One doesn’t just read The Covenant With Black America. Rather, to read this nonfiction manifesto-cum-workbook is to become part of a multimedia movement aimed at increasing black political and economic power.
While it’s hard to judge now whether this movement will have legs, the fact that the book hit the New York Times bestseller list in March and continues selling like hot cakes suggests that its message is striking a chord with lots of Americans. Its publisher, the Chicago-based Third World Press–the nation’s largest independent black-owned press–has shipped more than 400,000 copies since its publication early this year.
The man responsible for editing The Covenant and masterminding its omnibus approach is Tavis Smiley, a self-described journalist-activist viewed by some as a brilliant, modern-day cross between Marcus Garvey and Martin Luther King Jr., and by others as a self-promoter. Whatever the case–and both perceptions may be accurate–Smiley has perfected a linking of different media vehicles that is noteworthy: He hosts a two-hour weekly radio talk show; a half-hour late-night talk show; a popular website, tavistalks.com; and a vast public-speaking, book-publishing and foundation enterprise. “He is using the best of our new communication outlets to both energize and educate the community and is doing it in the King tradition. This is unprecedented,” said Cornel West, professor of religion at Princeton and a frequent commentator on Smiley’s nationally syndicated Public Radio International (PRI) talk program, The Tavis Smiley Show.
Reflecting perhaps Smiley’s determined if peripatetic sensibility, The Covenant requires Dear Reader to exercise an interesting kind of cognitive double duty: While reading its brief essays by leading black scholars, activists and politicos (including West; former US Surgeon General David Satcher; and Oleta Garrett Fitzgerald, Southern regional director of the Children’s Defense Fund) and its brief recommendations for activism, one is constantly aware of Smiley himself. Though his introduction to The Covenant is brief, Smiley reigns unmistakably throughout the text, hovering over the shoulder of each contributor.
In The Covenant‘s bite-sized chapters, its checklists, its brief boldface subtitles, we get relentless if subtle reminders of Smiley’s catch-all approach to Improving the Lot of Black Folk. As I reached its end, my overwhelming reaction was: Whew. Thank goodness he’s using his power for good.
For the record, Smiley doesn’t claim affiliation with any political party but says unequivocally that his worldview was shaped by the life, letters and work of Martin Luther King Jr.; moreover, during his long stint as a commentator on the wildly popular, nationally syndicated urban radio program The Tom Joyner Morning Show, Smiley regularly covered progressive issues.
Then there are his philanthropic efforts, including a million-dollar endowment in 2004 for the journalism school at Texas Southern University, a historically black college. That gift was separate from Smiley’s ongoing scholarships, which are funded in part by big corporations, and which provide modest, one-time scholarships to African-American high school students. His annual State of the Black Union conferences draw thousands of civic-minded audience members, and possibly a few million more via C-SPAN broadcasts. More than any other Smiley enterprise, the conferences have become high-profile extensions of Smiley’s activism. And since their inception nearly a decade ago, these conferences have made it clear that political leaders see Smiley as a force to contend with. At this year’s gathering in February in Houston, for example, Smiley read statements from Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean and Republican National Committee chair Ken Mehlman, in which both men essentially pledged on behalf of their respective parties to pay attention to the needs of black Americans.