Smiley And West On 'America's Next Chapter'

PBS host Tavis Smiley will host a nationally televised discussion called America's Next Chapter from Washington, D.C. this January. Smiley and his fellow panelist, Princeton professor Cornel West, talk about what they hope the conversation will accomplish.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Until last year, PBS host Tavis Smiley convened an annual state of black America conference here in Washington, in the run-up to the State of the Union. This year, it's been renamed as "America's Next Chapter," a discussion amid crises in education, in the economy, two wars and global challenges on what the future holds for the next generation.

In a moment, he joins us to talk about what he and others hope to accomplish there. We'll look ahead in the company of Tavis Smiley's co-host on "Smiley & West" on a new radio program distributed by PRI. If you have questions for them about our national priorities and what such a discussion may accomplish, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website: npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Tavis Smiley, the host of "The Tavis Smiley Show" on PBS, and Cornel West, professor of African-American studies and religion at Princeton University and a panelist for "America's Next Chapter," join us both here in Studio 3A.

And congratulations to you both on the new "Tavis Smiley & West" radio show.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And how did you guys figure out who got top billing?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Professor CORNEL WEST (African-American Studies and Religion, Princeton University): Oh, no, no, no. That's Brother Tavis. That's Brother Tavis.

Mr. TAVIS SMILEY (Radio and Television Host, "The Tavis Smiley Show" and "Smiley & West"): No, no, no. It's very simple.

CONAN: Alphabetical order?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. WEST: Yeah.

Mr. SMILEY: That's it. That's it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SMILEY: When your hero becomes your good friend and you get a chance to do a radio show with him, you don't pass up the opportunity. I'm just honored to have an hour with him on the radio every week.

CONAN: Last year, Tavis, you canceled your State of the Black Union conference. What's changed this time around?

Mr. SMILEY: You know, I did that for 10 years. It was a great conversation. There are others who are in that arena now. I had no idea when I started - now, 11, 12 years ago - that we'd one day have an African-American president. So there's so many people now who are occupying that space, who get a chance to raise these issues that I've always cared about and continue to raise. Everywhere I go, I bring my whole self with me. That is to say, everywhere I go, Neal, I bring my blackness with me. So my love and cherish to black people will never, ever go away.

I think, having said all that, that in the most multi-cultural, multi-racial, multi-ethnic America ever, we've got to find a ways to talk to each other. I think public radio is at its best when we challenge folks to reexamine the assumptions they hold, to expand their inventory of ideas. And when we do - as you do so well - using these platforms to introduce Americans to each other, when you can bring us together across culture, across race, across ideology for a conversation about advancing the nation, I think you're onto something, then. And that's what we're doing tomorrow night here in Washington.

CONAN: Cornel West, as you know, the economy is in crisis, as you well know, but a lot of African-Americans - the African-American community is in special crisis. And some African-American commentators have made a point to say: Mr. President, you need to address this particular circumstance, or else you may lose the support of the African-American community come 2012.

Prof. WEST: Well, at least, we want to let him know that the pain is real, and it ought to be addressed - not because it's black, but because a human being's a human being no matter what color they are.

Brother Tavis Smiley and I decided to keep alive the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. until we die. And sometimes, that means you do it in the black context. Sometimes you do it on the white. Sometimes you do it in yellow, red, whatever. It's a human context were concerned about, and it means you put the focus on poor people. So you talk about the prison industrial complex. You talk about unemployment rates. You talk about the indecent housing and the decrepit school systems. And you do it in such a way that you keep track of greed, often running amuck at the top.

You can keep track of hatred, which shot through all of us, and therefore, we need each other to accent the love that we all have the potential to enact. But you talk about it in terms of justice, justice, fairness, fairness. The black freedom movement has always been a movement, from Douglas to King talking, about what? Fairness, justice, respect for ourselves and others.

CONAN: We're going to get some callers in on the conversation. But, Tavis Smiley, just to follow up on what Professor West just had to say -and we've talked about this before. Toward the end of his life, Martin Luther King was not a very popular man in this country, the Nobel Peace Prize winner denounced for his criticism of the Vietnam War and for his continuing advocacy and focus on poor people.

