December 5th, 2016, by

‘Talk about intimidation’

It was 1998, and I was on my way to Cuba as part of a select U.S. delegation that had been invited to tour the small island nation.

We were to meet with government officials, businessmen, musical and visual artists, leaders of the Afro-Cuban community and everyday people, to get a sense of what life was like for Cubans living under the Castro regime.

As it turned out, a few of us in the delegation ended up having an impromptu off the record conversation with Assata Shakur, the Black Panther Party social activist who’s been living in Cuba for over three decades, after escaping a New Jersey prison in 1979. Shakur was pulled over by New Jersey State Police in May of 1973, shot twice and then charged with the murder of a police officer. Shakur is the first woman to be placed on the FBI “Most Wanted Terrorists List” and New Jersey governor Chris Christie has called for her extradition from Cuba. Shakur has always maintained her innocence, and like the champion boxer, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, she claims that she too was set-up by New Jersey police.

I knew Shakur lived on the island, but as a young twenty-something black broadcaster, I was overwhelmed with the opportunity to actually engage her in conversation. Pardon the pun, but it felt like a coup.

Now, if only Fidel Castro would grant us an audience.

We’d been told that Castro was aware of our presence in Havana and that, if at all possible, he’d at least try to greet us. I had brought my film crew with me and held out hope for a conversation with him. But on the final day of our trip, it was clear to me that it wasn’t going to happen.

And then, around midnight, about eight hours before I was to fly back to the U.S., the call came that Castro would indeed see us. I guess people who take over in a coup d’etat tend to be nocturnal.

I went running up and down the hotel hallways banging on doors and waking up colleagues with the enthusiasm of a kid on Christmas morning.

Within minutes, our delegation loaded into the bus, and after a ride that felt like forever to me and the butterflies in my stomach, we arrived.

We cleared security and stood around in the foyer chatting and awaiting further instruction when Castro just appeared. I had my back turned when he walked up to us, but aside from seeing the looks in my associates’ eyes, I could feel the power of his presence behind me. I slowly turned, and there he was. The military fatigues, the beard, the stare. Talk about intimidation. Man. Without saying a word, he stuck out his hand, I obliged, looking him right back in the eye.

Moments later, after greeting our delegation one by one, we were ushered into a conference room where he sat to talk with us. I sat directly across the table from him, so that I could be in the frame with him when my cameras started to roll.

I had never met a dictator before, but after a few minutes of looking and listening to him, I could see how he’d pulled this off for 40 years. The power of his presence was palpable. Rarely had I met anyone with such charisma and charm.

And, yet, I had plenty questions. We all had questions.

Problem was, Castro was long-winded. But not like Bill Clinton long-winded. This guy didn’t come up for air. He was famous for his hours-long speeches, but I had only brought so much videotape for our recorded conversation. (There was no digital back then.)

In any event, Castro talked for hours. We got about six questions in.

Seriously. Speaking to us in Spanish through his translator, he would only come up for air when she hadn’t properly articulated a particular nuance in his statement. He’d stop her, tell us in perfect English what he really said, and go right back to speaking Spanish. He wanted us to be abundantly clear about his positions on all manner of issues between our two countries.

At one point I tried to interrupt him, and he gave me that Dikembe Mutombo finger wag. No, sir. I eventually succeeded in telling him that we were out of tape. He smiled and said in English, “I was just getting started!” He kindly invited us to breakfast as the sun was about to come up, but, alas, we had planes to catch.

At the end of our all-nighter, I asked him to sign a book for me. A coffee table book called Fidel’s Cuba: A Revolution In Pictures that had just been published, commemorating his 40th anniversary as Cuban leader. The book was curated by his long time photographers, father and son Osvaldo and Roberto Salas.

What a mistake.

When Castro saw the book, he again looked me dead in the eye and sternly asked me in English, “Where did you get this book?”

A quiet fell over the room. I took a deep breath.

“The publisher,” I replied.

“Why do you have this book and I do not?” he asked.

Since the book was published by a U.S. imprint, I’d apparently received my copy before he’d received his, and he was none too happy.

