The Covenant with Black America


My notes from talk show host Tavis Smiley‘s speech are short, which isn’t surprising. He only spoke for about 10 minutes and did so reluctantly. He even joked about praying that God would let the cup pass from him, but said that when his friend Cornel West called, he couldn’t refuse him.

This session was not an academic one. It was more like a gospel pep rally. There were standing ovations for each of the panelists, pats on the back across the podium and a series of inspiring soundbites.

Here’s what I wrote down:  

Smiley described lying in a hospital for 10 days as a 12 year old, not knowing whether he would live or die after a severe beating by his father. It was during this time that he discovered a hero in Martin Luther King Jr. He grew up in a Pentacostal church and said he has been trying to be like Jesus his entire life. He’s still trying to be like Jesus.

Smiley said he believed everyone in the room wants the same thing as Americans, and that is to live in a nation that is as good as its promise. He believes God has given each of us gifts to match some communal need and that using our gifts in service to others is a condition of citizenship.

Smiley based his speech on three points from Walter Rauschenbusch’s pivotal book, Christianity and the Social Crisis. This classic influenced both Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gahndi. It has been updated and expanded for its hundreth anniversary. (Along with Cone’s book and Oden’s, this one is on my reading list.)

Quoting Rauschenbusch, Smiley said a nation as good as its promise will include these elements:

  1. Justice for all
  2. Service to others
  3. Love that liberates

He said it takes courage to hope that such a society is possible, and denounced those who would celebrate men like King and Gandhi, while dismissing their methodology. Love is non-existent in today’s public discourse, according to Smiley, but he still believes it is the most powerful force in the world. He said it is this power that will transform the world, in contrast to the love of power. Then he dissed George W. Bush.

He borrowed some quotes from West, something he said he does often, so I don’t know which of this next series are his and which originate with West.

  1. You can’t lead folk if you don’t love and you can’t save if you don’t serve.
  2. If you call yourself a leader and nobody is following, you’re just out for a walk. 
  3.  What is the depth of your love for those you lead? What is your quality of service to them?

Next Smiley reminded the audience that everyone is worthy to receive love just because. He believes the promise of our nation and our public policy are currently “nowhere in sinc.” As a member of the media, he tries to interview those whose voices don’t ordinarily get heard and asks questions others don’t ask. Imagine that.

He quoted West again:

Justice is what love looks like in public. Then he mentioned King, saying, Cowardice asks: Is it safe? (Courage obviously asks a different set of questions, although I don’t recall him saying what they are.)

That was it for Smiley.

The incoming president of AAR spoke briefly as did an academic from Princeton, but neither said anything noteworthy. Everyone seemed to defer to West, whose rhetorical gifts would intimidate most public speakers. It’s not so much what he says that impresses, but how he says it. He’s a rap/poet/preacherman. Is it fire in the belly or performance art? I don’t know. Maybe a bit of both. He has presence, knows it and uses it masterfully in service to his cause. 

West’s verbal gymnastics were delivered with such ferocity that it was nearly impossible to record. I caught one bit of truth: He said a person can’t talk about justice without learning how to die.  This isn’t just “PC chitchat,” but giving it up and turning it lose—to quote James Brown. It’s about loving folk and hating unfair treatment. It’s about “unsettling the numbness” and taking power back from the elite, which Smiley had earlier said only operates with the deference of the people.

Loving and dying lead to justice. That’s all I got. I think it’s enough. Who takes notes on a pep rally anyway?

3 Comments on “The Covenant with Black America

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