Advocate and philanthropist Tavis Smiley gives a speech titled “Accountable: Making America as Good as its Promise” in Baker Hall in Zoellner Arts Center on Friday, Sept. 30, 2016. Smiley has published 19 books and is the host of the late-night television talk show "Tavis Smiley" on PBS. (Delaney McCaffrey/B&W Staff)

Tavis Smiley speaks to Lehigh, local communities

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Author and broadcaster Tavis Smiley gives a motivational talk advocating for social change on Friday, Sept. 30, 2016, in Baker Hall. Smiley is currently the host of the late-night television talk show Tavis Smiley on PBS. (Delaney McCaffrey/B&W Staff)

Author and broadcaster Tavis Smiley gives a motivational talk advocating for social change on Friday, Sept. 30, 2016, in Baker Hall. Smiley is the host of the late-night television talk show “Tavis Smiley” on PBS. (Delaney McCaffrey/B&W Staff)

Tavis Smiley’s talk, titled “Accountable: Making America as Good as its Promise,” focused on the multitude of social and economic problems black Americans face today. He compared the differences between this phrase and the campaign slogan “Make America Great Again,” used by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

In his speech, Smiley said America has never truly been great, and we need to build on the progress already made to make America great in the future.
“What period of American greatness are you thinking of taking us back to?” Smiley asked, referring to Trump’s slogan. 

Smiley spoke on the state of black America and other current events during his talk this Friday at Zoellner Arts Center. This was Smiley’s first time at Lehigh. 

Smiley is a talk-show host, publisher, philanthropist and author of 19 books. He currently hosts the show “Tavis Smiley” on PBS and the radio show “The Tavis Smiley Show” on Public Radio International.
“He’s probably one of the most distinct voices around the issues relating to black America public policy,” said James Peterson, an associate professor of English and the director of Africana studies. “For a long time now he’s been talking about things that I think are important to the social justice issues that we find relevant here at Lehigh, like inequality, race relations, things like that.” 
Smiley has also written a number of books over the last several years, including a memoir on his relationship with the late Maya Angelou.
 
Smiley also spoke of the dangers of poverty in America, arguing that uneven wealth distribution in the U.S. could cause instability and threaten national security.  
 
Smiley criticized President Barack Obama’s lack of action to help the black community. He said in the last 10 years, black people have lost ground in every measurable economic category.  
 
“How in the era of the first black president did the ground fall out under black America?” Smiley asked. 
 
Smiley spoke in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and Colin Kaepernick’s protest during the national anthem. He said you can’t tell people who have been mistreated how to protest their mistreatment.  
 
Smiley finished his speech by talking about the importance of love in public discourse and what he calls “servant leadership” or leading by serving others. 
 
“Lehigh, you can’t lead people unless you love people, and you can’t save people unless you serve people,” he said. 
 
Following Smiley’s speech, members of Lehigh’s Omicron Kappa chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi honored Smiley with the fraternity’s lifetime achievement award. Smiley is a member of the fraternity and was initiated when he attended Indiana University. 
 
A moderated Q&A session with the audience followed the speech. Smiley answered questions on a variety of topics ranging from his personal experiences, the fate of black America and the upcoming election. He also answered questions about his writing for high schoolers in a creative writing program from Lehigh Valley Performing Arts school, a local charter school dedicated to the arts.  
 
“It was very interesting to hear him speak about social events in a way that wasn’t someone ranting like they do nowadays,” said Rory Pelzel, a student from LVPA. “It touches me that he gets this through to people in a way that’s kind and understanding of people’s views.”
 
Smiley’s talk was part of the larger Notations series run by Lehigh’s creative writing department and Zoellner Arts Center. The Africana studies department also helped bring Smiley to Lehigh. 
 
“He is a prolific and very talented writer, and so we wanted to bring someone who is an exemplar of what excellence is in the literary arts,” said Stephanie Powell Watts, an associate professor of English. “We need someone who has been in various parts of social and political life, and so we thought he could speak to lots of different points of view and different constituencies and have something valuable and substantive to say in all of those disciplines.” 
 
The Notations series, which has run for seven years, aims to host prominent writers of different backgrounds who appeal to the both the Lehigh and local communities. Lehigh will host poet and activist Nikki Giovanni on Oct. 20. 

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1 Comment

  1. Robert Davenport on

    “you can’t tell people who have been mistreated how to protest their mistreatment” You also can’t tell people how to stop mistreating others. Margarida Da Graca, see another B/W article, seems to be an individual who concentrates on “us” rather than “them” When we all become “us” mistreatment will become less of a problem.

    “Lehigh, you can’t lead people unless you love people, and you can’t save people unless you serve people”; love and serve provides a basis for solving the problem of mistreatment.

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