Last night, I was fortunate enough to score an invite via one of my awesome gal pals to attend an evening of conversation and questions between Tavis Smiley and Brian Lehrer, two award-winning public broadcasting hosts who I’m ashamed to admit I haven’t spent enough time watching or listening to.
The event, presented by WNYC and broadcasted on their radio program, was part of Smiley’s six-city “Changing the World One Conversation at a Time” tour; celebrating his 20th year in broadcasting and promoting his new book, “Fail Up”.
Before being introduced, a clip reel of Smiley’s many interviews with a who’s who of Hollywood and Washington elite played for the audience — showing him chatting up everyone from Bill Cosby to Madeleine Albright. Both thought-provoking and comically entertaining, the reel fittingly ends with Tavis speaking to Coretta Scott King. After asking her why after all these years had she not remarried, Mrs. King — without missing a beat — responded by asking him why he wasn’t married. By the end of the night, I was among several women wondering the same thing… one even asked him again during her question!
But the answer to that question is really simple… this man has been very busy! When he wasn’t hosting his talk show on BET (now on PBS), or on the radio with Tom Joyner or his own syndicated radio show, Smiley has authored fifteen books, crusaded for African-American causes, and created and presented a “traveling exhibition celebrating the extraordinary impact of African-American contributions to our nation and to the world“. In addition to all that, he has recently partnered with his good friend, Dr. Cornell West, whom he refers to as “the smartest Negro I know!” for the Smiley & West radio show.
During the evening’s question and answer segment, the media personality opened up about his humble beginnings; candidly discussing how he got his last name (an emotional story he only discovered in his adult life while applying for a passport to join Maya Angelou on a trip to Africa), the homicide of his aunt which led to her five children joining his own family of eight to live in a three-room mobile home, and spending his first eighteen years as a youth in Mississippi attending church daily. He went on to cover topics such as financial responsibility in the African-American community and, more controversially, his feelings toward President Obama — the latter subject bringing audible gasps from the audience as Smiley revealed he has not received an invitation to the White House during the Obama Administration. The admission was surprising, since Smiley became acquainted with then-unknown Barack Obama over fifteen years ago, invited him to speak at a youth workshop prior to his political rise (and allegedly before he became a great orator), and featured him as a guest on his show eight times.
An evening of such supercharged racial pride and emotion could only get more so with the unexpected appearance of Paul Mooney, the iconic comedian responsible for writing most of Richard Pryor’s material and who also enjoyed a resurgence on Dave Chappelle’s much-missed show (I need a minute). Mooney had the audience laughing out loud, and incited some shock and awe reactions with a few envelope-pushing comments that finally forced Smiley to humorously tell him to sit down.
My night would have been made if West was there. I’ve seen him on Bill Maher on HBO, and must agree with Tavis’ assessment. The man is friggin’ brilliant. But I’m sure it would have been too much for the audience to handle having them all in the same room. We’d all still be there.
Now I’m sitting here wondering why the hell this man’s show isn’t on at a time or on a channel where people can see him at a decent hour and with a broader audience! Where’s his HBO show? Fresh off the Tyler Perry mass message in drag, I’m now a little disheartened by the thought that most African-Americans — the young ones at least — get their life lessons from dumbed-down entertainment like a Madea or any of the crap currently on view via Bravo, VH1, and even Smiley’s former home station, BET.
Yes, I did — and still do — support Tyler Perry. He’s an incredible entrepreneur, entertainer and philanthropist. While the concept of Madea may seem silly from an aesthetic standpoint, when you dig deeper into the commentary of the movie, you find that Perry is finding subliminal ways to get young men to pull up their pants, get parents to understand the repercussions of spoiling children and teach couples and families how to communicate, value and forgive each other. Ultimately, it would be nice if someone didn’t have to portray a pistol-packing grandma to get Black people’s attention, but sometimes you gotta chase the medicine with something agreeable to the palate.
With that, kudos to PBS and CNN for giving us voices like Tavis Smiley and Soledad O’Brien, who work tirelessly to inform Black Americans — and all Americans for that mater — in a mature and responsible format. I haven’t had a desire to watch this much television since being introduced to cable and Nickelodeon as a kid (also known as the end of my book reading era).
Maybe we should campaign to have Tavis take over Oprah’s spot once she leaves… I mean, it’s only fair!