Talk show host and social commentator Tavis Smiley told an Alumni Hall audience of several hundred on Feb. 16 that Americans must “stay committed to their truth” in order to create a more equitable nation.
Smiley, the keynote speaker of the university’s Black History Month celebration, lauded the achievements of medical pioneer Charles Drew, abolitionist Harriet Tubman, author W.E.B. DuBois, and civil rights leaders the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, as black Americans whose work has improved the lives of all Americans.
“When we make black America better, we make all America better,” Smiley said.
Smiley said that to strengthen the moral fiber of America, parents and teachers should teach children to value personal integrity rather than financial wealth.
“Far too often we ask our children, “‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ Instead we need to ask, ‘Who do you want to be when you grow up?'” Smiley said.
Life is not to be measured in terms of successes and failures, Smiley said. Rather, it is to be measured by the extent to which a person stays committed to living according to one’s perception of truth.
To emphasize this point, Smiley spoke metaphorically.
“When I die, I don’t want the judge to look at my body and say ‘Where are your wounds?’ ‘What did you live for?'” he said.
Noting that next year will mark 400 years since European explorers brought African slaves to build the first American colony at Jamestown, Va., Smiley said that racism in the United States is still widespread today.
The 41-year-old Smiley condemned the Bush administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina as being deliberately slow in sending supplies and troops to aid the millions of affected Gulf Coast residents, many of whom were black. The administration was also belittling toward the plight of the displaced Americans and corrupt in awarding reconstruction bidding contracts, Smiley said.
“We’ve been here 400 years. And we’re now waiting to be rescued on rooftops and we’re wading through chest-deep water,” Smiley said, referring to the Gulf Coast residents displaced by the hurricane in late August.
“The president finally came down and gave a great speech and then he returned to the White House and signed an Executive Order voiding the allocation of contracts to rebuild New Orleans.”
Speaking in a sardonic tone, Smiley criticized other elected officials for their apparent flippancy toward the magnitude of the disaster. “I know (then-Senate Majority Leader) Tom Delay did not say to a little boy who had fled to the New Orleans Convention Center ‘This is kind of fun, kind of like summer camp, isn’t it?”
Additionally, Smiley criticized the news media’s coverage of the hurricane and its immediate aftermath as racially biased. He cited a news wire service that published a photograph of a black family wading through water in which a man was holding food. The caption identified the people as “refugees who had looted,” Smiley told the audience. The same news service also published a very similar photograph of white people in which the caption identified those people as a “family that had found food,” Smiley said.
Smiley, a former aid to Los Angeles Mayor Thomas Bradley from 1986 to 1990, said that black Americans are not looking for a government hand-out in life but rather a nation in which all citizens have equal opportunities.
Regardless of the status associated with the jobs a person performs during the course of one’s lifetime, each person has a valuable role, Smiley said.
“You got to do your work in such a way that no person – dead, living, or unborn – could do it any better,” he said.
Since 2005, Smiley has hosted the “Tavis Smiley” talk show on PBS television. In the 1990s, he rose to national prominence as a social commentator on a Los Angeles radio station.
The lecture was sponsored by the university’s Public Affairs Special Events.