When he finally got to his reason, I just wasn’t buying it. The State of the Black Union had its highpoints 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, Smiley’s State of the Black Union conferences have been must-see television every February. 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 theatre. 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 non-partisan collection of talking heads and experts focusing squarely on African-American issues.
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 conference organizers really believe that horrible pieces of journalism such as 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 such as 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.
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.
Barack Obama steamrolled many self-proclaimed “leaders” and “spokespersons” when he ran for president and 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. A black president should inspire more, not less discussion on the direction that blacks and this nation as a whole are taking. If Tavis Smily is unwilling or incapable of continuing that public discussion, some forward thinking social commentator needs to fill that void.