One on One With Travis Smiley
The Covenant With Black America, a collection of essays on issues critical to Blacks, is not the first call-to-action book aimed at Black America, but it is the most successful. The first book from a Black publisher to top The New York Times’ bestseller list, The Covenant has spawned a movement that includes community town hall meetings and a Web site to help average folks get involved in implementing the book’s recommendations. Radio and television host Tavis Smiley, the brainchild behind the new book, spoke with Diverse senior editor Christina Asquith about the phenomenon that is The Covenant.
DI: You say you intended The Covenant to be a “roadmap, a blue print, to shift the conversation from talking about pain to talking about a plan.” Has there been too much complaining thus far and not enough action?
TS: Black people have legitimate concerns about any number of crises in America. But I do think there’s been an absence of a game plan. And at the end of the day, if no one is providing any real leadership on these issues, don’t the people have a right to complain?
DI: What prompted the creation of this book?
TS: Many people in our community feel a piece of Black America died on that balcony with Dr. King back in 1968. Since that time there has been an absence of a blue print that we can all embrace for advancing our community. Not to suggest progress has not been made, but collectively there’s not been a game plan around which to coalesce.
DI: Isn’t the Black community too diverse to be squeezed into a one-size-fits-all kind of game plan?
TS: I don’t think Black people are monolithic. But there are certain issues we can rally around, like quality health care and improving public education and closing the digital divide. I don’t know anyone in Black America who does not want to prosper economically.
DI: Are you sure you’re not offending Black people? After all, there are many signs that progress is well underway. Black economic power and businesses are growing.
TS: The short answer is that if Black people are offended, the book wouldn’t be on the No. 1 bestsellers list.
DI: Is The Covenant only for African-Americans? What role do other races and ethnicities play?
TS: We’ve all been given certain promises in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, but America is not a nation yet that’s as good as promised. Black folk have always led the way in challenging America to have that conversation and to step forward and do something. So it is not uncommon for Black folk to force this kind of dialogue. The text may be America’s gift, and its challenge, from the Black community.
DI: Your book doesn’t mention the detrimental effects of broken marriages, divorce and single parenthood on African-American children. Why leave out such a major issue?
TS: It’s mentioned throughout the text. Black families are torn apart by a lot of reasons. When you don’t have access to health care and high quality education, or a decent paying, respectable job that allows you to grow … most marriages are broken up over what? Money issues. Black people have more stress and hypertension because of racism in America. So when people say there’s not a chapter head that says “Black families” they’re absolutely right, but the reality is that all throughout the text we talk about the importance of Black families staying together.
DI: You don’t often find a book published by a Black press ending up as No. 1 on The New York Times’ bestseller list. What’s going on?
TS: It’s not that you don’t often find it. It’s never happened. This is the first time. It’s Black people. Black people have made history. I haven’t been on “Oprah,” not “The Today Show” or “Good Morning America” or NPR. It’s No. 1 because every day Black people just went out and word of mouth went out and bought the book.
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