Tavis Smiley presents the Ultra Americans at Chicago conference on the ‘black agenda’

Mike Riggs Contributor
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Any Chicagoan who thought the election of America’s first black president would inspire black opinion leaders to come up with something new to say probably had a miserable time last weekend. Especially if they were listening to Michael Eric Dyson.

“We must have prophets who tell the truth,” Dyson preached in Chicago on Saturday. “And we are here to do that!” A half-capacity audience clapped lightly.

The highly quotable Georgetown professor didn’t seem particularly concerned by the tepid response, but PBS host Tavis Smiley was perturbed. He had flown Dyson, Cornel West, Louis Farrakhan, Jesse Jackson and others to the South Side to discuss the “black agenda” — and whether Barack Obama even has one — and CSPAN had shut them out, rescinding its promise to broadcast the event and instead covering the House debate of the president’s health plan.

“We Count! The Black Agenda is the American Agenda” was thick with Nation of Islam members in suits and bow ties herding conference attendees, separated by gender, through metal detectors.

The only other white person in my line tried (and failed) to entice a young Rastafarian to join the Green Party, even though documentary filmmaker and writer LeAlan Marvin Jones is running for Obama’s Illinois Senate seat as a Green, and 9/11 Truther and former Georgia Rep. Cynthia McKinney ran for president as a Green in 2008. Census workers handing out goodie bags had better luck — and Chicago State University president Wayne Watson, in his opening remarks, encouraged “everyone to complete the Census form to be counted so that these critical dollars can be used most effectively to benefit the communities and programs that need them the most.”

Following Watson’s introduction and a prayer by a Catholic priest, Smiley asked his panelists, “Is there a need for a black agenda?” And is it “reductionist” and “exclusionary”?

“We are not un-American,” answered Dyson. “We are Ultra American,” and America must “look beyond the reality of racism, not race.”

Obama “is not the president of black America, he’s the president of all America,” Smiley said, reiterating that his sentiments were “rooted in love.” He earlier had placed a large, white cube bearing the word “love” on the panelists’ table to remind them of that. But they seemed to wonder whether Obama was reciprocating.

“I am glad that Barack Obama is president of all America, but black people helped make you president of all America!” West, whose enthusiastic jogging-and-bowing entrance had impressed the crowd, said.

The audience clapped and shouted, “Amen!”

“To have a black face in a high place leads us to forget so many black people are in the basement of the house!”

The clapping grew louder.

“We don’t have to ask permission to talk about black suffering!”

Smiley has hosted events like this for years, but they may be on the wane. He founded the “The State of the Black Union,” which CSPAN carried live since its inception in 2000. Perhaps recognizing that Obama’s State of the Union address rendered his own somewhat redundant, Smiley retired the conference in 2009. On Satursday, CSU’s three-tiered convocation center was barely half-full by the time Smiley’s panel started at 8 a.m. Hundreds of seats close to the the panelists had been set aside for CSU students, but few showed. Event staff spidered up the rows encouraging people, most of them middle-aged or older, to move down to the reserved rows.

Smiley isn’t oblivious to charges that events like his are becoming less relevant. After asking the panelists to explain whether they see a need for a black agenda, he told the audience that he’d received countless critical letters and e-mails since announcing the event three weeks ago. Smiley queried the panel about what black voters had been asked to do since Obama was elected.

“More black Chicagoans die of health disparities a year then died in the terrorist attacks 10 years ago,” the Rev. Jackson responded.

Smiley, slightly stunned, asked him again if Obama had engaged black voters since taking office.

“I want to talk about what blacks are,” Jackson said. And that was that. Smiley’s attempt at policy talk was out.

For several mumbly minutes Jackson bounced from the 3/5ths law to March Madness to the post office, called the black agenda both “the lost sheep agenda” and the “humane agenda,” and finished by saying that the “black agenda is winning.” At which point, West jumped out his chair and began yelling at no one in particular.

