Melissa Harris-Lacewell Takes Issue With Smiley’s “Stand” and His “Soul Patrol”

I get the feeling she thought Tavis Smiley’s Get on the Bus 2.0, his documentary “Stand” which aired on TV One last month, was lacking a little something.

Its low production value, wandering narrative, flat history and self-important egoism did little to reveal the shortcomings of the Obama phenomenon. Instead, the piece exposed and embodied the contemporary crisis of the black public intellectual in the age of Obama.

The film and its participants (two of them my senior colleagues at Princeton University) appropriated the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. to implicitly claim that they, not Obama, are the authentic representatives of the political interests of African-Americans. They used King’s images and speeches, gathered on the balcony where King was assassinated, and explicitly asserted their desire to play King to Obama’s LBJ, and Frederick Douglass to Obama’s Lincoln.

On its face, this is not a bad model. Presidents are deeply constrained by the structural and political limitations of their office. A robust administration needs an active and informed citizenry to engage, push, cajole, criticize and applaud its efforts.

But this appropriation misrepresents rather than preserves King’s legacy. King was a powerful questioner and, at times, ally of President Johnson because he was at the helm of a massive social movement of men and women who were shut out of the ordinary political process. It was not King’s intellectual capacity or verbal dexterity that made him an effective advocate for racial issues; it was his own accountability to that movement.

This is not true of Smiley and his “soul patrol,” who are mostly public personalities and tenured professors largely unaccountable to the back constituency. King’s meager income, though supplemented by the lecture circuit, was grounded in the voluntary contributions of black churchgoers.

Smiley is backed by powerful corporations, like Wal-Mart and Nationwide, that have troubled relationships with these communities. The college profs on the bus are comfortably supported by well-endowed universities. This does not invalidate their views on race, but it does make the analogy with King a poor fit.

Further, Smiley and his “soul patrol” seemed to have missed the intervening 40 years between the era of King and the election of Obama. African-Americans are no longer fully disfranchised subjects of an oppressive state.

Harris-Lacewell also criticizes Smiley for what she sees as his narrow focus criticism of President Obama on race, arguing that the policies that Smiley suggests and Obama is pushing are both very similar but “Smiley insists on explicit and repeated acknowledgement of race, while Obama typically seeks to address inequality within a racially neutral frame.”

She also was a tad annoyed that the men of “Stand” spent a great deal of time talking about women, but never actually talked to a woman for the documentary.

Read the full story here.

33 thoughts on “Melissa Harris-Lacewell Takes Issue With Smiley’s “Stand” and His “Soul Patrol”

  1. OMG! This is why I love Melissa Harris-Lacewell…she is not afraid to call people out on their bullcrap. Excellent article.

  2. Wow she killed them with two sentencesTheir bus never stopped at a Habitat for Humanity site to build a home or at a soup kitchen to serve the hungry. Their dialogue centered more on the relative merits of Aretha vs. Beyonce than on meaningful political issues.

  3. This is great. One of the reasons I chafe a little under Tavis’ yada-yada is that sometimes it’s self-serving ego driven rhetoric instead of actual actions to back his words. Thanks for the link, I would have missed this otherwise.

  4. OK, I’m gonna say it again. Several folk on Facebook and JackandJill Politics say I should copyright it, though it’s derived from Chris Rock:BLACK FOLKS LOVE OBAMA AND JESUS. N**GERS LOVE TAVIS/DYSON AND MEGA-PREACHERS. THINK ABOUT THE DISTINCTIONS…

  5. I watched Tavis Smiley’s "Stand" knowing that it would be a big circle jerk. I was not disappointed.The underlying theme of "Stand" was performance. From images of black entertainers interspersed throughout the film to Tavis’s talks with Sam Moore and Dick Gregory to Michael Eric Dyson and Cornel West giving sermons at a church."Stand" appeared to be more about style than substance.

  6. DAY-YUM. I agree with Sarah-this is why I love Melissa Harris-Lacewell. When she lays the smack down, she lays it DOWN. She really honed in on what it is that bothers me so much about Tavis Smiley’s continuous (and seemingly profitable) critique campaign of the very young Obama administration. It smacks of that rift which showed itself during the campaign between the old black political establishment and the youngbloods. I’ll be curious to see what the response is to her piece.