And, so, like a fool, back and forth I went with Fidel Castro arguing about this book that he desperately wanted to keep. He even offered to sign a copy and send it to me in Los Angeles when his stash arrived. I had no intention of giving in to him, not to mention, I didn’t want the FBI and CIA knocking on my door asking me why Fidel Castro was sending

me personal packages.

I knew I’d likely never get that close to Castro again, and I begged him to please sign it for me. After he saw my fierce determination to leave Cuba with that book, he eventually relented, albeit under protest, and signed the book.

Once everyone had cleared out of the room to re-board our bus, I snuck around to his side of the table, looked about, and seeing no one, I snatched all the handwritten notes he’d been scribbling during our chat. It only occurred to me later that I was, in fact, guilty of stealing Fidel Castro’s notes. My friends in that delegation still tease me about it to this very day. Now that he’s gone, I guess I can confess it.

For good measure, Castro graciously gave me a box of cigars, which I just knew I’d have trouble getting out of Cuba. With only a hint of sarcasm, he told me to just show the customs personnel his signature in my book, and I’d be OK. He was right. I’ve never been treated as well by airport security as I was that day.

Like him or loathe him, Fidel Castro withstood our efforts to topple him for almost 50 years. I only had to stand up to him for about 15 minutes, but I’m glad I did.

 

 

A version of this article appears online for Time Magazine. Tavis Smiley is a contributor to Time Magazine, is managing editor of Tavis Smiley on PBS and author of 50 for Your Future: Lessons from Down the Road.  Follow him on Twitter @TavisSmiley.

November 30th, 2016, by

Kathy Griffin shares her hilarious run-in with ‘The Night Stalker’ in this web exclusive clip.

November 1st, 2016, by

 

One week before what’s shaping up to be an historic presidential election, Tavis Smiley hosts a presidential forum featuring third party candidates Dr. Jill Stein and Gov. Gary Johnson. Watch below as the candidates answer questions selected from social media.

 

(View full post to see video)

 

June 6th, 2016, by

When news broke that Muhammad Ali had passed away after a 32-year battle with Parkinson’s, the tweets and tributes started posting,  immediately and furiously.

Everyone, it seemed, had something to say about the greatness of the Greatest of All Time. I guess he was right, after all.

It is a testament to Ali that the accolades were coming from everywhere; the political left and right, Hillary and Donald, entertainers and educators, the elite and everyday people, his close friends and adoring fans, domestic and international. The trendsetter was trending.

In truth, we all want to be loved, respected, appreciated and acknowledged. That’s not egoistic, that’s a part of the human condition. Ali got his fair share, but he earned it. The hard way.

Nothing is as uncommon these days as courage, and Ali seemed to always have it in spades.

I consider myself blessed beyond measure to have befriended the champ, having first met him back in the late ’80s when I was a young aide to Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley. I’ll never forget the summer of 1990 when Nelson Mandela arrived in Los Angeles near the end of his 11-day national tour. I was just 25 years old; Mandela had been in prison longer than I’d been living.

Mandela was first to deliver a speech on the steps of City Hall to thousands upon thousands of fellow citizens who were perched in trees and had spilled out into the streets of downtown Los Angeles, excited to glimpse the man who had spent 27 years in prison for adhering to the courage of his convictions. Once inside the mayor’s office, Mandela wondered if it would be possible to greet Muhammad Ali before the program was to begin. So the mayor asked me to go outside on the platform and summon the champ.

That happened over 25 years ago and I still don’t have a language to tell you what it felt like to be in the middle of a huddle with Ali and Mandela. I can still see the look on Mandela’s face when he first laid eyes on Ali. The champ and I had to walk down a long corridor to get to Mandela and the mayor. By the time we got to the end of the hallway where these two iconic men would meet, Mandela and his South African entourage were literally dancing in the hallways and chanting, “Ali! Ali! Ali!”

Oh my.

I was just an aide and I knew my place. So I just stood there. In a moment of sublime and unspeakable joy. Watching the embrace of the two most courageous men I’d ever met. I was grateful to bear witness to a moment that I would hold forever. I have learned that life is more about moments than milestones, and I try hard to stay present in the moment.

I knew my place, but I also knew how to take advantage of that precious moment, and I went on to establish a relationship with Ali that would over the years lead to a friendship, brotherhood and many hours spent talking in private and on television together.

