Tavis Smiley Comes to UCSB


Bijan Saniee

Tavis Smiley, African-American progressive activist and talk show host of the eponymous PBS program Tavis Smiley, visited the University of California, Santa Barbara on Tues., Nov. 17 to give a diversity lecture in a program appropriately named “An Evening with Tavis Smiley.”  

Smiley, the author of 18 books, including a New York Times Best Seller, was born in Missouri and grew up in underprivileged circumstances in Indiana. He attended what he has described as a “98 percent white” high school before leaving home with just 50 dollars and a small suitcase to enroll in Indiana University Bloomington and study public affairs. His activism and professionalism in radio, television and minority advocacy have led to many accolades and awards, including three NAACP Image awards (for “Best News, Talk, or Informative Series”), a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and a mention in Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World.

Smiley’s lecture was presented by the UCSB Multicultural Center, as part of a series of quarterly diversity lectures that began in 2005.  The main topics of the lecture were race, religion and violence within the context of 21st century America.

Smiley’s public speaking, demeanor and delivery are impeccable; he speaks with a clear, booming voice, making the additional amplification through Corwin Pavilion’s microphone system a bit much at times. Much of Smiley’s lecture had to do with how the issues of race and violence manifest themselves as great problems facing America today, which Smiley argued threaten the very idea of what America is. His opening remark was both one of hope and disappointment with the status quo: “We all want to live in a nation that will one day be as good as its promise,” he said. “It is our responsibility to save this democracy from itself. It falls upon us”.

Although the tone of the lecture was largely serious, Smiley offered moments of comic relief, at one point stating, “I’d like to thank the dean for the second best introduction I’ve ever received. Second best only because last week I was in Chicago, the dean forgot to show up and I got to introduce myself.”

Smiley spent most of his speech giving his own critiques of modern America, calling for activism to address these problems. “Four hundred Americans have the wealth equivalent to the bottom 150 million Americans,” he said. “Those numbers are not sustainable. Poverty is now a matter of national security. There is a highway into poverty, but barely a sidewalk out.”  This issue was reiterated many times through his lecture.

When saying something he felt was important, or thought-worthy, Smiley would repeat it up to two or three times. The audience was affected greatly by the style of delivery, as some members could not contain themselves from cheering or applauding after a thought resonated with them.

Other subjects that Smiley criticized were the muddling of American patriotism and unhealthy nationalism, the fallacies of American exceptionalism, as well as the immorality of American militarism.  He furthered his arguments by noting, “My study of history suggests to me that there has not been one empire in the history of the world that did not falter, fail or fall. Every empire in history.”  

Tavis also explored the topics of terrorism, social stratification and the betterment of society through empathy and love. He noted that the current generation of black Americans will be the first to not do as well as their parents in American history, calling the reality “not unacceptable, but shameful.” Furthermore, he noted census numbers which indicate that one in two Americans, or 50 percent of Americans, are at or near the poverty line; he qualified what he meant by “near” as two paychecks away from poverty.

Smiley, in just one hour, went over numerous topics, explaining his point of view eloquently for each, before taking questions from the audience.  His presence when speaking is certainly powerful, and even if one were to disagree with him, it would be difficult not to appreciate the way in which he expresses his opinions and delivers them to his audience.

Before ending his lecture, Smiley called on the audience to act and help make America the place it promises to be. He then gave his definition of love, which he jokingly said he could give an entire lecture on if invited back to UCSB. “Love in the public square,” he said, “Love in our public policy, love with regard to how we treat fellow citizens simply means this: that everybody is worthy just because.”