By Bobbi Booker
Over 300 Tavis Smiley fans braved the rain on Tuesday evening to hear Smiley speak about his latest book, a memoir entitled “What I Know for Sure: My Story of Growing Up in America” (Doubleday, $23.95) at the National Constitution Center. Among the guest present where other members of the Black intelligenzia, including poet Sonia Sanchez and Dr. Cornell West, both of whom introduced the author. The audience, however, needed no introduction to Smiley who has authored ten books and appears on both his self-titled PBS talk show and Tom Joyner morning radio chat fest. Although Smiley relayed a harrowing story of his impoverished childhood, he inspired the audience with his message of hope and forgiveness.
“This is without question the defining moment of my life, even though it happened when I was just in the 7th grade, 12 years old,” said Smiley as he prepared to read the chapter, “Shame on the Smileys.” Smiley’s Pentecostal roots were evident when he instructed those in the audience to read along with him in a style reminiscent of a church revival. As he lead the audience through an episode of abuse levied on him by his father after he and his sister were falsely charged with acting up in church, the memory caused him to pause silently for 20 seconds. As members of the audience intoned, “It’s going to be alright, Tavis!” the author steeled himself against the podium, wipe away a tear and continued to speak.
“After six months I went back to spend the rest of my formative years with my family. It’s a strong word, but it’s accurate for what I felt at the time: I hated my parents. I hated my father for what he had done; I hated my mother for what she hadn’t done to stop it. Phyllis on the other hand, never came back. My beloved sister essentially disappeared from our family in the 7th grade. A few years later, because her sprit was broken by that incident, Phyllis became a crack addict, had five babies out of wedlock, and while we are less than a year apart in age, she has lived primarily a life of pain, and poverty and pathology. I determined that I did not want my life to be defined by that moment and have spent everyday of my life since then trying to put as much distance me and that incident as I possible can. What I do not know for sure is how and why Phyllis’ sprit was broken, and I was able to move by turning the fear into energy. There is not a day of my life that my work is not informed by what I do. There are too many children of this city, of this country, who are traumatized too soon.”
Despite the obstacles he faced, Smiley spoke about his faith and his ability to channel his negative feeling into positive energy. “I believe that these defining moments cast a light on our lives: either a long dark shadow or a long bright sunbeam,” said Smiley. “In many regards we determine what that is.”
He reported to the audience that today his sister, Phyllis, has recovered and is scheduled to graduate from nursing school next year. Smiley’s message of encouragement was met with several standing ovations.
“If you were to ask me what it is I know for sure, I would tell you in two words: Love wins.”