Political activist, talk show host and author Tavis Smiley, uses his media platforms to interview leaders of modern-day American culture, entertainment and politics.
Thursday night Smiley took to the stage of Lee Hall Auditorium to challenge the common definition of leadership.
Florida A&M University was the first stop on Smiley’s Talented Tenth HBCU Tour 2007, which will visit five historically black colleges and universities.
He said the people who want to be regarded for greatness should examine the lives they are leading and the legacies they are leaving.
“I love Kanye West, love 50 Cent, but that fight ain’t gon’ be recorded in history,” Smiley said during the pre-show press conference.
“History will regard you for loving and serving people…that’s why we still talk about Gandhi, King, Mandela and others.”
Smiley borrowed his definition of leadership from the person he considers the smartest black person in America, intellectual Cornel West.
“You can’t lead people if you don’t love people; you can’t save people if you don’t serve people,” he said. “So you must ask, what’s the depth of your love, and what’s the quality of your service?”
The president of FAMU’s National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Andrew Collins, said he believes certain organizations today, including Greek organizations, are living up to Smiley’s standard of leadership based on love and service.
“Unfortunately people focus on the party part, and I think Greeks are perceived in that light,” said Collins, 21, of Atlanta. “What people don’t realize is most of our efforts are geared toward service.”
Next week Smiley will hold the first Republican All-American Presidential Forum on PBS. It is the first time such candidates will address a panel exclusively comprised of minority journalists.
Smiley was also part of history when the book he edited, “Covenant With Black America,” reached number one on “The New York Times Bestseller List.”
Despite these accomplishments, Smiley was hesitant to acknowledge anyone as a current leader of black America.
Graduate student William Mitchell said he was inspired by Smiley’s speech, but felt that Smiley’s failure to hold anyone accountable was taking the easy way out.
“He’s in a position and people look to him for leadership, but he did not want to call anyone out as a good leader or bad leader,” said Mitchell, 24 from Cedar Hill, Texas. “He stayed in the middle.”
The HBCU tour’s title refers to the controversial “Talented Tenth” theory by sociologist and scholar W.E.B. DuBois. The theory presents the idea that one-tenth of the black community can obtain the knowledge and success to uplift the entire race. Smiley said he disagrees with the notion that a community must have one leader.
“In every generation, we have to find the 10 percent willing to step up in the Kingian tradition of love and service,” he said.
Lt. Cmdr. Mark Bowman said the U.S. Navy chose to sponsor the tour because the “Talented Tenth” can be found at HBCUs.
He said FAMU was a strong choice to kick off the event because it was selected by Black Enterprise as the number one school for black students.
The other four universities are North Carolina A&T University, which is the top producer of black engineers, Morehouse College, Prairie View A&M University and Tennessee State University, which Bowman said also has a strong engineering program.
“The onus is on all of us to make sure they matriculate, have opportunities after they graduate and develop their potential,” said Bowman, a 1992 FAMU graduate.
Student and hip-hop artist Nathaniel Courtney, 25, said he was motivated to attend Smiley’s speech after watching an episode of “The Tavis Smiley” show featuring rap group Public Enemy. Artist Chuck D said on the broadcast that today’s hip-hop is bubble gum music.
Courtney, who goes by the name majesty or “Nat”e Turner, said he found it difficult to get a record deal, while using positive lyrics and trying to encourage other rappers to do the same.
“I feel it’s my personal responsibility because we have kids who are influenced by the music, and they believe it’s truthful,” said Courtney, a senior business student from Gainesville. “I want them to know it’s another way to live.”
Smiley said with the “three C’s” courage, conviction and commitment, students can live better lives and practice becoming great leaders.