  7. I am happy to say I didn’t bother. I went a saw Tavis a couple months ago when he was here in Baltimore. He was hawking his book Accountable like a carnival barker on the midway. I don’t understand how he is relevant when it is so obvious that every move he makes is calculated to be self serving, but we as a people sit at his feet and buy his bullshenangans. Wow to be cut in two sentences…..that is style!

  8. Funny how I didn’t read any of those ‘solutions’ she’s knocking Tavis for not having. Not to mention that during the primaries, these same feminist sistas lined up squarely behind Hillary, to the point Michelle had to call THEM out ("this is the type of brotha you SAY you wanted." ). I’m just as skeptical of black feminists who pimp themselves out to conservative amen corners looking for validation of how pathological they assume black men are.

  9. MY GAAAWD, MY GAAAAAAAAAAAAWWWD!!!! I’m in shock. This is one of the absolute best criticisms of modern day shuckin’ and jivers I’ve seen in awhile.

  10. I wasn’t thrilled about Stand either. The lack of speaking to any women bothered me also.

  11. The article was great and further pointed out the discrepancy between what’s really happening and where many people are stuck. I’ve tried to watch Tavis, but it gets harder as the years go by. And the annual Negro SuperBowl (as I’ve heard the SOBU event called) hasn’t really helped.

  12. That was amazing. I stay away from the "black public intellectual" "black leader." They rarely speak about my experience and they definitely aren’t speaking for me. This usually has a lot to do with the fact that I’m a woman and most (if not all) of "our" leaders are men. Please! In that respect it sure does seem a lot like 1957. There’s also a generational gap. I think there’s a lot to be nostalgic about, a time gone by in African American activism that in some ways has been lost. I’m a historian of this time period so I get it. But I hate the romanticization. The Civil Rights Movement failed on so many levels. We always celebrate the activism but rarely talk about the concessions made, or those concrete changes that didn’t change those things that lay at the heart of the struggle. So I’m saying NO to Tavis Smiley and YES to Melissa Harris-Lacewell and the Snob!

  13. Good for Lacewell having her voice heard.But..and this is a big but…The Obama administration does deserve criticism not just in terms of African American expectations but in terms of progressive policies. Off the top of my head: 1) Leaving a majority of the people responsible for the financial crisis in charge of economic stimulus package; 2) Ousting GM executive but allowing banking executives to keep their jobs; 3) not indicting Bush, Cheney, RIce, Rumsfeld, Powell for war crimes; 4) Not closing Gitmo and 5)continuing the cover-up of torture practices; 5)saying out of one side of his mouth: he’s against don’t ask, don’t tell but also not speaking out against Cali ballot initiatives against same-sex marriage.Damn people, this n*gga ain’t Jesus. Smiley and Dyson are opportunists but so is Obama. Somebody’s going to have to call him out on the issues. He has to be held accountable.

  14. What is more amazing to me is that Ms Harris-Lacewell got this up on anything to do w/ CNN. CNN’s reputation precedes them when it comes to AfricanAmericans. It isn’t good.

  15. I hate to say it, but Smiley displays all the elements of the "Crab Principle" that some black people engage in. You know what happens when one crab (Obama) attempts to climb to the top of the tank. The other crab (Smiley) tries to pull him down. Frankly, I wish people would stop listening to him, which is what I’ve done.

  16. I gave up on Stand after 15 minutes. It was the old academic negroes trying to make themselves relevant. That’s the thing about being an intellect on one phase in history. If ever I needed help understanding the 60s, maybe (and I stress that word) I’d ask those fools. But, they need to stop talking about hip hop and Etta James together. It’s creepy.

  17. @MwangaFunny how you have no idea who Melissa Harris Lacewell is but grab the chance to vent against dreaded "feminist sistas."The idea of Melissa Harris Lacewell lining up "squarely behind Hillary" and "pimping" herself out to "conservative amen corners looking for validation of how pathological they assume black men are" is laughable.Here’s a clue (it’s free!) Google "Melissa Harris Lacewell" and "Gloria Steinem." Then google "Melissa Harris Lacewell" "James Perry" "New Orleans."Or, hell – just follow her on Twitter! She’s @harrislacewellYou’re welcome! 🙂

  18. Didn’t know about this show. Saw it was on TV One. Will they reshow it or did I miss it for good?.

  19. Word @ Nichelle.Mwanga, It’s fine to support Smiley if you are educated on him. It’s not fine to denigrate Harris-Lacewell when you clearly don’t. Speak what you know.

