Tavis Smiley's bound for Houston Friday
By JEMIMAH NOONOO HOUSTON CHRONICLE
March 12, 2009, 9:11PM
Tavis Smiley drew fire during last year’s presidential campaign when he chastised candidate Barack Obama for not attending the 2008 State of the Black Union forum. His critics, most of them black, were baffled that an African-American could speak out against the potential first black president. One columnist charged that “ego was out of whack.” But the radio show host and commentator, who appears at a town hall meeting at 6:30 Friday at Houston’s Ensemble Theater, 3535 Main, maintains that he was merely doing what he had done for nearly two decades, “checking” people, or calling them out in public. In a telephone interview this week with the Chronicle’s Jemimah Noonoo, he praised President Obama and said the two had spoken half a dozen times last year during the “drama.”
Q: Tell us about your new book, Accountable: Making America As Good As Its Promise.
A: Even with a black man in the White House, there is a divide, there’s a disconnect in this country between the promise of America and the possibility in America for everyday people. How do we advance toward making America a nation as good as its promise by shrinking this gap between the promise and the possibility? The answer to that, in a word, is accountability.
We laid out in this book everything that Obama said as a candidate that he would do on these major issues if he were elected: health, education, the economy, the environment, the digital divide, the criminal-justice system. We have a checklist, so you can literally follow along and check off what he is doing, and for that matter you can see pretty clearly what he is not doing.
Q: We have a black president in the White House. Are any of the issues in the book less pressing now that Americans have crossed that racial barrier?
A: Everybody seems to be celebrating the symbolism of that, and it’s worth celebrating. But we have to move from symbolism to substance. The urgency of now is still the urgency of now. When you see the book, these issues we were talking about in the campaign are still urgent: health, education, obviously the economy.
Q: You came under fire last year for publicly criticizing then-Sen. Barack Obama for not attending the State of the Black Union, your annual symposium that highlights issues important to the black community. Where do you stand now?
A: The same place I stood then. What I was talking about a year ago is the same thing I have always talked about
: accountability. I don’t believe in abandoning my post because the issue of accountability might be inconvenient for some people to raise at a particular time. Black folk loved Bill Clinton. I don’t recall anybody in the blogosphere taking me on for telling the truth about Bill Clinton and his accountability to black people. So all of a sudden because a black man is running, I’m supposed to abandon my post and not raise issues of accountability?
Q: What does your book bring new to the conversation about civic engagement?
A: There are so many new voters that got involved in this process. But beyond voting, they’re asking, Now what? As a citizen, what do I do now? This book answers that questions.
Q: Give some examples of how everyday people can hold politicians accountable.
A: Let’s talk about education. Are you reading to your kids? Are you making them study every night? Do you demand that the television goes off? Are you a member of the PTA? Have you ever — for all the complaining you’ve done about education — have you ever raised any of these issues with the people in your local community who are in charge of the education system? Or do you curse at the television? Do you curse at the Chronicle but never do anything actively about your child’s education?
Q: You are a celebrated figure in black America. Is this a black book?
A: These are stories of everyday people. Most of the narratives in this book are not black people. There are Hispanics in these stories ... there’s another story about white families. Holding our president accountable is true for all of us. Change is inevitable. Growth is optional. We have to choose to grow. And to grow, we are going to have to get busy talking about accountability.
Comments edited and condensed by Jemimah Noonoo.