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Throwdown: Tavis Smiley & Reverend Al Sharpton

We have a tendency to refer to members of the African Diaspora as a community, despite the fact that it is filled with people that have wildly different perspectives and experiences. Race supposedly unites all Blacks, but the hierarchy within the so-called community means that there will always be some voices that are louder than others. The master’s tools are omnipresent in every social justice movement.

Last week, for example, the Reverend Al Sharpton and Tavis Smiley engaged in a very public disagreement. Smiley attempted to take Sharpton to task for not being open about the meeting he attended with President Obama in conjunction with NAACP Chair Benjamin Jealous, National Urban League chief Marc Morial and a host of other “Black leaders.” Tavis particularly took umbrage with reverend Al’s support of Obama’s race-neutral approach to policy making.

At the heart of his argument, was Sharpton’s statement that President Obama “is wise not to ballyhoo a Black agenda.” Though this attack was publicly aimed at Sharpton, Tavis has a history of criticizing President Obama, and has written a book in which he demanded that Blacks hold Obama accountable to the community.

Obama has never pandered to old Civil Rights leaders and this means that their ability to influence his policies is very limited. When Obama was elected president, it was to represent all Americans and not the specific minority group that he is a part of.

White presidents have always taken actions to support White supremacy, but even their polices strictly benefited a minority that possessed class privilege, rather than White people as a whole.

Obama’s largest policy push has been revamping healthcare and though this has not specifically been targeted as an initiative that is directed at Black people, they certainly stand to benefit from having greater access to doctors and preventive care. Obama is very aware that in order to win in 2012, he must always appear to represent all people, because the votes of Blacks are not enough on their own to secure a victory for him.

Sharpton and Tavis are dependent upon the dissatisfaction of the Black community in order to earn a living. Unlike Sharpton, Tavis does not have strong Civil Rights credentials. Not only did Tavis support Hillary Clinton during the election, he rejected the appearance of Michelle Obama at his Negro Super Bowl (read: State of the Black Union), when Obama was unable to attend due to previous commitments.

According to CNN, Smiley claimed to have received angry e-mails and death threats. He further claimed that his brother and mother were also harassed at the time. The backlash was so virulent, that Smiley resigned from his position at the “Tom Joyner Morning Show.” Since that time, Smiley has been critical of Obama’s administration at every opportunity.

Tavis has always held this so-called meeting of the minds over the head of would-be Black leaders as a way to wield power, while promoting his latest book in the process. The participants seem to find the opportunity to pontificate on a large platform irresistible and therefore participate in the deification of Smiley. Self-promotion is quite possibly Smiley’s greatest skill, despite all of the gibberish about setting a so-called “Black agenda.”

If the well-being of Black people is at the forefront of his mind, why is he publishing R. Kelly’s biography?

After cancelling the State of the Black union in the wake of a scandal regarding funding, Tavis realized that he had given up his best opportunity for self promotion and re-organized the Negro Super Bowl at the end of March giving little warning to the Black Popes (read: intelligentsia) regarding a date.

Such is the arrogance of Smiley, that he expected all would be participants to rearrange their schedule in order to grace the hallowed stage of The State of the Black Union. As always, Tavis is not allowing any previous commitment to be offered as an excuse for an inability to attend.

Obviously, Reverend Al’s failure to be a part of this year’s State of the Black Union on such short provided a degree of impetus for Smiley’s sudden concern with the ways in which Sharpton is engaging in activism.

Even though the Reverend Al has far better credentials than Smiley, he is not above partaking in the fight to be head Negro in charge. For some members of the so-called Black community, Sharpton is seen as little more than a loud-mouth ambulance chaser.

Before Jessie Jackson’s highly controversial attack against Obama on Fox News, Jackson and Sharpton battled back and forth for the right to lead the community. In the wake of the backlash against Jackson, Sharpton has emerged as a defacto leader, taking meetings with President Obama on the needs of the community.

As much as Black leaders claim to be excited about the election of Obama, there is also the fear that they are becoming increasingly irrelevant. Structures that once bound the Black community together in solidarity, like segregation, are no longer in force.