Around the time I first met Ali, I met another American original who also left an indelible imprint on American culture and on everyone she met — Maya Angelou. I was blessed with the glorious gift of her friendship for 28 years, and we talked often of art, beauty, politics and history, music, religion and race. But for the entirety of our unlikely friendship, we debated whether love or courage was the greatest virtue, a question she first posed to me over dinner in Accra, Ghana.

I argued love, she argued courage. I argued that it takes love to animate courage. She argued that it takes courage to love. For 28 years we had this ongoing debate, love versus courage.

When I think of Muhammad Ali, I think first not of his dominance inside the ring, but rather of his profound courage and deep love for all of humanity.

Courage is in short supply these days. Too many of us are crippled in our ability to act courageously, to risk anything that doesn’t present some potential for self-aggrandizement. And, yet, the people we most admire — Mandela, Maya and Muhammad — did the exact opposite. We revere them because they were noble risk takers who remind us that courage is contagious.  But courage begins in small ways, small settings, small acts. We need a program of courage conditioning. You have to exercise courage like a muscle. Start building courage by discouraging insensitive and degrading comments from friends. It grows when you defend someone against others when it’s not the convenient thing to do. It grows more when you make the right choices even when no one is aware or around to give you credit.

That’s how Ali became Ali, baby steps, through courage conditioning. He trained to be courageous, just as surely as he trained to be the heavyweight champion of the world.

You might not ever be a world champion, but you can muster the courage to authorize your own reality, and live by your hopes, not by your fears.

With courage, you can be a champion for others. Just like Ali.

A version of this article appears online at USA TODAY.  Tavis Smiley, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors, is managing editor of Tavis Smiley on PBS and author of the forthcoming book Before You Judge Me: The Triumph and Tragedy of Michael Jackson’s Last Days.  Follow him on Twitter @TavisSmiley.

Click here to view Tavis’s CBS “Sunday Morning” video commentary about Muhammad Ali.

February 16th, 2016, by
(View full post to see video)

Singer-Songwriter Glen Hansard

Grammy, Oscar and Tony award-winning singer and songwriter, Glen Hansard performs live on the Tavis Smiley Show.

STAFF & GUEST BLOG
April 1st, 2015, by
(View full post to see video)

Our panel of Detroit activists takes questions from the audience at Wayne State University.

As part of our weeklong look at Detroit and how the highly touted revitalization is affecting all its residents, we convened a town hall meeting, which immediately followed our grass roots activist panel.  Our intention in doing this was to provide a forum for Detroiters to express their concerns about their community without any restrictions about what could be said, as well as ask questions both of me and the panel.  As you’ll see, many Detroiters took issue with some of the decisions that have been made — from the efficacy of the bankruptcy to the rebuilding of Downtown Detroit at the expense of other communities.

 

 

STAFF & GUEST BLOG
March 24th, 2015, by
(View full post to see video)

Aired: March 23, 2015

TRANSCRIPT:

Tavis: Detroit, welcome two of your own, BeBe and Marvin Winans.

[applause]

Marvin Winans: Hello, Detroit!

Tavis: The new project is called “3 Winans Brothers: Foreign Land”. I only see two Winans brothers. Should I grab a microphone?

BeBe Winans: No, no, no, no. Don’t you worry about that.

Tavis: Thank you.

BeBe Winans: Don’t you worry about that. We got that covered [laugh]. No, no, no. His twin, he’s just gonna sing his twin.

Marvin Winans: He’s tied up, that’s all.

Tavis: Marvin and Carvin.

Marvin Winans: That’s it.

BeBe Winans: Marvin and Carvin.

Tavis: Tell me about the new project.

BeBe Winans: A project that I called just an idea of doing this hit my mind and I called Marvin and said, “Let’s do this.” It’s the first time that we’ve done a project together since my brother Ronald passed. So he said yes and he called his twin and there you have it.

Tavis: Musically, what’s on here?

Marvin Winans: I think it is a wonderful compilation of the writing of three Winan brothers. All of it was written by Carvin, BeBe and I and I’m very proud, you know. I taught them how to write [laugh] and they learned well. And I’m very proud of it and I think there’s something for everyone, yeah.