Mr. SMILEY: And we're just days away from celebrating what will be the 25th anniversary of the King holiday, and, of course, his birthday, actual birthday prior to that on January the 15th. And you could not be more right, Neal. Doc and I were discussing this earlier today. King's life was really about three things: justice for all, service to others and a love that liberates people. Justice for all, service to others and a love that liberates. Sometimes, when you have that as your agenda, you're not popular. You're not understood.

So, when King dies in this country - and people always lose sight of this around the King holiday. When he dies in this country, he dies persona non grata. Over 55 percent of black folk had turned against him by the time he died and probably because they thought he was too soft. He wasn't radical enough. Others, because of his position on the Vietnam War. And almost three quarters of the American people at large had turned against Dr. King.

When he dies on that balcony in Memphis, he is persona non grata. Look at how we celebrate and revel in him now all these years later. The point, very simple: Sometimes, when you tell the truth, it takes folk time to catch up with you. We don't all wake up at the same time.

CONAN: Let's get a caller in on the conversation. And that, of course, Tavis Smiley, Cornel West is with us here, also in Studio 3A. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. What's the priority for America's next chapter?

Let's start with Eli, Eli with us from Baton Rouge.

ELI (Caller): Hello. How are you brothers doing? I want to say it's an honor to speak with you all. And also I love - the TALK OF THE NATION is one of my favorite shows.

CONAN: Well, thank you very much.

ELI: If I could just make a quick comment on unity. I really think the brothers - I've seen them from Bill Maher to other shows. I've seen them. And it's always the negative content toward the president. I just want to say that I think if we push the president towards charter schools, which a lot of people don't agree with but they work in Louisiana. And I've seen the product of them. I just think that there's a better way to present your case against and for the president besides the negative on his return. And I do - and I was at the State of the Union in New Orleans and I'd say that you all did a fabulous job with it and it got me into politics.

And I want to thank Brother Tavis for introducing me into politics, and Brother West for just introducing me into the proudness of being black. And I just hope that they say one positive thing about the president on one of these shows that they go on.

Prof. WEST: Oh, I appreciate that, Brother, very much. No. I would say quite unequivocally, I love the president. I want to protect him against the lies often told by right wing brothers and sisters. I want to respect him as human being and president. But also, I want to correct him, because I'm tied to principles that are bigger me and bigger than him. And it has to do with, when he tilts toward investment bankers as opposed to homeowners, when he tilts toward the military-industrial complex as opposed to the very persons who you want to empower, like everyday people in Afghanistan, when he tilts toward privatizing education and scapegoating teachers unions, I have to bring critique to bear.

That's what Martin was all about though, brother. That's what Curtis Mayfield is all about. We've got to tell the truth about our self and tell the truth about the larger society so that - I hope he feels the love in the critique. But, in the end, it's not about me. It's not about him. It's about trying to serve before we die, my brother.

Mr. SMILEY: Let me add very quickly, Neal - this is Tavis is here - that the great presidents - we want Obama. We want Barack Obama to be a great president. But great presidents aren't born. They are made. They have to be pushed into their greatness. There is no FDR without A. Philip Randolph. There is no LBJ without Dr. King. You have to push these presidents into their greatness. There is no Lincoln without Frederick Douglass that Dr. West referenced early.

So if you care about Barack Obama, you want him to be a great president, you got to push him, usher him into his greatness. And you do that by holding him accountable to do what he said he was going to do.

CONAN: You had the opportunity to speak with Barack Obama as senator, as candidate. Have you continued to have the opportunity to speak with him at length as president?

Mr. SMILEY: In a word, no. I have not. And I've not even answered that question publicly, probably the first time I've been asked that publicly where I've answered it. And here's the real tragedy of that. I mean, obviously, I don't need, respectfully, a conversation with the president to keep my radio and TV show going. I don't need to be invited inside the White House to stroke my ego. I've been there more times than I can count, interviewed countless - not countless - but a number of presidents in my career. But I think it does speak to a certain mindset inside the White House. They only want to talk to folk, oftentimes - and this is true for all kinds of presidents, Democrats and Republicans.

