By Dr. Boyce Watkins
I love Tavis smiley and I love the State of the Black Union. I must also admit that my mouth (which my mother used to say will either “make me great or get me killed”) has probably burned any bridge I’ve had with Tavis, thus implying that you will likely never see me on a panel at The State of the Black Union conference. I am ok with that, since I don’t like traveling when I don’t have to, and I don’t like the idea of having to kiss pinky rings of old school leadership in order to fit in (once you accept someone’s support, you can become beholden to them, reducing your ability to be honest). Beyond that, I have a nasty habit of telling the truth, which is neither profitable nor popular. So, the Your Black World Coalition is going to be my venue of choice when it comes to matters of Black Public Policy. Our corporate sponsors are clean, which means that we have a green light to do what’s right without worrying about offending Exxon Mobile, Walmart, The Republican Party, or McDonald’s. Again, I say this with all love and respect for Tavis Smiley.
As a Finance Professor who has spent the last 20 years studying money, I want us to understand the nature of how financial incentives can play a role in the nature of a forum such as The State of the Black Union. This is especially true in the midst of a financial crisis, during which our financial challenges may lead us to make decisions that are not always in the best interests of our constituents. I want to make it clear that my commentary on the State of the Black Union in the past has not been intended to be destructively critical in any way, as I feel that the forum is an important and necessary component of the Black community. But I am going to propose some quick thoughts about the State of the Black Union that should be considered for the future. If this venue is to be considered an important component and gathering of some segments of Black leadership, it is critical that we understand how to properly manage the temptation by some to use the venue as a source of power.
1) Corporate sponsors should be properly vetted: If the State of the Black Union is to be presented as the pseudo-diplomatic forum that Tavis Smiley wants us to perceive it to be, then just any old sponsor simply won’t do. No banks accused of predatory lending using the venue to wash away their sins with a donation to the Tavis Smiley Bank account. No firms trying to sell liquor, tobacco or other products. No companies which appear to get rich from exploiting the poor. All potential corporate sponsors should be evaluated by an unbiased committee and careful consideration should be given to the nature of the donor, where the money is going and other ways that the sponsor must prove their interest in serving the community. President Obama would never allow his State of the Union address to be sponsored by enemies of his country, but that is what we are doing if we allow any dirty corporation to walk through the door to give us money for our forums.
2) Consider the political agendas: I went to a great conference a couple of years ago in Atlanta, and wondered why there were so many videos and speeches being shared that had nothing but good things to say about the Bush Administration. It didn’t take me long to figure out why – The Bush Administration was a major donor to the conference, and in exchange for their money, they wanted the organizers to persuade Black folks to become Republicans and to love George Bush. I don’t think it worked. The lesson to be learned is that taking care of the gatekeepers can mean that those behind the gate are being manipulated. Don’t let another man sell your brain. If your brain gets sold, you should get the money.
3) Be careful with the Obama-Haterology: It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that Tavis Smiley was a clear “homie” to Hillary Clinton. This close relationship, as well as some hope that he might be her Press Secretary, led to some “interesting” words being fired across the aisle last year as Barack Obama chose not to attend the conference. This forum is designed for the people and should not be used to reflect the personal agendas of a few powerful men. One must draw the line between carefully considered critiques on The White House vs. politicized attacks in response to being “dissed”. I too have critiqued our president, but I have always wanted him to succeed.
4) Kill the self-righteousness: There is no boss of the Black community. We are not children who need to be told what’s best for us. Being of a strong religious background, Tavis Smiley can sometimes become more of a preacher than a leader. There is this idea that he and a few others know the solutions and the rest of us don’t have a damn clue. Please get over your selves….we’re all smart people. This does not, for one second, imply that strategic and intelligent guidance cannot be meaningful. But this guidance must be balanced with mutual respect for the people you are serving.
5) Kill the “flossing”: Sometimes, when people get on their respective soap boxes, the forum can become a contest of who can make the most earth-shattering, slap-ya-leg, koolaid-coming-out-of-your-nose, “hoo-hoo-she-sure-is-funny!” moment. Due to the presence of media, which many people on the panel are seeking by attending this forum, we can be pressured to entertain more than enlighten. While entertainment is excellent, the focus must be on commentary which educates the public. I encourage the audience to watch the forum and listen to the content and substance of the rhetoric, and not be swayed by distractive inflections, body language or vocal tones. Some of us are very good at saying a lot and saying nothing, all at the same time.
6) FYI – Here is the source of Smiley’s power (for which I congratulate him): He gets C-span to show up and he has access to major White corporations. Were there no media and/or no corporate sponsorship, The State of the Black Union forum would cease to exist. This is not to disrespect the nature of the platform, but to help those who don’t understand business and media to see why so many of our leaders flock to the forum and why many Black leaders gladly appear on Fox News. Since they don’t have any other outlets for their work, this is one of the few provided. This gives a great deal of power to the owner of the platform, sort of like having the only grocery store or hospital in town. When Black folks get more ownership of media (even online media), the need to succumb to the power of others will cease to exist.
7) This is not the only forum in Black America: Kevin Powell, a man who will eventually be elected to Congress, holds Black male empowerment forums in New York City. The “Your Black World Coalition” has done amazing work in the past. “Color of Change” engages in meaningful, effective protest that is not sponsored by any of the corporations known for the exploitation of African Americans. “Dangerous Negro” is a group of young, intelligent brothers who are changing campuses across the world. Tavis Smiley’s insinuation that The State of the Black Union forum is the place you must be if you truly care about Black people is simply wrong. You can be in a lot of places and still care about Black people, which is why there are a lot of Black Bloggers, Black leaders and Black business people who are choosing not to attend The State of the Black Union.
8) The Money Makes a difference: I am a Finance Professor, which makes me the last person to criticize anyone for showing up to collect the cash flow. But the truth is that money is POWER. Money determines what we do and who we do it with. So, the idea that (what some consider to be) one of the most critical forums in the Black community is driven by corporate sponsorship granted by our historical oppressors is a very serious and problematic contradiction. I encourage us to find ways to sponsor other forums without sponsorship from mainstream corporate America so that we can speak real truth to power.
9) The Covenant with Black America: This is a great book. But it is still just a book. It is a book written to make a profit. When you see the book being advertised to you, there is a business model designed to sell the book. It is not the most important book in Black history, it is not necessarily a “must-read” for you and your kids. It’s just a book. Remember that. If the advertisers convince you that it is a “must-read”, then they’ve achieved their corporate objectives.
10) We need Tavis Smiley: Tavis, like most of us, has to make a living. He has done an amazing job with his work and platforms, and like the rest of us, he is not perfect. If you are compelled by his work, you should support him and support The State of the Black Union, I know I will. Also, just because Tavis seemed to have personal reasons for his attacks on Barack Obama, that doesn’t mean that his critiques were invalid. Yes, we have a Black President, but we need Black leaders. The greatest Black leader in the world is the one you see in the mirror. Get out there and do your thing.
Dr. Boyce Watkins is a Finance Professor and author of “What if George Bush were a Black Man?” For more information, please visit www.BoyceWatkins.com.