Tavis: I feel a family feud about to break out. And since they won’t let me sing anyway, I’m going to walk off the stage after I tell you the new project once again is called “3 Winans Brothers”. It’s called “Foreign Land”.

They’re going to sing a track tonight called “I Really Miss You”. They’ll back with us on Friday night, but tonight “I Really Miss You”. Please welcome BeBe and Marvin Winans.

[ applause ]

[Performance]

[applause]

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

[Walmart Sponsor Ad]

Tavis: This program was made possible with support from the Ford Foundation working with visionaries on the front lines of social change worldwide, the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, a partner with communities where children come first.

Created in 1960, The Skillman Foundation is committed to improving meaningful graduation rates in the Detroit region so kids are ready for college, career and life. Kids matter here.

Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

 

STAFF & GUEST BLOG
November 21st, 2014, by

BY ROBERT M. ENTMAN and ANDREW ROJECKI, authors of The Black Image in the White Mind

Dr. Robert M. Entman (pictured far left) is professor of media & public affairs at The George Washington University & author of Scandal and Silence: Media Responses to Presidential Misconduct. Dr. Andrew Rojecki (pictured immediate left) is associate professor and director of graduate studies in the Department of Communication at the University of Illinois, Chicago.

[Any views or opinions expressed in this post are solely those of the respective author and do not represent those of PBS. The Smiley Group, Inc. is responsible for the content of this blog site.]

In The Black Image in the White Mind, we argued that white Americans were conflicted in their attitudes about race. Barack Obama’s remarkable rise to the presidency and the troubled course of his administration illustrated the racial ambivalence of the nation: a rapid and unprecedented rise to popularity followed by opponents’ racially tinged campaign to diminish his legitimacy and power as president.

While some scholars claimed that the new attitudes merely responded to changed norms that made it impolite or impolitic to express bias, others argued that racialized attitudes had simply become insensible to those who considered themselves free of bias. Psychologists at Harvard, the University of Virginia and the University of Washington devised a test that revealed these attitudes in an online test of what they call implicit bias.

We have asked students in our classes to take the test, and a number were surprised about what lurked in their unconscious minds. Having been steeped in American culture’s racial stereotypes made them susceptible to biased judgments that flew under their conscious radar. Research by Tali Mendelberg and others revealed the influence of implicit bias in political campaigns that used what might be called “dog whistles,” images or messages that associated candidates with negative racialized thoughts.

In our research on the 2012 Presidential campaign, we found that partisan media commentators used language such as “takers” to describe Barack Obama’s constituents. Obama himself was characterized as a “Santa Claus” passing out “free stuff” to his dependent supporters. Experimental evidence for the subtly racialized nature of political language and thinking can be found in research that shows a 20 percent drop in support for the language of the Affordable Care Act, identical to that proposed by Bill Clinton in 1993, when Barack Obama’s name is mentioned.

Not just political discourse but public policy sustains implicit racial biases. Among the most important policy changes since the 1980s are the laws arising from the “War on Drugs.” They have contributed to depriving black working-class neighborhoods of the social capital and informal neighborhood monitoring essential to basic levels of material and personal security. A feedback loop of crime news on local media and white impressions of black lawlessness supports the drug war’s “school to prison pipeline,” as well as stereotypes that bolster whites’ support for harsh treatment of black offenders.

A recent experimental study by Stanford psychologists shows that when whites are exposed to the reality of extreme racial differences in law enforcement, they express increased acceptance of punitive policies. Learning of racial disparities leads whites to support the very policies that produced higher crime rates in black neighborhoods and associate blacks with dangerous criminality, thus perpetuating a vicious cycle we recently witnessed in Ferguson, Missouri.

We continue to believe that race plays a powerful if subtle role in whites’ worldviews, and that the election of Barack Obama represented a profound wish among whites to get beyond the issue. As we concluded in the Black Image in the White Mind, the wish remains a laudable ideal rather than a reality.

The Entman-Rojecki Index of Race and the Media

STAFF & GUEST BLOG
November 9th, 2014, by

BY NATE PARKER, Show Guest on November 10, 2014

An actor, writer and director, Parker is not only passionate about his craft, but equally committed to mentoring young people and making a difference in his community.