If you don't agree with them, if they don't think you're as sensitive to their concerns, oftentimes, they don't want an interview with you. But they will invite people in who they know are trashing them every day because they want to appear to be fair. So that I don't get an interview, but Bill O'Reilly does. I don't go to the White House, but Sean Hannity does. And I think there's something strange about that, but I'm just answering since you asked.

CONAN: Eli, thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it. Let's see if we can go next to - this Evan, Evan with us from Minneapolis.

EVAN (Caller): Yes. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

EVAN: I wanted to say I'm a huge fan of Tavis, longtime viewer, first-time caller.

Mr. SMILEY: Thank you.

EVAN: Yes. And I've agreed wholeheartedly with everything that's been said thus far. But I also want to say the single, greatest thing we can do to make life better for all Americans is to have a more fair and equal tax code.

CONAN: More fair and equal tax code. Fairer in what way, more progressive, flatter? There's a lot of different proposals.

EVAN: Yes. Absolutely, more progressive. I think the extension of the Bush tax cuts is a huge crime against the equality of opportunity for this nation. And eliminating the income gap through - like I said, let's carve outs for big business, definitely the military-industrial complex. Let's not make an enemy out of taxes.

Mr. SMILEY: See, now, this goes back to the earlier caller, Neal, because - Dr. West and I agree on this. But if you say this and if you happen to be an African-American, then some black folk think you're giving the president a hard time, because we're black and he's black. They think we're being negative and holding the brother to a higher standard. Doc and I disagree with this compromise on these Bush-era tax cuts. And not even compromise - I don't want to put words in Doc's mouth. I don't see it as a compromise. I see it as a capitulation. It's a complete capitulation on this issue.

Now, that's not negative. I just think the president is wrong on that issue. I think he was right - took him a long time on "don't ask, don't tell," took him way too long. But he was right on that issue. So there are things that we agree with him on, things we disagree on. But because you disagree, it doesn't make you a hater of the president.

Prof. WEST: That's right. I mean, we've had such a redistribution of wealth from poor and working people to the well-to-do. So the last thing we need is an administration that is so friendly towards big business, so friendly towards big finance that working people and poor people find themselves pushed against a wall.

It's no accident, for example, that our dear our brother, Orszag, is now working for Citigroup, just out of the Obama administration. Or that our dear brother, Larry Summers, has given the keynote at the global hedge fund bill. He's not speaking at the homeowners association. He's speaking at the hedge field(ph) - the hedge fund gathering, you see? It's no accident that Daley, now from JPMorgan Chase, moves into the White House. It tilts too much toward the well-to-do. What about everyday people that Sly Stone sang about with such insight?

CONAN: And I'll still be interested to see how much of the discussion focuses on tax codes, so you may want to keep people tuned in.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Thank you very much for the call. We're talking with Cornel West and Tavis Smiley, co-hosts of "Smiley and West," a new radio program distributed by Public Radio International. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's see if we can go next to Grazzio(ph). Am I getting that correct?

GRAZZIO (Caller): Yes.

CONAN: And you're with us from Glenwood in Minnesota.

GRAZZIO: Correct.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

GRAZZIO: Thank you for the show. And I would just like to say to, I think, make things better in this country, we should drop the label African-American and just go with the label American. I don't see any other ethnic group in this country referred to as their ethnicity and then American to follow. I think that for generations upon generations, there's always been this disconnect between black American citizens and white American citizens. And I think using that term African-American continues to make that divide.

CONAN: And we'll turn to the class of 1943 professor of African-American studies and religion at Princeton.

Prof. WEST: Well, I appreciate the question. I would disagree, though. I think that Tony Bennett has a right to be an Italian-American. Italians are such are great people. They've made grand contribution to the country. I think Steven Sondheim, genius that he is, has a right to call himself Jewish-American, certainly so for ourselves. Nothing wrong with being black-American.

