in front of white audiences on such topics as the racial selectivity of the nation's criminal justice system, and the black AIDS rate. There was even a question on the right to return for those dispersed by Katrina.

All the candidates seemed to agree that mandatory minimum sentences were part of the problem, not part of the solution.

And now for the bad news.

The bad news was that it wasn't a debate. Not at all. No point and counterpoint, no follow-up questions or rebuttals. After nearly half an hour of overlong Negro Introductions and perorations about the event's historic importance candidates were allowed no more than 60 or 70 seconds per question, sometimes as little as 40 or 45 seconds. Within this format sound bytes often triumphed over substance. Hillary Clinton sidestepped a difficult question about black women and AIDS with a pandering line about how if AIDS were the number one cause of death among white woman it would be dealt with differently, a mumbled sentence or two in the middle and another flourish about dealing with AIDS the way they used to when it was a gay man's disease in the golden age of her hubby's presidency. Time's up. Next contestant, next question. It was closer to being a game show than a presidential debate. Senator Chris Dodd accurately gauged the mood of the affair, volunteering to take "Global Warming for $600!"

Presidential debates and forums usually include some ordinary folks, either as audience members or sometimes as questioners.  But Smiley's studio audience seemed to be mainly people like himself -- black A-list celebrities and entertainers, many of them guests on his shows, with a thick layer of current and former black elected and appointed officials.  Studio cameras cut restlessly back and forth between the candidates and Al Sharpton next to Harry Belafonte, Michael Eric Dyson, Terri McMillan, Iyanla Vanzant, Ruby Dee and Sonia Sanchez, members of Congress Rangel, Waters, and Jackson-Lee, that guy from the Young & the Restless, and many more.

It wasn't exactly BET or the Image Awards, but it made me wonder.  Was this a presidential debate?  Or was it another marketing opportunity?  Does Tavis think black people won't watch a presidential debate without black celebrities on camera?  Or was Tavis just flexing his own "star power" - reassuring audiences and sponsors that any time they see him they might see some other celeb too?  Journalists and media people of all types including this correspondent were exiled to another room.

The candidates were never directly asked a "when will you get us out of Iraq" question, despite the fact that African Americans are more against this war than anyone.  One would think we deserve to be able to evaluate the candidates on this important issue side by side.  

Finally no presidential debate or forum is complete without its own spin cycle, its explanation of what the candidates said and what we should be hearing. So Tavis accepted the generous offer of Frank Luntz, a helpful Republican pollster, to explain the reactions of an African American focus group, supposedly standing in for all of us. Tavis himself explained it in a Democracy Now interview last Thursday:

"What Mr. Luntz has been asked to do, what he quite frankly offered to do, was to set up a people-metering room where some thirty African Americans -- they're all black, they're all Democrats, they're all voters -- are going to be asked what they think of the debate, the forum, as it unfolds... we'll be able to read the data as to what they thought about every person on the stage answering these questions... Mr. Luntz has been a guest on my program a couple times, as has Newt Gingrich and any number of other Republicans... And the role he's playing is helping us to understand what the top line is for what these African American Democrats had to say."

Frank Luntz used to work for Newt Gingrich. He's the Republican propagandist who gave us the 1994 "Contract For America," and who came up with the idea of calling the estate tax the "death tax." His latest book is titled Words That Work: It's Not What You Say, It's What People Hear. Who could be better qualified, Tavis must have asked himself, to interpret the African American reaction to this historic political exchange?

"People metering" is when you give each person in your focus group a little panel with five or six buttons that might be marked "strongly agree," "somewhat agree, neutral," "somewhat disagree," and "strongly disagree" or a similar range. Your group members push one button at all times, and you electronically monitor the results from second to second as the candidates talk. It's a glorified applause meter.

Leave it to Tavis Smiley to turn a Democratic presidential forum into a star-studded episode of "Showtime At The Apollo."

It gives me no pleasure to call Brother Tavis out like this. But giving us a Republican-spun, sound-byte driven game show front-loaded with self-important speeches and explained to us by a pollster who worked for Rudy Guliani's last three campaigns is not a service to black America, or the black consensus. It does not showcase African America's political concerns, it trivializes them. What a letdown.

