Tavis Smiley calls it quits on Black Union: Is Obama to blame?

(REAL TIMES MEDIA)—After 10 years Tavis Smiley has decided to put an end to his annual State of the Black Union Conferences. As I watched Tavis’ recorded statement thanking everyone who was a part of the project, I was nostalgic, bemused and then ultimately disappointed. I wanted a substantive explanation as to why he is ending one of the most successful and notable forums for Black discourse in American history. When he finally got to his reason, I just wasn’t buying it. The State of the Black Union had its high points and flaws, but ending the program because of the “explosion of other media outlets addressing Black issues” is an explanation that just doesn’t pass the smell test.


For many, Tavis Smiley’s State of the Black Union conferences have been must see television every February for 10 years. After being fired from BET and floundering on NPR, Smiley struck gold when he created this annual forum for African-American experts in business, culture and politics to come and share their thoughts during Black History Month. Largely ignored by the mainstream press, the State of the Black Union was faithfully covered by C-SPAN every year and was attended by thousands of people for free. The panels ranged widely in quality, often Smiley put too many people on stage and nothing substantive was accomplished, but when it worked well, the State of the Black Union was amazing political theater. The panels were one part spoken word concert, one part political rally with a dash of church thrown in. For 10 years there was no where else on television you could find a larger more diverse and nonpartisan collection of talking heads and experts focusing squarely on African-American issues.

With that in mind it is hard to swallow that Smiley really believes that the explosion of the blogosphere and the rise of two Black television networks has made the conference less relevant. If the organizers of SOBU really believe that horrible pieces of journalism like CNN’s “Black in America” are viable substitutes for their conference they are severely underrating their accomplishments over the last decade. Moreover, BET, TVOne, MSNBC and Fox have failed to develop any major news or policy programming looking at African-Americans and are not likely to do so anytime soon. Ham-handed attempts like Glenn Beck’s “A Time to be Heard” special featuring a largely Black panel and audience failed to catch on in large part because the audience was so obviously pre-screened and sanitized to stop any truly heated discussions from happening. Part of what made The State of the Black Union special was that the usual gatekeepers of the mainstream media were cut out of the picture, and you had panelists, audience members and exchanges that you couldn’t find anywhere else on the air. How many times are you going to see a program that features Louis Farrakhan speaking candidly on race, Michael Eric Dyson calling out Newark Mayor Corey Booker, and audience members standing up and yelling “Hell, yeah” all at the same time?

My real fear is that the reason The State of the Black Union has come to an end has nothing to do with other minority media outlets or even sponsorships in a bad economy. This might be the political version of: “Now that Obama’s in office I’m going to take my ball and go home” on the part of Smiley and other critical leaders in the Black community. It was no secret that Barack Obama steamrolled many self-proclaimed “leaders” and “spokespersons” when he ran for president and that some egos were bruised in the process. Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, Ambassador Andrew Young, Maya Angelou and most famously, Tavis Smiley, were all publicly put in their place when they tried to stand between the Black community and an Obama presidency. Perhaps Tavis has decided that if he can’t be the spokesman for a generation that he’d rather not speak at all.

I hope that this is not the case, for all of its flaws The State of the Black Union played a critical role in African-American discourse during a trying time in our nation’s history. A Black president should inspire more, not less, discussion on the direction that Blacks and this nation as a whole are taking. If Smiley is unwilling or incapable of continuing that public discussion some forward thinking social commentator needs to fill that void.

(Dr. Jason Johnson is an associate professor at Hiram College in Ohio.)

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