While Jackson’s homily took up only a few minutes of what Smiley had billed as a serious discussion of policy, it established a pattern. Some panelists — mostly the older members, like West, Jackson, Nation of Islam leader Farrakhan, and Southern Christian Leadership Conference alumna Dorothy Tillman — came to perform. A few, such as “Brainwashed” author Tom Burrell and Smiley himself, were there to talk ideas. And a third group, composed of PolicyLink founder and Center for American Progress alumnus Angela Blackwell, George Mason University’s Michael Fauntroy, Bennett College president Julianna Malveaux, and former University of Maryland professor Ronald Walters, intended to talk policy. The result was cacophony.

About the only thing that everyone agreed on was that there was a rift between Obama and his black base.

Fauntroy, whose book “Republicans and the Black Vote” attributed the split to the fact that black voters “often don’t understand that when you vote change at the top, you have to vote change all the way down.”

He said he was “a bit skeptical,” of the idea underpinning the panel — that black voters will soon be able to realize greater political power, because “too many of us are happy just to have a black president.”

Tillman — as well as Farrakhan — placed the blame on Obama, and the politicians around him.

“He’s been told, ‘Don’t worry about the black agenda,’” Tillman said.

“Who told him that?” Smiley shot back.

“Oh, the little words in his ears,” Tillman said, making circular motions along the side of her head.

The crowd burst into applause.

Farrakhan, who did not support Obama in 2008 for fear that conservatives would use his radical reputation to smear Obama, expressed doubt that the president could do anything to specifically help underemployed, even if he wanted to.

“The forces that surround power is the real power. President Obama does not run this country. President Obama was chosen to run this country.”

There were serious discussions intertwined with the preaching at “We Count!” but they never lasted long. Ronald Walters observed that the stimulus bill sent more money to states than it did to cities, a dissemination method he said was a “fundamental error” that likely led to fewer stimulus funds going to minority-owned businesses. Dyson’s contribution: “It ain’t no stimulUS, it’s stimuTHEM!”

Burrell, a former advertising executive, argued that to complain about Obama’s lack of engagement with black voters was to perpetuate a sort of self-imposed second-class citizenship. “We are the chief perpetrators of our own victimization,” he said. “Wait on the Lord, wait on your organizations, wait on your governments, and now we’re waiting for our first black president to save us.”

Tillman’s take? “We are America’s dirty little secret. America doesn’t want to deal with reparations.”

When Blackwell and Walters both cited Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and support for immigration reform as examples of how a marginalized minority could secure White House support, Tillman’s response was that the White House was biased in favor of Latin Americans, who are “more a culture than an ethnicity.”

When Smiley claimed that Obama had unfairly distanced himself from the Congressional Black Caucus, he failed to mention that perhaps the president had kept his distance because the CBC has been under investigation by the House ethics committee for what seems like forever. The effect that Smiley’s remarks had were to revive Dorothy Tillman’s rage that Obama listen to Latinos. “[Illinois Rep. Luis] Gutierrez wants to talk jobs — a Latino! — and gets embraced,” she said. “CBC wants to talk jobs, it gets dismissed.”

And the only mention of Capitol Hill — or any hill — didn’t occur until three hours and 15 minutes into the event, and only then as a geographical reference point, not the place where laws are made.

Several people had the gall to point all of this out. The first was Raven G. Curling, a student at CSU and the only panelist under 35, who asked no one in particular why there were not more black people in power in Washington. The other critics were the panel attendees, many of whom during the question-and-answer session asked when black leaders would stop holding panels and figure out a way to actually advance the black agenda.

The responses to these questions were more of the same. “We have to be jazz-like, improvisational,” West said.

“You are trained to come out of here and beg your former slavemasters for a job,” Farrakhan said. “But there are no jobs, so you might as well get ready to build.”

“The agenda was to get the right to vote. We have it. Now get out and vote,” Jackson said.

“We need to be more sophisticated in how we look at political parties,” Fauntroy said.

After the last question was asked and dodged, Tavis Smiley invited his mother on stage, and instructed the audience to join hands for the second time that day. Mother Smiley would pray us out, just like she did at all of Smiley’s conferences.

And pray she did, with ferocity and spirit. After a minute or two of beseeching, Mother Smiley closed by asking that what the panel accomplished Saturday “would not all go to waste.”