This is not to suggest that we should return to this form of social divide, but to point out that we are no longer sharing the same the neighbourhoods and shopping at the same stores en masse. While the end of segregation lead to positive results, we must acknowledge that the unintended consequence of such progress was the breakdown of a large part of African American solidarity.

The argument between Tavis and Sharpton is not about setting a so-called Black agenda and it is dishonest of both men to suggest that this is the genesis of the disagreement. This is about power.

Tavis has always dreamed of having a large platform from which to promote his forays into activism. Sharpton is finally getting the respect from the establishment that he has long sought after with Obama in office and he clearly views Tavis as a usurper. This was a long-winded pissing contest for the world to see, and while these men acted like a couple of overstuffed hens, they forgot about the very people on whose behalf they were supposedly advocating.

There has been much discussion on Black blogs regarding this public disagreement. Many commenters have openly chastised both men, but personally, I believe that this presented a wonderful opportunity for people to consider the self-serving aspect of professional activism.

We will always need people to speak out against racism, but we should always bear in mind that no matter how brilliant or committed a person is, there will always be an aspect of arrogance and power-seeking in their work. Such is human nature, particularly in a society so dedicated to hierarchy.

5 thoughts on “Throwdown: Tavis Smiley & Reverend Al Sharpton

  1. Interesting comments. Community does not (nor should it) mean conformity of views, tastes, opinions, etc. Simply because we employ the term Black community… why do you expect that ALL Blacks should have the same perspectives or experiences? That’s what a community is. White Jews are a community. And while they do share some things… they differ on others. We as Blacks do not have to be monolithic as no other people are.

  2. First of all let me say this, the African-American people elected Barack Obama NOT Rev.Al Sharpton or Tavis Smiley. Neither one of these men were elected. They are self appointed. Just like Al Sharpton says Tavis never called him to discuss anything, Mr. Sharpton never called me to ask if he could represent me. Pres. Obama on the other hand did ask me, whether through emails, tv ads, interviews, etc.

    I have listened to the comments of Al Sharpton and if the quote in the New York Times is true “that we do not need to ballyhoo a black agenda”. OK, first of all what does “ballyhoo” mean. Why would you quote that to the New York Times. If I were left to interpret that statement with no real definition of the term, it would mean to me to put the black agenda on the back burner. If a Hispanic/Latino leader were to say “we don’t need to bally-hoo a Latino agenda,” the Latino people would have a fit. If the Mayor of Los Angeles were to say that to the Times, there would be a march right away. First of all, Mr. Al Sharpton I thought your Michael Jackson eulogy was great, but the gift of tongue does not equal the gift of politics. I mean who are you working for really? Obviously your family is fed and you have not missed any meals. I hope Tavis can stand his ground and represent a people whose families have not been fed. If you ever want to measure if what you are saying to the media makes any comparative sense, say the same thing yet apply it to another ethnicity. If the quote doesn’t work for any other ethnicity, then it for sure doesn’t work for who you claim to represent, the African-American people. In regards to Al Sharpton Bold yes, intriguing maybe, another Martin Luther King, no. I dare you to challenge, Minister Farrakhan the way you challenged Tavis. The Minister would rip a hole in it.
    Farrakhan is the only real leader that has the balls and the proper perspective on true prosperity and healing for Americas black people. And I say this as a Christian. The rest of you are just black face minstrels skipping around happy you got sponsors for your piece of over priced chicken.

    I am disappointed in all of the Willy Lynch, ball grabbing puppets. The white man, the Republicans are all laughing at these devisive, “whose got the bigger dick and pie of the white man” self appointed men. Martin Luther King would have never stooped to such levels. You know why, there was never any money in it. Seems to me Al Sharpton, Tavis Smiley have the “big dick” syndrome. Including journalist Mr.George Curry who wasted our time with a silly commentary discrediting Tavis Smiley regarding a girlish grudge they had regarding a magazine cover that Mr. Curry could have put Tavis on the cover of yet didn’t (because Mr. Curry had to display his white man given power) and Tavis for “supposedly” holding a grudge. And now political ghosts from Bush past come to administer division within the psyche’s of the Willy Lynch nigger offspring to fight over who has the bigger piece of chicken and watermelon. Wouldn’t massa Willy be so pleased to see that once again his tactics of selective affirmative action career handouts have produced such a divisive sense of ego amoung its nigger-rich participants. None of you people have missed a meal, just blowing smoke up our asses on behalf of your sponsors.