CBC Monitor senior correspondent Leutisha Stills can be reached at leutishastills(at)

Source:  Black Agenda Report

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A Related View

We are all watching Obama's tightrope walk, his attempts to appeal to the white majority while maintaining some semblance of integrity regarding the plight of black Americans. It's a heavy burden. In contrast, Hillary Clinton is on relatively sure footing. Obama must tilt away from clarity and passion about issues disproportionately affecting blacks while Clinton is free to perform the black candidate's role. In last week's debate, it was she who took on the traditional black candidate's persona, she who was both passionate and rhythmic in her cadence. Her endings built to crescendos.

Be it real or pandering, Clinton can openly connect and show solidarity with black Americans in ways that Obama cannot. There is no better example than Clinton's comment about the disproportionate effect HIV has on black communities. She said that if "HIV-AIDS were the leading cause of death of white women between the ages of 25 and 34, there would be an outraged outcry in this country." For Obama to have said the same words in the same fiery manner could have been political suicide. By forfeit, Clinton essentially becomes the black candidate; it's not a space America would allow Obama to fill. Amina Luqman. Obama's Tightrope. Washington Post

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Laughter for Poor Robin

By Rudolph Lewis


In Nairobi Betty tells me the nights have turned cold. Here at Jerusalem we’d think that report is a fantasy not to be believe. We go mad here with 100-degree humid days. The death-like monotony came to an end two days ago with great thunderclaps, enough to waken the dead. Then there was a downpour but the heated humidity returned. Today was filled with gentle cooling showers, ending with a rainbow at dusk in the southern sky with faraway rumblings and a few streaks of lightening. I cut off the computer and lay down to dreams.

Cosmic rainbows and final destination dreams and an ocean of distrust in between made my day wonderful and weary all at once. Tomorrow’s forecast is uncertain. None believes there is enough love in America to bring the warlords down from their magic carpets from which they toss their bombs and edicts upon the defenseless below. They cannot hear our cries in our ant-like existence; they are blind to the bloody ignorant misery below. Our elected representatives need studies and consultations with their handlers before they will respond to suffering and act against the will of those who chose them for their offices. The tree frogs today however were thankful for showers.

There’s a need for a great national bath. Water heals. Even if the water gods agree to concede to such a ritual cleansing, Congress would drag its feet until a consultation is had with hordes of lobbyists, celebrities, market manipulators, and pollsters, as we had with the Howard University Debate of Democratic candidates, organized by the great black author, TV personality, and convener of media events, multi-millionaire Tavis Smiley. So until someone can figure out how the wealthy can make a killing off the needed ritual cleansing of American hearts and souls, we will go dirty as the Texas cowboy up to his nostrils in profits from black crude.

The night has turned cool here at Jerusalem. The waning moon rises. There are always things that can be done to take one’s mind off a death that approaches, or destruction that seems inevitable. One can do a bit of house cleaning and if one is suffering from some ailment like heart trouble or asthma, someone in need of a few dollars can be called on to assist. One can go through one’s cedar chest to check items hid away to see if they are still there. One can change one’s routine of drudgery or take a nap as water drips from the eaves into the puddles by one’s window, or go visit a friend in North Carolina or Paris.

As that great Oklahoman Ralph Ellison reminds us, we need not by necessity be victims. We can be adventurers. Despite the parasites that create nothing, except on paper, and wish to dominate everything by use of armed forces to impose their will, we, bereft of the persuasiveness of the ballot and the efficacy of cries of “let it be,” can make use of the prophylaxis of the blues, which has been century-tested to cure spiritual ulcers. If we must die, if our nation must enter the moral garbage bin of history because of greedy oil men riding high on magic carpets, let us not die as depressed cynics.

Let us go down deep into our reserves. For as Kalamu says in one of his poems, depth measures our humanity. So as the parasites pick feathers from around poor robin’s rump, let us laugh at the paradox of how we have allowed a nation once filled with hope to sink into the suck hole of greed and white arrogance. For as Ellison expressed it, “There is a mystery in the whiteness of blackness, the innocence of evil and the evil of innocence.” If we have concluded that the hip hop man’s bling-bling goes nowhere, the soul man’s sensuality grows weary, let us return to lessons of the blues man. Let us not give into the nation’s parasites darkly.

When there is another presidential forum organized by an enterprising media organizer, like Tavis Smiley, and the candidates respond to game show questions, let us belly laugh, roll about on the floor, let tears of absurdity flow from our eyes. Let this din of laughter chase them from the stage back into the arms of their parasitic friends to be consoled. Maybe a cosmic rainbow from ocean to ocean will appear as a sign from the gods that our blues ancestors are pleased. Maybe, just maybe, our laughter will be our saving grace.

posted 10 July 2007

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Tavis Smiley is a broadcaster, author, advocate and philanthropist. TIME Magazine honored Smiley in 2009 as one of "The World's 100 Most Influential People." He is currently the host of the late night television talk show, "Tavis Smiley" on PBS and "The Tavis Smiley Show" distributed by Public Radio International (PRI). In 2007, Smiley made television history as the moderator and executive producer of the All-American Presidential Forums on PBS, the first Democratic and Republican presidential debates broadcast live in primetime with a panel exclusively comprised of journalists of color.

