Smiley, Tavis 1964-

views updated

Smiley, Tavis 1964-


Born September 13, 1964, in Gulfport, MS; son of Emory G. (an Air Force noncommissioned officer) and Joyce M. (an associate Pentecostal minister) Smiley. Education: Indiana University, B.A., 1986.


Office—Smiley Group, Inc., 3870 Crenshaw Blvd., Ste. 391, Los Angeles, CA 90008. Agent—Babette Perry, International Creative Management, 8942 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, CA 90211.


Television talk show host, radio commentator, and author. City Council president Pat Russell, Los Angeles, CA, aide, 1987; SCLC, Los Angeles, CA, special assistant executive director, 1988; Mayor Tom Bradley, Los Angeles, CA, administrative aide, 1988-90; BET Tonight with Tavis Smiley, Black Entertainment Television, commentator/host, 1996-2001; ABC Radio Network, The Tom Joyner Show, Washington, DC, political commentator; ABC Radio Network, The Smiley Report, commentator, 1990—; The Smiley Report newsletter, publisher; USA Weekend (magazine), contributing editor; Tavis Talks, National Public Radio, Washington, DC, host, 2002-04. Contributor to PrimeTime Thursday and Good Morning America for ABC News and to several CNN shows, including Inside Politics.

United Way of Greater Los Angeles, steering committee, 1989-90; Inner City Foundations for Excellence in Education, advisory board, 1989-91; After Class Scouting USA, advisory board, 1991; Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Non-Violent Social Change, advisory board, 1992-93; Challengers Boys and Girls Club, board of directors, 1989—; Los Angeles Black College Tour, board of directors, 1991—; Tavis Smiley Foundation, founder.


Los Angeles Young Black Professionals (chair, operations committee, 1988-90), Kappa Alpha Psi.


Dollars and Sense Outstanding Business and Professional Award, 1992; Time's 50 Future American Leaders, 1994; Vanity Fair Hall of Fame, 1996; NAACP President's Award, 2000; NAACP Image Award, Best News Talk or Information Series, three times, including 1999; National Association of Minorities in Communications, Mickey Leland Humani- tarian Award, 1998; NAACP Image Award for Outstanding TV News, Talk or Information (Series or Special), 2006, for Tavis Smiley.


Just a Thought: The Smiley Report, Pines One Publications, 1993.

Hard Left: Straight Talk about the Wrongs of the Right, Anchor Books/Doubleday (New York, NY), 1996.

On Air: The Best of Tavis Smiley on the Tom Joyner Morning Show, Pines One Publishing, 1998.

Doing What's Right: How to Fight for What You Believe—and Make a Difference, Vintage Anchor Publishing (New York, NY), 2000.

(Editor) How to Make Black America Better: Leading African Americans Speak Out, Doubleday (New York, NY), 2001.

(Editor) Keeping the Faith: Stories of Love, Courage, Healing, and Hope from Black America, Doubleday (New York, NY), 2002.

On Air: The Best of Tavis Smiley on the Tom Joyner Morning Show, 2002-2003, Smiley Books (Carlsbad, CA), 2004.

Never Mind Success—Go for Greatness! The Best Advice I've Ever Received, Hay House (Carlsbad, CA), 2006.

(With David Ritz) What I Know for Sure: My Story of Growing up in America (memoir), Doubleday (New York, NY), 2006.

(Compiler and editor) The Covenant with Black America, Third World Press (New York, NY), 2006.

(Compiler) The Covenant in Action, Smiley Books (Carlsbad, CA), 2007.

Also author of foreword, K. Thomas Oglesby, What Black Men Should Do Now, Carol Publishing Group (New York, NY), 1999.


A television and radio personality as well as an author, Tavis Smiley is known for his commentary on social and political issues, particularly those affecting African Americans. Smiley grew up in a large family of ten children. When he was two years old, his father was transferred to Grissom Air Force Base in Bunker Hill, Indiana, and the family moved to a mobile home in Kokomo, Indiana. Smiley's father often worked several jobs to support all the children, and although the family was poor, they never went hungry. Smiley's mother worked at the church the family attended, so Smiley and his siblings were often in church every day.

At age thirteen, Smiley became interested in politics when he attended a campaign speech by U.S. Senator Birch Bayh. Realizing that politicians had more influence and ability to change the world in a positive way than the baseball players he had previously idolized, Smiley decided that night to become involved in politics. Although Smiley was one of only a few African American students in the predominantly white high school he attended, he was elected class president and voted "most likely to succeed."

