By Leonard Pitts: Syndicated columnist
“The Covenant With Black America” is not a fun read. Not unless you’re the wonky type who likes to snuggle up with a good policy proposal.
One would assume there aren’t nearly enough wonks in the world to put a book like that within shouting distance of the New York Times best-seller list, much less at the top of it. Yet, “The Covenant” went to No. 1 on the paper’s nonfiction paperback list on April 23. It is, according to its editor, Tavis Smiley, the first black book to achieve that distinction.
All of which makes Smiley, the multi-hyphenate media figure (radio commentator-TV talk show host-activist-author) understandably proud. None of which is why I bring it to your attention today.
Here’s what impressed me about “The Covenant”: It is not just another book about problems. It is also, and perhaps primarily, a book about solutions.
The workability of those solutions can and will be furiously debated. I don’t propose to enter that debate here. For me, for now, it’s enough that the book exists, that it lays out the emotional and statistical dimensions of 10 areas of critical concern for the black community, including health, justice, education and the digital divide. Each chapter begins with an essay by an expert in the field and includes proposed remedies: Not simply suggestions for what the muckety-mucks in office can do, but specific, pragmatic things you and I can do.
You know why that’s noteworthy? Because when talk turns to the seemingly intractable ills that beset black folk, so many of us are of the curse-the-darkness camp. We can outline the problems all day. We are less voluble about solutions.
Full disclosure: I was once a guest on Smiley’s TV talk show. I am scheduled to be one again in June. But if you think that’s why I dialed him up after reading “The Covenant,” well, as Bugs Bunny used to say, you don’t know me too good.
I called the guy because his book, wonky and unlovely as it is, ignited my imagination. Made me think maybe we the people are no longer content to be content. Made me hope folks are coming to understand again, as they did in the ’60s, that the power to shake up status quo, the power to make true, lasting and revolutionary change, resides not with the politicians or pundits, but ultimately with the people, assuming they have the will to use it.
As Smiley sees it, the inequities laid bare by Hurricane Katrina have taught every American, “regardless of race, color, creed, party affiliation, ideology … that we do not yet live in a nation that is as good as its promise.”
The lesson and legacy of that ordeal, he says, is a realization that people need to command their own destiny. “You see it now with regard to immigration and workers’ rights in the Spanish community. Advocacy is cyclical. There’s something happening in America now. I can feel it.”
Smiley believes — and I agree — that black America has spent the last 38 years waiting for another Martin Luther King. “There are a lot of us,” he says, “who believe that a piece of black America died on that balcony at the Lorraine Motel with Dr. King. And since that time, what folk have been looking for is a blueprint, a game plan, a guidebook. The problem is, they have been looking for it in the form of some charismatic leader.”
But the capacity for leadership, if only in our individual spheres, lies within each of us. “The Covenant” proposes to tap that capacity, to inspire folks to stop waiting for Dr. King to get back.
So Smiley has been hosting town hall meetings nationwide, encouraging people to discuss, debate, and take action. He’s also gotten the Democratic and Republican parties to promise that candidates in the next presidential campaign will address the issues the book raises.
As my mother used to say, I glory in his spunk.
See, I’m tired of waiting. Apparently I’m not the only one.
Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may contact him at: