Tavis Smiley: articulate, curious and on a mission

Jerry Large [The Seattle Times]

SEATTLE -- What Tavis Smiley knows for sure is that you can achieve your heart's desire if you have faith, if you never give up and if you pour all your energy into something you believe in.

Of course, you also need talent and help along the way.

Smiley is the host of "Tavis Smiley" on PBS and "The Tavis Smiley Show" with Public Radio International. He is an activist for social justice and the author of eight books.

Foolproof Performing Arts is bringing Smiley to Seattle Wednesday to talk about his latest book, his memoir, "What I Know for Sure."

What a lot of people might know about Smiley is that he was fired from BET after four years as host of its nighttime talk show and that he quit his subsequent NPR program because he believed the network was only interested in a narrow segment of the white population.

Both happened in part because of his strong personality and unswerving commitment to his personal vision. BET said it fired him because he sold an exclusive interview to ABC, but Smiley writes about previous clashes with the autocratic head of BET, a man who didn't brook criticism from employees. But Tavis' mother taught him not to let anyone disrespect him.

On air he is so smooth and friendly you can forget the drive that got him into that chair, and turned the seat hot on occasion. That's where the book comes in.

Smiley was reared by his mother and stepfather in a trailer park in a tiny, mostly white town in Indiana, crammed in with 10 siblings and his maternal grandmother.

Don't know if your childhood memories include sleeping with a bunch of brothers and being peed on at night, but his do.

Smiley's dad was an Air Force mechanic, which is how the family got from Mississippi to rural Indiana. But his mother set the tone for the household -- strict discipline and church every day.

Once, the minister of their Holiness Church falsely accused Smiley and his sister Phyllis of disrespecting a Sundays-school teacher. His father beat them so badly that they had to be hospitalized. For years after, Tavis spoke to his parents and minister only when spoken to, which must have been hard because he is a talker.

We spoke last week, and he told me that he didn't know what form his success would take when he was a kid, but he knew it would involve talking.

"I was blessed with a good mind and a decent voice so I knew that whatever my contribution to the world would be, it would emanate from those blessings."

He tells young people, "Don't go looking for a job. You want to discover your vocation." The earlier you figure out what your calling is, the more successful you will be because you'll have more time to perfect your skills.

Smiley discovered early that he was a talker and good with language. He won numerous speech and debate contests and embraced his talent so thoroughly that his mother had to caution him to be more humble.

She gave him a pencil holder with this written on it: "It's hard to be humble when you're as great as I am." She asked him to contemplate the meaning of that.

But he might not have flourished if not for one of his elementary-school teachers. He wasn't motivated to do well in school until Mrs. Very Graft pushed him to achieve. She told him he was intelligent and gifted, but that he wasn't really applying himself.

He believed her and changed from indifferent to ardent student.

Then when he was 13 he encountered the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. and discovered his passion. He decided to harness his gifts to public service, and he has been tenacious about that.

Smiley talked his way into Indiana University when he had no money. While in school he pursued an internship in the office of Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley despite being told repeatedly there were no positions. He even flew out from Indiana twice and both times was turned away before he wore them down.

Smiley was so hooked on his role in Bradley's office that when he went back for his final semester he couldn't concentrate on classes and failed to graduate. But he did get a job in the mayor's office, and he even ran for the city council at 26. He lost, but he didn't give up.

He turned to radio, learned his craft, and became a regular on the national "Tom Joyner Morning Show." He mastered television at a small cable operation and was ready to make a splash when BET asked if he would try out for its evening program.

On air, Smiley seems equally comfortable talking to presidents and rappers, philosophers and athletes. Unlike some hosts he seems to know a lot about every topic that comes up -- from international relations to jazz history.

Smiley says that's because he is a voracious reader who is curious about nearly everything. He also has a smart staff that prepares packets on his guests. He spends his evenings reading them.

I asked if he missed having a family of his own. Smiley didn't live alone until after college and he hated it until the demands of work left him wanting some peace. Now he embraces the quiet of home after a day full of dealing with people.

The day I spoke with him he was part way through a list of 22 interviews he was doing for his radio and television shows.

What about emotional support? He says that comes from his friends, family and faith.

Anyway, he doesn't have time to mope. He has used his forum to push for social change in a slew of ways. Every year he and Joyner convene a forum called the State of the Black Union, he runs the Tavis Smiley Foundation, and this year he started the Covenant with Black America self-improvement project.

At 42, he controls his destiny. I said he'd accomplished a lot at his age, but he said he doesn't think of it that way.

"If you do anything every day of your life, when you get to be 42 you ought to have something to show for it. Tiger Woods ought to be the best golfer in the world -- he started at 3."

He says he is looking forward to coming to Seattle, which along with Chicago were the two markets where his program got its highest ratings. "I will be forever grateful to Seattle." I'm sure his listeners feel the same way.


© 2006, The Seattle Times. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.




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