During Smiley's college ears at Indiana University, he became active in student government and on the debate team. He worked as an intern for Bloomington mayor Tomilea Allison. Although he considered dropping out of college because he had achieved his goals, a friend persuaded him to stay in school. Smiley then got a position as an intern in the office of Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley. He later worked as an administrative aide for Bradley.

In 1991, Smiley ran for city council in Los Angeles. In a field of fifteen candidates, he came in fourth, a respectable performance for a political newcomer. He wrote in Hard Left: Straight Talk about the Wrongs of the Right: "I realized I was most fulfilled when I was helping educate, empower, and encourage people who live in the indigenous community." Thus, despite his defeat, he decided to run for office again in four years.

In order to keep his name in the public consciousness, Smiley decided to enter the field of talk radio and developed a sixty-second syndicated program, called The Smiley Report, on social and political issues. The show was eventually aired nationwide, and Smiley published a collection of his commentaries titled Just a Thought: The Smiley Report in 1993.

In 1994, Smiley moved into television and began cohosting an evening talk show with Ruben Navarette. The show was aimed at people in their twenties, an audience largely neglected by talk radio. That year, Time magazine included Smiley on its list of Fifty Future American Leaders, but when Smiley, who was politically liberal, noticed that many of the other honorees were from the conservative end of the political spectrum, he wrote the book Hard Left. Smiley comments in the book: "Those of us who are left of center have allowed the Right to take control of the dialogue." As a result, he continued, conservatives have had free rein to assert that they are the only group who believe in the value of religion and family.

Hard Left "is the culmination of more than a decade of running on the political fast track and winning a network of friends and allies among power brokers impressed by his infectious enthusiasm and intelligence," wrote Edward J. Boyer in the Los Angeles Times. A Publishers Weekly reviewer felt the book was "a hard-hitting intellectual counterpunch that liberals will endorse."

In 1996, President Bill Clinton introduced Smiley to Tom Joyner, host of a nationally syndicated radio show, and Joyner invited Smiley to do commentaries on his show. In the fall of that year, Smiley was chosen to host BET Tonight, a newsmagazine show on Black Entertainment Television. In 1998, Smiley published On Air: The Best of Tavis Smiley on the Tom Joyner Morning Show. For readers in search of "something short and quick on contemporary political issues from a notable analyst," wrote Charles Brooks in Black Issues Book Review, this book is a good choice.

Smiley was fired from his position at Black Entertainment Television in 2001, when the network was sold to a much larger company, Viacom, and its focus changed from offering potentially controversial content to providing more neutral content that would sell to a wide variety of viewers. However, Smiley's fans were outraged by the decision, and viewers flooded Viacom with phone calls, faxes, and mail expressing their support for Smiley. Despite this, the decision to let Smiley go was unchanged. According to an interview in Jet, Smiley said of his dismissal: "You can't have a life and be successful and not encounter some setbacks here and there."

After his dismissal from Black Entertainment Television, Smiley signed deals to be a commentator for National Public Radio, ABC News, and CNN, and also sold a two-book deal to Random House. In 2001, Smiley published How to Make Black America Better: Leading African Americans Speak Out, a collection of essays by leading African Americans that discusses ten "challenges" to the African American community, including issues of health, education, money, and political power. Glenn Townes, writing in Black Issues Book Review, found the work to be "a must read for anyone interested in getting the best advice from those people who are indeed making life better for Black Americans."

Smiley's next book to be released was Keeping the Faith: Stories of Love, Courage, Healing, and Hope from Black America, for which he served as editor. Keeping the Faith is a collection of various stories, commentaries, and challenges from the perspective of African American men and women nationwide, all of which comment on the social and racial issues they face and how they are addressed. The contributors range from famous figures to the unknown, and each chronicles a personal achievement or success. Smiley provides essays to open the different sections of the book, providing a sense of unity. KaaVonia Hinton, in a review for Kliatt, commented that "this book is highly recommended to anyone who needs to be reminded that his or her life has purpose and meaning." Booklist contributor Vanessa Bush called the book "a celebration of faith that will inspire any reader."