The problem is: Are we willing to accent our common humanity in light of the distinctive kinds of identities we have on the surface? Deep down, at the deepest level, I'm human, you are human. You have your mother, I have my mother. Father, father, we love both. We got to learn how to come together, be citizens, keep this rather democratic experiment alive.

Mr. SMILEY: And to call yourself an African-American, Neal, is not to suggest that you're choosing one over the other. It's not either/or, but both/and. And you love and celebrate both. I'm happy to be an American. I'm happy to be of African decent. It's not either/or. It's both/and.

CONAN: Thank you very much for the call. Let's see if we can go next to Michael(ph), Michael with us from Blowing Rock in North Carolina.

MICHAEL (Caller): A pleasure, gentlemen.

CONAN: And did Blowing Rock collect a lot of snow last night?

MICHAEL: It's still a blizzard now to look at the wind.

Prof. WEST: Good luck. Good luck.

MICHAEL: This is important. I'd like to mention Thaddeus Kosciusko.

CONAN: The great hero of the revolution from Poland.

MICHAEL: Also a portrait artist, also a philosopher.

Prof. WEST: Yeah.

MICHAEL: And it's his philosopher that we might look into. A book called "The Peasant Prince" would be valuable as with "Dissent in America" by Ralph F. Young.

CONAN: And your...

MICHAEL: And "Forty Acres and a Mule."

CONAN: And...

MICHAEL: Too much to learn in so little time.

Prof. WEST: That's so true.

CONAN: And your whole point, Michael?

MICHAEL: My point? We need not to be afraid of meritocracy. Our equality is rooted in the quality of our work.

Prof. WEST: Absolutely. But...

MICHAEL: Thank you.

Prof. WEST: ...there must be fair conditions under which one is able to engage in that quest for a meritorious position and status. That's the important question.

CONAN: And - just, by the way, I always heard it pronounced Kosciusko, but anyway...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SMILEY: I'm glad you took that.

CONAN: There is, Tavis Smiley, what will you consider a success? You're going to have an interesting panel, an interesting discussion. At the end of it, I'm sure people will be illuminated, but is anything going to come of this?

Mr. SMILEY: It is a success already because in this town, as you well know, we do not have multicultural, multiracial, multiethnic, multi-ideological conservations, period. There are so many folk in this country. We live in the most multicultural America ever, and yet so many of us, when we look to Washington, when we turn on our televisions, we see all day, all night, all white.

There's so many of us left out of these conversations. I said earlier: I think that we are at our best when we use these platforms to challenge folk to reexamine the assumptions they hold, to expand their inventory of ideas, to see the world and have a worldview that is born of a different prism. And I think you can't get to that unless you bring all these folk to the table. The Sunday morning talk shows often look all the same. And there have been studies done, as you well know about, how so many of us are left out of these conversations.

So just the starting point, I think, is already a success. But I think that once we get in this conversation tomorrow, the timing couldn't be more propitious after Arizona. And we're at the halfway of the president's first term, State of the Union speech coming just days from now. It's a wonderful time to have this conversation about how to move the country forward. So it starts with a good conversation.

Beyond that, when I started State of the Black Union 10, 11 years ago, I didn't know the three best-selling text that I did not make money off of, by the way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SMILEY: But I didn't know that three best-selling texts were going to come out of that, that people could use to advance their own communities. So who knows where this will come - where this will go, rather, two or three years down the road. But it's a starting point tomorrow night on C-SPAN, and we're excited about it.

CONAN: Cornel West, we just have a few seconds left, but is there one question you want to ask at this conversation?

Prof. WEST: Oh, sure. I want to ask how deep is the love for poor people in this country. Can we make poor people and working people a priority so that the kind of concerns we have of monies in Afghanistan, the kind of concerns of monies to the Pentagon, the kind of concerns of bailing out investment bankers focuses on working people of all color, poor people of all color? We need a revolution in priorities in America in order to make it.

CONAN: You've heard the whole thing. There you go. Cornel West, professor of African-American studies and religion at Princeton and a panelist for America's Next Chapter. Tavis Smiley, the host of "The Tavis Smiley Show" on PBS and the moderator of "America's Next Chapter." They co-host a show called, well, "Smiley & West." This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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