In addition to his radio and television work, Smiley has authored fourteen books. His memoir, What I Know For Sure: My Story of Growing Up in America, was a New York Times bestseller.

His latest book, Accountable: Making America As Good As its Promise, addresses how our political leaders, corporations and finally, American citizens themselves can enforce accountability and effect change.

The Tavis Smiley Foundation, a non-profit organization, was established to provide leadership training and development for youth. Since its inception, more than 6,000 young people have participated in the foundation's Youth to Leaders training workshops and conferences.

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Tavis Smiley (born September 13, 1964) is an American talk show host, author, political commentator, entrepreneur, advocate and philanthropist. Smiley was born in Gulfport, Mississippi and grew up in Kokomo, Indiana. After attending Indiana University, he worked during the late 1980s as an aide to Tom Bradley, the mayor of Los Angeles. Smiley became a radio commentator in 1991, and starting in 1996 he hosted the talk show BET Talk (later renamed BET Tonight) on BET. Controversially, after Smiley sold an exclusive interview of Sara Jane Olson to ABC News in 2001, BET declined to renew Smiley's contract that year. Smiley then began hosting The Tavis Smiley Show on NPR from 2002 to 2004 and currently hosts Tavis Smiley on PBS on the weekdays and a weekly self-titled show on PRI. . . .

Smiley was honored with the NAACP Image Award for best news, talk, or information series for three consecutive years (1997–99) for his work on BET Tonight with Tavis Smiley. Smiley's advocacy efforts have earned him numerous awards and recognitions including the recipient of the Mickey Leland Humanitarian Award from the National Association of Minorities in Communications.In 1999, he founded the Tavis Smiley Foundation, which funds programs that develop young leaders in the black community. Since its inception, more than 6,000 young people have participated in the foundation's Youth to Leaders Training workshops and conferences. His communications company, The Smiley Group, Inc., serves as the holding company for various enterprises encompassing broadcast and print media, lecturers, symposiums, and the Internet.

In 1994, Time named him one of America's 50 Most Promising Young Leaders. Time honored him the next year as one of the "100 Most Influential People in the World." In May 2007, Smiley gave a commencement speech at his alma mater, Indiana University at Bloomington, Indiana. In May 2008, he gave the commencement address at Connecticut College, where he was awarded an honorary doctorate. In May 2009, Smiley was awarded an honorary doctorate at Langston University after giving the commencement address there.

On December 12, 2008, Smiley received the Du Bois Medal from Harvard University's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research.Wikipedia

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John Coltrane, "Alabama"  /  Kalamu ya Salaam, "Alabama"  / A Love Supreme

A Blues for the Birmingham Four  /  Eulogy for the Young Victims   / Six Dead After Church Bombing 

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Audio: My Story, My Song (Featuring blues guitarist Walter Wolfman Washington)

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Michael Eric Dyson to President Obama  /  Michael Eric Dyson: To The Young & Disillusioned

Michael Eric Dyson: Obama isn't Moses, he is Pharaoh  /  Smiley and West: Obama & Sharpton

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Cornel West to Take a Job in New York—Laurie Goodstein—16 November 2011—Cornel West, the peripatetic public intellectual and political activist, plans to finish out a teaching career that has taken him from Yale to Harvard to Princeton by moving back this coming summer to Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, where he began as an assistant professor in 1977. Dr. West, the author of 19 books, including Race Matters, and a ubiquitous television and radio commentator, said he was taking a significant pay cut to become a professor of philosophy and Christian practices at Union.

