Media star Tavis Smiley implored a Black History Month audience of nearly 1,000 at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke to make “America as good as its promise.”
Smiley, who has talk shows on PBS and National Public Radio, spoke February 11 in the Givens Performing Arts Center (GPAC) as part of the University’s Distinguished Speaker Series.
“Black History Month is a critical time of reflection,” Smiley said. “We celebrate Black History Month because somebody did something yesterday. The eyes of the future are looking back at us and praying for us to see beyond our time.”
An enthusiastic GPAC audience gave him standing ovations before and after his speech. The crowd kept him talking for nearly two hours.
Smiley posed the question: “Are we (the African American community) better off today?” He noted a Newsweek magazine cover that proclaimed, “Now is the best time to be Black in America.”
Smiley rejected the idea. Black Americans may be better off than at any time in their 400-year history in the New World, but compared with their white counterparts, African Americans lag far behind in every category, he said.
The devastation of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans exposed America’s racial divide, he said. Smiley noted polls citing that the majority of Blacks saw the crisis brought by the hurricane as racism, but the majority of whites did not see it the same way.
Three groups failed during Hurricane Katrina’s crisis - government, the media and the people, he said.
“We learned that we cannot depend on the government,” he said. “Your president was in Texas chopping wood, and it took him a few days to get there.”
“Folks in New Orleans were dying in the water and stranded on their roofs, and the secretary of state (Condoleezza Rice) was buying (expensive) shoes,” Smiley said.
In separate photographs, Smiley said the media portrayed Black victims as “refugees” and “looters” and whites as “survivors” who “found food.”
“The media can’t tell between a citizen taxpayer verses a refugee,” he said. “They told our story recasting us as refugees, not as taxpayers.”
Smiley rejected the huge amount of Hurricane Katrina relief as charity, and said African Americans are aware of the difference between charity and love.
“Even the president eventually figured it out that Katrina raised some difficult questions,” he said. “But after making the best speech of his life, what did he do? He went back and suspended the Davis Beacon Act (minimum wage laws) for workers and brought in the same (contractors) we put in Baghdad without competitive bidding.”
America’s destiny is “inextricably tied” to the success of the African American community, Smiley said. He continues to hold great hope.
“When we make Black America better, we make all of America better,” he said. “The struggle of Black America has made America better.”
“Are you hopeful?” he asked. “Yes, I believe we can live in an America that is as good as its promise. I’m hopeful, but I am not stupid.”
Too often “our aim is too low, and too many of us have been knocked down and been afraid to get back up,” Smiley said.
“As President Bush said, we have to ‘fight against the bigotry of low expectations,’” he said. “That is brilliant, and I wish I’d thought of that.”
“Black folks have been liberated, but we have not been freed,” Smiley said. “That’s something we have to do for ourselves.”
To Black leaders, he issued this challenge: “We cannot lead the people, unless we love the people. We cannot save the people, unless we serve the people.”
As individuals, Smiley said, “each of us should write our obituary, then go out and live it.”
Sportscaster Roy Firestone concludes the 2005-06 Distinguished Speaker Series on March 28. Questions about the series may be directed to the Office of Student Activities at 910.521.6207 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.