[Any views or opinions expressed in this post are solely those of the respective author and do not represent those of PBS. The Smiley Group, Inc. is responsible for the content of this blog site.]

We live in a country where the amount of melanin in one’s skin has a direct effect on the safety, perceived humanity, life expectancy and educational outcomes of its citizens. In a land of unprecedented wealth and supposed opportunity, how is this possible?

The truth is, there are two Americas.

There is one America where law enforcement is conditioned to protect and serve its citizens. Where media imagery reflects, reinforces and normalizes the quiet infrastructure of white supremacy and privilege. Where understanding America’s history of racial violence and inequality is unnecessary amidst the luxury of indifference. Where the unjust destruction of innocent life is met with sweeping response and immediate consequence. Where the judicial system stands by its mantra of innocent until proven guilty, giving life to policies that ensure fairness, freedom and the pursuit of happiness.

And then there is the other America…

This is the America where law enforcement is conditioned to distrust and terrorize its citizens. Where media imagery reflects and reinforces the pervasive presumption of black inferiority, broadcasting notions of black (in) humanity abroad. One where understanding America’s history of racial violence and inequality has become the life-blood of social, economic, cultural, psychological and physical survival. Where the judicial system’s mantra remains guilty until proven innocent. Where American citizens are criminalized at exponentially expanding rates, resulting in the robbing of black communities, cyclical disfranchisement and generational slave labor made manifest today in the prison industrial complex (see the 13th amendment).

Of course there are exceptions:

The black neighbor living in the affluent neighborhood. The black youth who grows up frequenting his white friend’s house for sleepovers. The election of President Barack Obama.

Yet these exceptions are just that, and should direct us to the rule, to the truth:

Because the truth is, that lone black neighbor is more likely to be profiled while standing outside his own home. That young black man is nearly five times more likely to be killed by a gun than the young white man. And, sadly, if our president decided one night to take a lonesome stroll through the dark streets of Washington, D.C. unaccompanied by his security detail, his life would indeed be in danger.

We can no longer ignore the reality that black lives rank lower on the human value scale in America. Statistical analysis is only part of the story; the other part is personal.

It lies in the fact that, as a nation, we barely react to the news that more black youth have been gunned down by the very police charged with protecting them. It lies in our lack of surprise as jury after jury fails to hand down indictments. It lies even in the prevalence of black-on-black crime and the realization that white citizens are safer in black neighborhoods than are black citizens. It lies in the desperate measures many black parents take to transplant their children to white schools to bypass the educational genocide plaguing so many schools in black communities.

Systematic dehumanization in the U.S. is not only a class thing. It’s an American thing.

It is motivated in part by our failure to recognize its roots in the history of racial slavery and the history of American racial violence and inequality that has extended well beyond emancipation. A legacy that includes a daily dose of physical, emotional and psychological trauma that shapes each and every American today.

Far fetched? In 1787, the United States deemed African-Americans 3/5 of a human being. This in a country that simultaneously declared, “All men are created equal.” Many argue we have progressed as a nation. And in some ways this is true.

However, in light of the cavalier manner in which the humanity of black people was legislated away in that compromise, I often wonder: at what point did we collectively re-authorize that humanity? At what point were black Americans re-classified, re-legislated as human beings who possessed equal worth and who deserved all of the things associated with human life in this country?

Was it with the passing of the 13th Amendment in 1865? The Civil Rights Act of 1964? The Voting Rights Act of 1965? The founding of Black History Month in 1976? The election of the nation’s first president of African descent?

The reality is that the full-ness of black humanity has yet to be recognized in the United States.

Rarely in the history of the world has any other group been de-humanized in this way, on a racial basis, solely to further economic profit. We don’t have a plan to address the traumatic legacies of slavery and the post-emancipation era because without confronting that history, there is no process by which a nation could collectively restore human status to a people. As historian Tim Tyson of Duke University has noted, “Any psychiatrist will tell you, genuine healing requires a candid confrontation with our past. If there is to be true healing there must first be reconciliation.”

Racism, white supremacy, black inferiority, police brutality, black-on-black crime and white fear are all symptomatic of our unwillingness to face our collective and communal past with honesty and genuine reflection. Our refusal to ponder the idea that the current racial divide in this country has an inseparable connection to the events of our country’s past, to the roots of our tree.