The school, where the eminent theologian Reinhold Niebuhr taught, is also known as the birthplace of black theology. James H. Cone, a foremost scholar in that tradition, is still on the faculty.In an interview from Seattle, on his way to visit Occupy protesters there, Dr. West said that his liberal politics were formed in Progressive Baptist churches, and that Union was “the institutional expression of my core identity as a prophetic Christian.”—NYTimes

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#1 - Justify My Thug by Wahida Clark
#2 - Flyy Girl by Omar Tyree
#3 - Head Bangers: An APF Sexcapade by Zane
#4 - Life Is Short But Wide by J. California Cooper
#5 - Stackin' Paper 2 Genesis' Payback by Joy King
#6 - Thug Lovin' (Thug 4) by Wahida Clark
#7 - When I Get Where I'm Going by Cheryl Robinson
#8 - Casting the First Stone by Kimberla Lawson Roby
#9 - The Sex Chronicles: Shattering the Myth by Zane

#10 - Covenant: A Thriller  by Brandon Massey

#11 - Diary Of A Street Diva  by Ashley and JaQuavis

#12 - Don't Ever Tell  by Brandon Massey

#13 - For colored girls who have considered suicide  by Ntozake Shange

#14 - For the Love of Money : A Novel by Omar Tyree

#15 - Homemade Loves  by J. California Cooper

#16 - The Future Has a Past: Stories by J. California Cooper

#17 - Player Haters by Carl Weber

#18 - Purple Panties: An Anthology by Sidney Molare

#19 - Stackin' Paper by Joy King

#20 - Children of the Street: An Inspector Darko Dawson Mystery by Kwei Quartey

#21 - The Upper Room by Mary Monroe

#22 – Thug Matrimony  by Wahida Clark

#23 - Thugs And The Women Who Love Them by Wahida Clark

#24 - Married Men by Carl Weber

#25 - I Dreamt I Was in Heaven - The Rampage of the Rufus Buck Gang by Leonce Gaiter


#1 - Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable
#2 - Confessions of a Video Vixen by Karrine Steffans
#3 - Dear G-Spot: Straight Talk About Sex and Love by Zane
#4 - Letters to a Young Brother: MANifest Your Destiny by Hill Harper
#5 - Peace from Broken Pieces: How to Get Through What You're Going Through by Iyanla Vanzant
#6 - Selected Writings and Speeches of Marcus Garvey by Marcus Garvey
#7 - The Ebony Cookbook: A Date with a Dish by Freda DeKnight
#8 - The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors by Frances Cress Welsing
#9 - The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter Godwin Woodson

#10 - John Henrik Clarke and the Power of Africana History  by Ahati N. N. Toure

#11 - Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure by Tavis Smiley

#12 -The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

#13 - The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life by Kevin Powell

#14 - The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore

#15 - Why Men Fear Marriage: The Surprising Truth Behind Why So Many Men Can't Commit  by RM Johnson

#16 - Black Titan: A.G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire by Carol Jenkins

#17 - Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority by Tom Burrell

#18 - A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose by Eckhart Tolle

#19 - John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism by Keith Gilyard

#20 - Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher by Leonard Harris

#21 - Age Ain't Nothing but a Number: Black Women Explore Midlife by Carleen Brice

#22 - 2012 Guide to Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino
#23 - Chicken Soup for the Prisoner's Soul by Tom Lagana
#24 - 101 Things Every Boy/Young Man of Color Should Know by LaMarr Darnell Shields

#25 - Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class  by Lisa B. Thompson

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Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel.  The selfless Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.     

Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.

As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.

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Sex at the Margins

Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry

By Laura María Agustín

This book explodes several myths: that selling sex is completely different from any other kind of work, that migrants who sell sex are passive victims and that the multitude of people out to save them are without self-interest. Laura Agustín makes a passionate case against these stereotypes, arguing that the label 'trafficked' does not accurately describe migrants' lives and that the 'rescue industry' serves to disempower them. Based on extensive research amongst both migrants who sell sex and social helpers, Sex at the Margins provides a radically different analysis. Frequently, says Agustin, migrants make rational choices to travel and work in the sex industry, and although they are treated like a marginalised group they form part of the dynamic global economy. Both powerful and controversial, this book is essential reading for all those who want to understand the increasingly important relationship between sex markets, migration and the desire for social justice. "Sex at the Margins rips apart distinctions between migrants, service work and sexual labour and reveals the utter complexity of the contemporary sex industry. This book is set to be a trailblazer in the study of sexuality."—Lisa Adkins, University of London

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of Haiti 

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update 21 February 2012 




Home  Conversations

Related files: Cornel West Moves to Princeton  West Cites Reason For Quitting  Cornel West: An Editorial  Pass the Mic  Kam Williams Interviews Cornel West  Pass the Mic! Tour of Tavis Smiley 

Responses to Pass the Mic  The State of the Black Union 2009   Smiley vs. Sharpton   The Tavis Smiley Presidential Forum