For Tavis Smiley, WHYY honoree, career is about accountability

Tavis Smiley serves as moderator at the Tavis Smiley Presents "We Count! The Black Agenda is the American Agenda" in Chicago in March 2010. (Earl Gibson III / AP Photo)
Tavis Smiley serves as moderator at the Tavis Smiley Presents "We Count! The Black Agenda is the American Agenda" in Chicago in March 2010. (Earl Gibson III / AP Photo)
Posted: May 04, 2011

Social commentator and broadcaster Tavis Smiley, host of shows on PBS and Public Radio International, is receiving WHYY's Lifelong Learning Award on Thursday. On Friday he will lead a program at the University of the Arts. Smiley spoke with Inquirer staff writer Vernon Clark about his life and career.

 Question: You are marking 20 years as a broadcaster. What do you consider to be the highlights of those years?

Tavis Smiley: The highlight for me has always been the next interview. When you love your work as I do . . . you always look forward to the next interview, the next booking, the next conversation. The person who has appeared on my show the most is Dr. Maya Angelou. . . . I also do a radio show with my dear and abiding friend Dr. Cornell West. The interview that was noted the most was one with Bill Clinton. It was the first after the Monica Lewinsky scandal. That really put me out there in the national media. I also had a great interview with Fidel Castro.

Q: In your new book, Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success From Failure, you talk about the backlash you faced after criticizing Barack Obama in the 2008 campaign when you described him as "hesitant to discuss issues of specific concern to people of color." How has that affected you?

Smiley: When this brouhaha jumped off between Barack Obama and Tavis Smiley, I was a bit taken aback, in part because if I have been nothing else - and I am a cracked vessel - I have tried to be consistent to the truth.

There were a litany of issues on which I took Bill Clinton to task for a lot of things, even though he was beloved by black folk. And nobody black ever said to me, "You can't critique, you can't criticize, you can't hold accountable the president."

All along I've talked about accountability. And all of a sudden this black man shows up named Obama, and I am supposed to switch gears. I was a bit taken aback . . . that the push-back was so vehement, so aggressive, but I understood it. I'm not naive. Black people had waited 400 years for that moment, and they wanted him to win "by any means necessary." And anybody who they thought was getting in the way of that . . . they, at the time, didn't want to hear it. . . . The bottom line is you have to stand in your truth and just know that in time folk will come to understand and appreciate your consistency to the truth.

Q: In your book, you discuss mistakes you have made. Which trouble you the most?

Smiley: What disturb me the most are the mistakes I've made and the failings I've had along the way that have to do with my character flaws. Things like lacking in humility. Things like stealing and not being honest. Things that have to do with my personality and character. There are other mistakes I made along the way that I just had to learn the hard way.

Q: You are on television and radio. You're a writer and do many speaking engagements. How do you balance all these activities?

Smiley: Compartmentalization is the short answer. I am very disciplined. I take that from my mother and my father. My father was in the Air Force and raised 10 kids. My father is the hardest-working man I know and the most disciplined. Compared to my father, I've always felt like a slacker. My mother was raising those 10 kids. . . . The other part of it is I have a great team.

Q: You do a lot of commentary on issues facing blacks in America. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing African Americans?

Smiley: Education. I believe that Malcolm X was right that "education is our passport to the future. Tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today." . . .

Everything flows, stems or does not, from a high-quality education. For me it's always about making sure we figure out a way to get our kids to close this achievement gap. These days it's hard to not have at the top of the list the economy. Obviously, in the long term, education and economics are inextricably linked.

Q. You are being honored at WHYY's President's Dinner for being an "outstanding voice for change." What does this honor mean to you?

Smiley: It's always humbling to be honored by anyone. You never take these things for granted. I was a bit shocked actually that WHYY called me and said they wanted to honor me, in part because I was disappointed years ago when I made the switch from NPR to PRI and WHYY did not pick my radio program back up. So I was a bit shocked when they called to ask me to receive an award. I'm like, "Y'all don't even carry my radio show." . . . I'm grateful for the honor.

For information about Tavis Smiley's appearances Thursday and Friday, go to

Contact staff writer Vernon Clark at 215-854-5717 or


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