There is a divide in America. Not one of Democrats and Republicans, but a divide of the ugliest kind. One that survives on ignorance and thrives on indifference. One that threatens this generation and every generation in this country to come.

If we cannot address this divide, from its roots, we may expect more destruction of life, more riots, more anger, more fear. This is the most pressing challenge facing America today. More than the economy, foreign policy, or energy, though the ultimate fate of these policy dilemmas will be informed by this, too.

We tout ourselves a nation set apart by its freedoms. We pride ourselves on our courage to preserve life and liberties abroad. The land of the free. The home of the brave. If ever there was a time for America to be brave, it is now, for in the words of Abraham Lincoln, “If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand.”

STAFF & GUEST BLOG
November 3rd, 2014, by

BY ROBERT WEISSMAN, Show Guest on October 30, 2014


Weissman is president of Public Citizen and an expert on economic, healthcare, trade and globalization, intellectual property and regulatory policy, and issues related to financial accountability and corporate responsibility. His top priorities include climate change, healthcare reform, financial regulation and campaign finance reform.

[Any views or opinions expressed in this post are solely those of the respective author and do not represent those of PBS. The Smiley Group, Inc. is responsible for the content of this blog site.]

It matters a great deal who wins the 2014 elections. On the other hand, we know that whatever the eventual outcome, the corporate class has already won.

Enabled by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, billionaires and corporations have grabbed control of our elections. More money than ever is being spent—an estimated $4 billion in reported federal expenditures for this election, a record for a mid-term, though the actual amount is surely higher. But more significant than the actual amounts are the rising expenditures by outside organizations—Super PACs, social welfare organizations and trade associations—not connected to the candidates. These organizations concentrate their spending on the close races—often spending far more than the candidates themselves—so their influence is concentrated where it matters most.

These outside groups will report spending approximately $1 billion, though we’ll never know how much they truly throw at the election, because much of it is not required to be reported. A third or more of that spending is coming from Dark Money organizations, which don’t have to reveal their donors. The biggest centers of Dark Money are the organizations affiliated with the anti-government extremist Koch Brothers, Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the leading trade association for big business.

For the Super PACs that do report their donors, we know that a very tiny number of people are overwhelming voters with their dollars. Just 42 people are responsible for a third of the $600 million raised by Super PACs. 42 people!

What do donors get for their extraordinary contributions? At the individual level, they get special access and special favors. But much more important is the systemic effect of their spending: With their heavy advertising, they define election races, often taking control of election narratives from candidates. They have a huge influence over who is elected; and even over who will consider running. Once the election is over, they help shape what Congress does—and does not do.

The vast majority of Americans want to raise the minimum wage. They want policies to advance income and wealth equality. Americans want Wall Street criminals put behind bars. By a more than two-to-one margin, Americans oppose more NAFTA-style trade agreements. Americans want investment in our schools, on sustainable transportation and infrastructure. They want policies to prevent catastrophic climate change. They want to protect—and improve—Social Security and Medicare.

So, why isn’t Congress raising the minimum wage and addressing income inequality? Why aren’t prosecutors going after Wall Street wrongdoers? Why is the president trying to negotiate NAFTA-style deals with Asia and Europe? Why aren’t we investing in our future? Why is Congress threatening the modest climate change policies of the Obama administration? Why do we face the prospect of Social Security and Medicare cuts again appearing on the Congressional agenda?

The giant campaign donations by the billionaires and corporations aren’t the only answer to those questions, but they are a big part of it. If we want America to deliver on its promise—if we want to advance justice and democracy, fairness and ecological sustainability; if we want everyone to get a fair shot—then we have to deal with the campaign finance system. A first step would be to require disclosure of all campaign-related spending by large corporations, so we at least know what companies are spending. The Securities and Exchange Commission should adopt a rule to require such disclosures immediately. In the longer term, we need to replace the current campaign spending system altogether with one that relies on small donors and public financing. But replacing the current system—including the outrage of billionaires and corporations dominating our elections with outside spending—will require overturning Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United. And that will take a constitutional amendment—something hard to do, by design, but something We the People have done time and again to strengthen our democracy.

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