Tavis Smiley On 'Stand' Documentary and Why Trayvon Can't Be Rodney King
Branded journalist opens up about his latest project and the role of black media
Unfortunately nowadays, when the name Tavis Smiley is brought up many of us instantly think "Obama critic," which isn't something he shies away from. But, it's not fair to just label this seasoned journalist and activist with that term alone. We can't act like the man hasn't used his many platforms and resources to keep all of us informed and aware of the stories that most media outlets won't cover and people that other journalists hardly ever talk to.
Over the years Smiley has built a brand that has become unapologetically synonymous with the black agenda and his new documentary "Stand" is no different. The doc is centered around Smiley and some of his buddies (guys like Dr. Cornel West and Michael Eric Dyson) going on a bus trip back in 2008 as the U.S. economy was in turmoil and the entire country was chanting "Yes We Can." Smiley visited everyone from Dick Gregory to Sam Moore of Sam & Dave fame.
Without giving too much away, the trip revealed previously unheard stories about Martin Luther King and documented some entertaining dialogue among some of black America's greatest minds.
Loop 21: First off, kudos to you for adding some young guys on the trip. Because at first glance of the line-up, it already looked like it was going to be “instant vintage.”
Tavis Smiley: [laughs]
Loop 21: Why did you think it was important to do that?
Smiley: I’ve always been one to encourage young people, because when I was young, I had people to encourage me. I’ve had a foundation for a dozen or so years now that works with young people on leadership development. So I’ve always wanted to make sure that we are empowering, inspiring and uplifting our youth. It’s not a stretch for me, that has always been a component of my work. It was good to have Robert and Daryl on the bus with us. I met them during one of the Democratic presidential debates in 2007. I think they learned a lot.
Loop 21: Through your work, "Stand" included, we pretty much know what you are about. So we wanted to know, do you think “black pride” is going out of style now? Because you can listen to certain music or see different elements of our culture assimilating or aligning themselves with the “check writers” so to speak.
Smiley: I think that people are as proud now as they ever were. A lot of that has to do with us living in the era of Obama, our first African-American president. That’s important, but at the same, in the era of Obama the reality is that black people are not gaining ground, we are losing ground. This documentary was shot while Obama was making his run for the White House and I was raising the questions then about what this will mean specifically for African Americans. Now that he is kicking off the campaign for his re-election, you have to ask yourself a hard question. Are black people better off now than they were then? The answer is no. That’s not to put all of the pressure or responsibility on him or to say that he can’t get something done during his second term if he is re-elected. But we are not better off since he’s been in office. That’s why black people have to remain vigilant and we must celebrate the president but realize that even presidents are not perfect. We have to correct and remind him as well. That’s how you make a great president, by pushing him to his greatness.
Loop 21: What do you think black people’s best weapon is in this “war” we seem to be in right now. We have cases like Trayvon Martin and Kendrec McDade, we have the education and economic crisis. What is the best weapon to get our agendas across and see some changes made. Some would say that it’s finance, our spending power.
Smiley: It is true that we spend money we don’t have, buying stuff we don’t need, trying to impress folks that we don’t even like. Too many of us are guilty of that. But I’ve always felt that Malcolm X was right when he says “education is the passport to our future.” Tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today. Without an education we are twice defeated in life. The first strike against you is race, the second strike against you is illiteracy. We have to be educated. We have to continue to fight for every child in the country, regardless of race, class or creed, because each of them deserves access to a high-quality education. From education flows opportunity. From lack of education flows hardship.
Loop 21: You wear a lot of hats nowadays, but many people still recognize you as an on-air newsman. What are your thoughts on how the media is handling the Trayvon Martin case?
Smiley: The mainstream media was slow to cover the story, which is always the case, if they get there at all. At least on the Trayvon Martin case, they got there. So many times in the country black kids are killed and all they and people like Nancy Grace want to talk about are a white kid, every once in a while they’ll get around to [black kids]. The most sensationalized, face-on-the-milk carton type stories are usually about little white kids, especially white girls. All life is valuable and precious, but too often the mainstream media doesn’t get around to telling our stories or they get there late.
When they do get there, they tend to cover the most sensationalized points of view so that the bar of expectation on cases like Trayvon Martin is raised so high that if a conviction of [George] Zimmerman is not the outcome, there’s going to be a whole bunch of disappointed, angry and I pray not, violent black people. There is so much riding on this case now. I went through this in Los Angeles when Rodney King was beat and the officers were found not guilty in the first trial and the city erupted into riots. I’ve lived through this before. I know what it’s like to see people have their expectations ratcheted up and the verdict that they want to see does not come through. The mainstream media has helped whip this thing into a frenzy, raising these expectations that if a conviction doesn’t happen, it’s going to raise problems.
As a member of the black media, I’ve always felt that it is relevant and they are especially now than ever. There are certain questions that if we don’t ask them, they won’t get raised or asked. If we don’t raise certain topics, they won’t get addressed. If we don’t profile certain people, they won’t get profiled. Black media is more relevant and necessary than ever before. We’ve got to get away from jumping on the bandwagon of sensational stories. The fact of the matter is there’s too much violence in our community across the board, too many guns in our streets. We’re good at showing up for these “moments,” we are an event people. But the sustainable, long-term work, the hard work to get policies changed, that kind of work, we need more laborers in those vineyards.
Loop 21: Lastly, with so many strong personalities appearing in your documentary, tell us something that was edited out.
Smiley: Not a whole lot. We spent a lot of time on that bus, but there was nothing substantial that was left out of the conversation. We spent a lot of time kicking it and reflecting on the day when the work was done, so a lot of those evening chats weren’t used, but the actual meat of the trip, there wasn’t a lot of editing.
When you’re black and broke like I am, you don’t have a lot of extra money to waste on tape. Most of what we taped is used.
[Also Read: Tavis Smiley Says He Will Still Vote For Obama]