  20. @Chris Chambers: you are the mustard to the bread and meat of the sandwih Melissa put together. That was funny as Hell.

  21. Go ‘head Melissa! Although I respect the intelligence of these brothers they exhaust me with their self-righteousness. They continue to profit from black pathology and are little more than backseat drivers. Stop talking, marching, singing "We Shall Overcome" and roll up your sleeves and do something for the people you claim to love so much. Obama did.

  22. @BK, You are correct and I was wrong for referring to the POTUS as such.My frustration with the lack of honest dialogue and criticism of Obama gets the better of me. When hacks like Smiley and Dyson talk about accountability it can be easily dismissed as the musings of men prostituting themselves for attention and dollars. Sadly, nothing else is offered in their place.The mainstream media has abdicated its responsibility and now we have even less journalism than we had when W was in office. I really didn’t think that was possible.

  23. I have no beef with the gentlemen and i’m sure that they do some good in their own way, but I agree with Melissa to the degree that age of their type of "activism" is coming to an end (if has not already done so). Their failure (or refusal) to acknowledge that fact will only lead them down the path taken by the likes of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson.

  24. edit: Wow first post was full of all types of gramatical errors…Let’s try again:I have no beef with the gentlemen in the film and I’m sure that they do some good in their own way, but I agree with Melissa to the degree that the age of their type of "activism" is coming to an end (if it hasn’t already ended). Their failure (or refusal) to acknowledge that fact will only lead them down the path taken by the likes of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson (and I don’t think Tavis can rock a perm like brother Sharpton).

  25. @ MR. NofaceNow, now, for all Jesse’s flaws, Tavis and his clique wishes they had a fifth of the man’s resume. Jesse has actually marched, organized, ran for president twice and acted successfully as an overseas hostage negotiator in both the Middle East and the former Yugoslavia, freeing American military and private citizens alike. Tavis has done … well, he’s written some books and fought quite famously with BET. That’s no getting captured soldiers home, but … hey, I’m sure that counts for something with someone.I can’t speak for Al though. Al’s on his own.

  26. @Monica. I agree and I have seen many people point out an anecdote about FDR as how we should approach Obama. Eleanor Roosvelt (wonderful woman!) introduced A. Phillip Randolph, who organized the Pullman Porters, helped plan the March on Washington as well as many other things, to the President and Mr. Randolph told him of the many things the black community needed and hoped to gain from his presidency. FDR listened attentively and told him he agreeed with him 100%, and now Mr. Randolph and his co-horts needed to "make him do it" by applying pressure on him and giving him the political cover to do what he needed to do by proving there was a large constituency for it. I think a lot of folks need to keep that in mind. Also, you can’t agree with anyone 100% of the time. Also, some good sources I’ve found with good critiques of Obama (though mostly from a leftist perspective) can be found by listening or watching Pacifica Radio’s program "Democracy Now" and Bill Moyers "Journal". Also the magazine the "Nation" always critiques EVERYBODY so they are a good source too (though I’ve fallen behind with reading them). Sadly, these are not mainstream media outlets and the trend of idiotic, brain-dead journalism on the major cable news networks, the big three networks, and the failing newspaper industry continues with lots of noise but little substance.

  27. Tarvis Smiley strikes me as a confused African-American particularly on some of his comments about Obama. He would rather have the first black President be of a direct slave descendant, an issue of entitlement. This was the very thing that Dr King vehemently fought against.

  28. Melissa Harris-Lacewell (now Perry) is a liar. This is not debatable. This is fact.If you are working on a campaign, you disclose that. She went on Democracy Now! the week before her attack on Gloria Steinem and she 'forgot' to inform listeners that she was working for Barack Obama's campaign as she praised him through the roof and self-presented as a professor just in New Hampshire with a bunch of students.Failure to disclose is lying.Months later, she did the same thing on The Charlie Rose Show. No one else had a campaign worker participating in a roundtable. And the liar didn't inform the viewers she was working for Barack Obama's campaign. That's dishonest and it's lying.By contrast, Tavis discloses everything. She's been called out online for those little stunts (and reportedly got in trouble with her university which has strict requirements on disclosure when doing media spots). But, hey, what do I expect from a bunch of fools silly enough to trash Tavis? Tavis is Black. I'm Black. Melissa Harris Lacewell Perry?She's mixed. She's trying to pass. She's as pathetic at the little girl in Imitation of Life trying to pass for white.

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