After the successful completion of his two-book deal, Smiley went on to write or edit a number of other books, including On Air: The Best of Tavis Smiley on the Tom Joyner Morning Show, 2002-2003, which was released through his self-named imprint, and Never Mind Success—Go for Greatness! The Best Advice I've Ever Received. He also penned What I Know for Sure: My Story of Growing up in America, with the assistance of David Ritz, a memoir that talks about Smiley's experiences as he has become more and more successful and the ways in which he observed color and race have affected his rise. He starts with his childhood as one of ten siblings, growing up in rural Indiana and living in a trailer, abused by his father and determined to change his life. His string of achievements includes a healthy smattering of life lessons as he worked—and talked—his way to a better existence. The book also touches on Smiley's controversial departure from NPR. Smiley emphasizes the importance guts and determination played in his success, and the advice he has received from high-powered individuals over the course of his career. Jennifer Johnston, reviewing for Library Journal, remarked: "There are some fantastic stories here … and though some are controversial, all are honest and poignant." Booklist contributor Vernon Ford commented that "this surprisingly thoughtful book emphasizes old-school values and the rewards of hard work."

Smiley's next effort included two linked books that he compiled and edited: The Covenant with Black America and The Covenant in Action. The Covenant with BlackAmerica, which hit the number one spot on the New York Times best-seller list, collects a series of essays by African Americans on a wide range of important racial topics such as education and disparities in the legal system, and proposes ways these issues might be improved through unity and working for the greater good. The Covenant in Action picks up where the first volume left off, looking at practical applications of the theories offered. The first volume was produced under duress, as Smiley proposed it just weeks prior to a televised town meeting he was hosting on C-Span, and none of the contributions had been written at the time. The result, however, is a heartfelt series of calls to action. Todd Steven Burroughs, in a contribution for Black Issues Book Review, commented that "the best parts of this book are the local success stories—the ones that show community progress is indeed possible."



Smiley, Tavis, and David Ritz, What I Know for Sure: My Story of Growing up in America, Doubleday (New York, NY), 2006.


American Journalism Review, July, 2001, Kathryn S. Wenner, "Keep on Smiley," p. 9.

Black Issues Book Review, July, 1999, Charles Brooks, review of On Air: The Best of Tavis Smiley on the Tom Joyner Morning Show, p. 54; March, 2001, Glenn Townes, review of How to Make Black America Better: Leading African Americans Speak Out, p. 63; May 1, 2006, Todd Steven Burroughs, review of The Covenant with Black America, p. 41.

Booklist, June 1, 1996, Mary Carroll and Gilbert Taylor, review of Hard Left: Straight Talk about the Wrongs of the Right, p. 1640; February 1, 2001, Lillian Lewis, review of How to Make Black America Better, p. 1025; November 15, 2002, Vanessa Bush, review of Keeping the Faith: Stories of Love, Courage, Healing, and Hope from Black America, p. 566; September 1, 2006, Vernon Ford, review of What I Know for Sure, p. 35.

Broadcasting and Cable, June 4, 2001, Susanne Ault, "Smiley's Face at ABC," p. 8.

Ebony, April, 2001, review of How to Make Black America Better, p. 16.

Jet, June 18, 2001, "Talk Show Host Tavis Smiley Signs Multimillion-dollar TV, Radio and Book Deals," p. 10.

Kirkus Reviews, April 15, 1996, review of Hard Left, p. 587.

Kliatt, November, 2004, KaaVonia Hinton, review of Keeping the Faith, p. 32.

Library Journal, November 1, 2000, Ann Burns and Emily Joy Jones, review of How to Make Black America Better, p. 104; September 1, 2006, Jennifer Johnston, review of What I Know for Sure, p. 157.

Los Angeles Times, July 22, 1996, Edward J. Boyer, "Fast Track, Left Lane," p. B1; August 21, 2001, John L. Mitchell, "A Painful Failure in Politics Clears a Pathway to Success," p. B3.

Nation, May 14, 2001, Makani Themba, "Black Entertainment Television's ‘Lifestyle’ Choice," p. 18.

Publishers Weekly, May 27, 1996, review of Hard Left, p. 63; January 8, 2001, review of How to Make Black America Better, p. 63.

Washington Post, June 22, 1998, Esther Iverem, "Driving on the Left," p. C1; January 19, 2000, Natalie Hopkinson, "From Talk Show Host, A Challenge to Fight," p. M30; March 22, 2001, Lisa De Morales, "BET Bumps Host Tavis Smiley," p. C1; March 23, 2001, Lisa De Morales, "Smiley's Person: His Friend Tom Joyner Attacks BET's Boss," p. C5; March 24, 2001, Lisa De Morales, "BET Terminates Contract of Talk Show Host Tavis Smiley," p. C7; June 1, 2001, Lisa De Morales, "Tavis Smiley Finds Work with ABC, CNN, NPR," p. C5.


Tavis Smiley Home Page, (November 12, 2007).

Tavis Smiley MySpace Page, (November 12, 2007).