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Podcast #56: Tavis Smiley on Maya Angelou

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Tavis Smiley's daily podcast Tavis Talks is a popular news and opinion program from BlogTalkRadio. He also currently hosts Tavis Smiley on PBS and The Tavis Smiley Show on PRI. But Smiley has been a well-known personality since 1991, becoming an important media figure, author, editor, and entrepreneur. In 2008, he received the Du Bois Medal from Harvard University's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. Recently, Smiley appeared at Books at Noon and we're pleased to present the talk for this week's episode of the New York Public Library podcast. In this episode you'll hear Smiley discuss his long friendship with the late Maya Angelou.

Smiley and Angelou
Maya Angelou and Tavis Smiley

Tavis Smiley spoke about a pivotal trip to Africa he took with Maya Angelou:

“That trip, being exposed to Maya and all these other personalities that I mentioned earlier, sitting and listening and talking to her: I'm a twenty-something year-old kid, and for young black men this just doesn't happen. This just doesn't happen that young black men are told that their lives matter. It's a much larger conversation, given what we are witnessing every day in this country, in New York, and beyond. I won't get into that now. But to be told that you matter and to be told that your opinions matter, and to be asked what you think about this, that, and the other, and to be invited to interrogate this world class intellectual, to be invited to disagree with her (she wants to know why you feel this way; she wants this exchange): who does that? Who has this experience as a twenty-something year-old black man in this country? And who has this up against Maya Angelou? That just doesn't happen. So the journey of me figuring out that there was something in the world for me to do, that I had a voice, that I had a gift, and that I had to use that, that whole journey begins in this two week period when we're in Africa.”

There were a number of subjects Smiley and Angelou discussed during their twenty-eight year relationship, and sometimes the two did disagree on topics such as Clarence Thomas and the N word. Smiley noted that one of the reasons they were able to have great conversations is that they admitted inquisitiveness and plasticity into their talks:

“What great conversation does, and I attempt to do this every night on PBS, I think what great conversation does is it challenges us to reexamine the assumptions that we hold. It helps us to expand our inventory of ideas. That's what great conversation does. And so, Maya Angelou was never afraid to have her assumptions reexamined. She was always interested, as a curious person, in expanding her inventory of ideas and perhaps rethinking her worldview. She was always open to that.”

Part of the magic of Smiley's relationship with Angelou was her ability to connect him with those he admired, even when it was no longer possible to meet them:

“Maya was a sort of cosmic connection to all of the people who I wish I had known. She was my cosmic connection to James Baldwin, her dear friend. She was my cosmic connection to Malcolm X, her friend. My cosmic connection to my hero, Dr. King, who was her friend. And how special does that make Maya that she was friend to both Malcolm and to Martin? Think about that. She's my connection to Nina Simone… On, on, on the list goes.”

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interview with Tavis

Thank you for this important interview. After listening to it, I am sure that I do not believe Tavis's simplistic explanation of the journey of his sister Phyllis's life. I read his book "What I Know For Sure" and I don't think that the beating him and his sister suffered is responsible for EVERYTHING that happened in Phyllis's life after the beating in the way that Tavis describes. Like his understanding of the N-word, I think it is more nuanced than that. Phyllis's experience is a result of a colorful path that God allowed her to take; her experience is not a catalogue of tragedy following the beating of her father. Otherwise, this was an interesting interview! Tavis Smiley is a big mentor and inspiration to me! I interviewed him in 2003 for WBAI radio about his then Pass the Mic tour. I just hope his book could talk more about the politics of the people he met more than his schmoozing with them. This book seems to be an incredibly rich teaching tool...-RF.

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