Smiley on Black People’s ‘Backstory’

The radio and TV host tells us why the DNC is the perfect backdrop for his black-history exhibit.

Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images
Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images

(The Root) — With “America I Am: The African American Imprint” making its home in Charlotte, N.C., while 35,000 visitors descend on the city for the Democratic National Convention in September, Tavis Smiley is sending a message. “It’s important for Americans to understand that there is a 400- to 500-year backstory to Barack Obama,” the radio and TV host told The Root. “He didn’t just fall out of the heavens.”

From June 30 through Jan. 1, 2013, the exhibit’s more than 200 artifacts, which trace the contributions of African Americans to the history and culture of this country, will fill the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture. The museum is named for the history-making first black mayor of Charlotte, an architect and community leader who has advised the second, and current, African-American mayor, Anthony Foxx, as he prepares to host the convention.

Author and advocate Smiley shepherded the exhibit through its creation and four-year tour. When he spoke with The Root recently, Smiley and professor and author Cornel West had wrapped up their poverty-awareness tour, during which they talked about the challenges and possible solutions explored in their book, The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto.

Though the two have taken heat for their criticism of President Obama, Smiley said that it’s in keeping with “the best of our black prophetic tradition, which in my mind means speaking truth to power and to the powerless.” Smiley talked with The Root about why it’s important for the shapers of democracy in both parties to consider the exhibit and its message about America’s obligation to all of its citizens.

The Root: What is the significance of having this exhibit in an African-American cultural institution during the Democratic National Convention?

Tavis Smiley: Over this summer, history will be made in the city of Charlotte. The first African-American president of the United States will be renominated and the journey will begin once again. There’s a 400- to 500-year journey in this country that makes this moment possible …

And so we want to encourage people while they’re in Charlotte, and those who are going to be coming through Charlotte in the next six months, to take a moment to understand that backstory, to appreciate it, to embrace it, to familiarize themselves with it and to recognize that the country would not be — simply would not be — were it not for the contributions of African Americans, long before and including Barack Obama.

TR: What will visitors learn about the experience of African Americans in this country?

TS: We’ve always been a hopeful people. Optimism suggests to me that there is a particular set of facts or circumstances or conditions … something you can see, feel or touch that gives you reason to believe. That has not been our experience. We are not an optimistic people; we are a hopeful people.

Whatever we have done, we have done it against all the odds. It’s important to understand that African Americans love this country, but we have come to love this country in spite of, oftentimes, not because of.

TR: Which items in the exhibit have you responded to most emotionally?