  3. Sharpton’s evolutionary role as a so-called Civil Rights leader is contrived. For that matter, Jesse Jackson has legitimate civil rights credentials. Sharpton, like Tavis, are political gravediggers. Their job to dig the graves of other black leaders.

    In Sharpton’s case, how do you go from wearing cheap track suits to custom-made suits with no real viable church or organization? Answer: the white establishment is bankrolling Sharpton. Same thing with Tavis.

    These Negroes (so-called) did nothing to create a bonofide movement that would address the conditions of black folks on the ground.

    Here is Tavis Smiley taking money from Wal-Mart to support his television show, a corporation with a horrible record as it relates to working people. How do you reconcile this and at the same time want to hold Obama and Sharpton’s feet to the fire because they failed to perform for Tavis on cue?

    Several years ago, Minister Louis Farrakhan provided Tavis with one of the greatest “live” verbal “ass kicking” (pardon my language) of all time at one of his State of the Black Union’s programs. It was roughly eight minutes. Tavis stood there like a little child. Now, Farrakhan has his issues as well, but there are few black leaders in this nation that can pull 10,000, 20,000 and at one point, 400,000 black folks together to listen to what they have to say. And not one of these leaders—with the possible exception of Reverend Gardner C. Taylor—can “out talk” Farrakhan. Tavis had his “ass” handed to him that afternoon. Sharpton is no match for Farrakhan. He is the tool of the northeastern white establishment.

    Tavis knows who to play that “I-am-Tavis” game with.

    The black leadership establishment lacks imagination and Obama simply caught these flatfooted Negroes (so-called) by surprise. That’s all. They have no agenda at all for getting real power and then having enough power to punish people as a by-product of acquiring power.

    How on earth can Obama have an agenda that serves the needs of Black folks (which is not unilateral by the way) when black folks are completely unorganized as an ethnic interest group? Where is this so-called movement that Obama was supposed to represent? Where are these people now while Obama catches hell from the Republicans, self-hating Negro (so-called) leaders, and the hypocritical Democrats?


    The Negro (so-called) elite from Henry Louis Gates to Cornel West to Ruth Simmons to Donna Brazile are all eating well. No problem with that.

    What about the black middle-class? And the working poor? Who speaks for them? Folks trapped in the ghetto are basically on their own.

    Obama was elected and then was abandoned by black folks who did not seem to realize that in order for Obama to do anything for black folks that the white political establishment had to be convinced that black folks were organized, prepared to put pressure on folks and “continue to vote in local and state elections.” They (the blacks) are missing in action and sitting around clutching their “YES WE CAN” buttons.

    Tavis has a right to his opinion (whatever it is); but, Obama has to be the president of all the people and black folks have to understand how dynamic democracy works. It responds to people with money and who are organized. It is just that simple.

    Theodore Cross died yesterday. He was a brilliant white man who understood practical realities about the acqusition of black power. His seminal book, The Black Power Imperative, was largely ignored by the black leadership and intellectual classes who were either too busy trying to find new and inventive ways to kiss the collective asses of the white power structure or articulating some gilded Marxist fantasy revenge while they sipped martinis and walked about in their fine Italian linen suits.

    As a black man, I now see that the majority of black folks in America are in a very precarious position as the American economy undergoes major changes and “Who Needs The Negro? signs start to dot our highways.

    If these black leaders were serious, they would stop approaching black leadership as another form of “entertainment” and meet behind closed doors like other real power brokers do and get down to business of charting practical agendas and solutions to out problems.

  4. Just curious, what have you done to raise awareness of the struggles of African-Americans. Al and Jesse have a track record. What is yours?

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