The conversation: an interview with Tavis Smiley
By Betty Lamarr
On February 16, I had the pleasure and privilege to conduct a phone interview with Tavis Smiley. During his 20 years in the broadcast industry, Mr. Smiley has made significant contributions to radio and television as a talk-show host. His many achievements include being a best-selling author of 14 books, being named one of “The World’s 100 Most Influential People” by Time magazine in 2009 as well as the Ebony “Power 150 in Media”, being the recipient of 12 NAACP Image Awards, and being a part of the 2009 Film Documentary Stand, set in our very own city of Memphis. Our phone interview preceded Mr. Smiley’s 20th anniversary tour that brought him to Memphis on March 5. The event theme, “Tavis Smiley: Changing the World One Conversation at a Time”, takes Tavis from interviewer to interviewee.
Betty LaMarr: Thanks so much for giving me the opportunity to have this conversation with you. Let’s reexamine the concept of “success vs. greatness” in light of local Memphis and current world events. What tools can Memphis youth use to overcome the challenges they face today?
Tavis Smiley: I think it is important to know exactly what you believe. I think the real value of education is teaching one to think critically for himself or herself, not the rote learning that so many young people are exposed to today. When you learn how to think critically for yourself, you can come to your own conclusions. You are an original and not a copy of somebody else.
The problem with the world today is that people are blown around like the wind. They don’t know exactly what their own core beliefs are. Once you’re clear about that, it makes navigating life a bit easier. That doesn’t mean that your assumptions can’t be reexamined. It doesn’t mean that you can’t be exposed to new ways of thinking that might expand your inventory of ideas. But it does mean that you at least start with the notion that these are the convictions that you want to live your life by. I try to live my life by a certain set of immutable principles based upon what I have come to believe about the life I want to live and the legacy I want to leave, and I try to encourage others to do the same.
BL: On the world stage, what lessons can we learn from recent youth activism in Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt, Algeria, and now Libya and Bahrain?
TS: I think what we can learn from these democratic explosions around the world is to remember the lesson that we taught these protesters. African Americans have always been the conscience of the United States of America. The world has taken note of our fight for justice, freedom, equity, fairness, and respect. The world has taken note of the struggle that we were engaged in for civil rights, for human rights, and for economic rights. The world has watched our struggle, and they’ve taken a page from our playbook. So the lesson we need to take from them, really, is to be reminded that we taught the world how to protest. We taught the world how to stand up straight. We taught the world how to sing protest songs.
Dr. King is the greatest American we have ever produced, and people are quoting King all around the world, including Egypt and other places. We taught the world how to demand change, and we taught the world how to do it nonviolently. If we are sick and tired of public policy, injustice, and inequities in our own country, then we need to be reminded that we know how to resolve this. We must organize our power in some compelling strength. Although we taught the world how to protest, we’ve forgotten. We’ve gotten lazy and complacent, and we’ve adjusted to injustice. Our own country needs to be reminded that the people have the power, and if we don’t like the direction of our government, we have to speak up about it. Activism and politics are not spectator sports. You’ve got to get off the sidelines and get involved in the game.
BL: How important are social networks, new media, and emerging technology to broadcast journalism?
TS: Terribly important. I’ve learned for myself, sometimes the hard way, that it’s impossible to navigate forward in today’s world without understanding, appreciating, and on some level embracing social media. It is the most contemporary way of communicating a message. There are all kinds of things about the internet that I could complain about, but I have to juxtapose those complaints with the good that can be done vis-à-vis the internet and social media. We must find a way to navigate ourselves forward in a world where social media is not going away. It’s going to become more important, more relevant. And so, for those of us who have slowly come to accept that, you’ve got to deal with it and find a way to make it work for you.
BL: How important is a support network for individual and community greatness? And in your own life, how much did your support network help fuel your inner strength and determination to take $50 and a small suitcase such a long, long way?
TS: Familial, social, and community networks are terribly important. None of us walks this journey alone. Our destiny as individuals is inextricably tied to a larger group. Every one of us is who we are because somebody loved us. No one who succeeds walks this journey alone. I would not be as fortunate without a network of people who supported me and pushed me toward my potential.
In regards to the question about going to Indiana University, it’s not about money and a suitcase. I think every one of us has the capacity to do more than we think we’re capable of. But this requires us to take stock of our situation and make a decision about the kind of life we want to live and the kind of legacy we want to leave. I was thinking about these things even when I was a young person. I was exposed to Dr. King’s work, writing, and speeches when I was just twelve or thirteen. Although King had long since been dead, his work brought me to life. I decided at a young age that I wanted to live a certain kind of life and leave a certain kind of legacy, and I’ve been working on that ever since. I’m a cracked vessel. Like everybody else, I’ve got my failings and my shortcomings. But I’m a work in progress.
Life really boils down to making choices. Every one of us has a life to live and a legacy to leave and all of that is determined by the kind of choices we make along the way. I decided as a young person that I wanted to go to college. I knew my life would begin or end with the quality of my education. Malcolm X once said, “Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today.” I knew that quote as a child. I believed that quote. I knew that education was my passport to the future, and I was determined that nothing was going to stop me, no lack of financial aid, no lack of a dormitory to stay in, no lack of books, no lack period. Nothing was going to stop me from getting an education, and when you’re that serious about anything in life, I believe the universe will line up behind you to support you into getting across that finish line.
BL: In conclusion, what do you feel is your single most significant contribution, and what do you want to leave us as your legacy?
TS: My latest book talks about the 20 biggest mistakes I have made in broadcasting and what I’ve learned from those mistakes. The book is called Fail Up. I believe my life is a series of failures, but I’ve been blessed to fail my way up to the top. And I believe every one of us can fail up if we learn from the mistakes we have made. I’m still making mistakes, I’m still learning, and I’m still getting better – I hope!
I would like to think that my greatest contributions are ahead. I’ve been very fortunate throughout the years to have achieved a lot. I’ve received all kinds of honors and honorary degrees, been celebrated around the world in a variety of places. I feel very blessed by what God has done with me over these 20 years. But if I thought my best days were behind me, it’d be hard to get out of bed every morning. What’s the point in getting up if you’ve already done the best you can do? So, I don’t believe I’ve done my best. I do believe that every day I’m getting better.
I believe that my legacy, my role, is to make the world safe for the legacy of Dr. King. I know there’s a strange connection with King in Memphis. I can’t go to Memphis without going to the Civil Rights Museum and going to The Lorraine. It’s an annual ritual for me. Whenever I come to Memphis, I have to go to pay my respects. I really believe that the future of this democracy is directly linked to how seriously we take the legacy of King’s life: justice for all, service to others, and a love that liberates people. That’s what I hope to do through all the enterprises that we own and operate. It’s all really about trying to make sure there’s justice for everybody. By way of our media platform, we’re trying to serve others, trying to raise issues of justice, fairness, and equality for everybody, and ultimately trying to love people.
I believe that love simply means that everybody is worthy just because. Not because of your last name, who you know, where you live, how much money you make, or where you went to school. I believe that everyone is worthy just because. Everybody is somebody’s child, and we’re all God’s children. Every life is equally valuable. Every life is precious. When we get to a place in this country where we start to believe that, we’re going to start treating people as valuable and precious. Everybody will have health care, a job, and a safe environment to live in. People ought to be treated this way by private and public institutions. That’s what our work is all about. I’ll continue doing it, and I thank you for this chance to talk to you about it.