Smiley pushes to turn a page

Author hopes book will spark discussion and lead to change in black community


A strong community doesn't need a leader, talk-show host and author Tavis Smiley has said. It just needs everyday people who want to make a change.

More than 1,200 of those everyday people, including babies and octogenarians, poured into Sharon Baptist Church in Baltimore yesterday to hear Smiley speak and to participate in a town hall meeting that was part sermon, part rally, part therapy and part call to action to African-Americans.

The crowd, which filled the sanctuary to capacity and then some, read aloud in unison, yelled out, repeatedly stood to clap, held hands and silently bowed their heads. Then they went and bought more than 500 copies of The Covenant with Black America, a compilation of statistics, ideas and essays by prominent African-Americans that Smiley -- who wrote the book's introduction -- calls a blueprint.

"I read it, I believe it, I'm here to support it," Gwendolyn Touzalin, 58, a nurse from Baltimore said as she stood in line to purchase three additional copies. "It's a wake-up call for us."

Beatrice Duggins, 47, also bought three books, including one for her teenage son. "This is required reading in my house," she said.

It's this sort of reception that is transforming Smiley's pet project from a book into a phenomenon. The Covenant is to appear today in the No. 2 spot on The New York Times paperback nonfiction best-seller list and is ranked No. 1 on The Washington Post's list. Smiley has encountered crowds of up to 2,200 at similar gatherings around the country, and some followers are forming local spinoff groups.

"We want to push this book up to No. 1," Smiley told the crowd at Sharon Baptist Church. "That forces America to have a conversation about what's in the book."

Smiley, 40, is the polished, approachable host of a television show on PBS, host of a show on the PRI radio network, and a frequent guest on the Tom Joyner Morning Show.

The Covenant, he has said, grew out of a desire to push past the hopelessness he observed in black communities. Published in February by Third World Press, the book is broken into 10 chapters, each considering a different issue. These so-called covenants include "securing the right to health care" and "establishing a system of public education in which all children achieve at high levels."

Each chapter presents a grim pile of facts, then offers a plan: What the community can do ("Place great emphasis on the hiring, training, oversight, and accountability of police officers") and what individuals can do ("Read to your children or grandchildren every day"). That's followed by descriptions of strategies that are working and, finally, ideas for leaders and politicians.

Baltimore is the 10th of 16 stops planned, and at each of the town hall events Smiley has been joined by a panel of experts and local leaders. Yesterday he was flanked by Tyrone Taborn, the Baltimore publisher and CEO of Career Communications Group; Joy Thomas Moore from the Annie E. Casey Foundation; Eddie Glaude, a religion professor at Princeton University; and Iyanla Vanzant, a motivational speaker and author from Silver Spring.

The panelists took turns exhorting and cajoling, and were met with a chorus of "amens" and "all rights."

"What better way to begin the process of rebuilding our community than to set to ourselves the task to read?" Glaude said. "Today's my time. Today's your time. Nothing can stand in our way because God is at our back, and the time is now."

Afterward, audience members, who lined up for a turn to speak, asked the panel about topics including prisons, gentrification, economics and reaching the next generation. Ruth Elmore said the book inspired her to start a grass-roots Baltimore group. She announced her e-mail address and Taborn said, to applause, that he could offer her a meeting space.

Audience members who didn't get a chance to talk were heading back to their seats when the last questioner, 12-year-old Marisha Marsh, stepped up to the microphone. In a small but clear voice, she asked, "What can someone my age do to help improve black America?"

The audience roared. "Let the baby speak! Let the baby speak!" a woman in front shouted.

"Show that it's cool to be smart," Taborn said.

"Don't give it away," Vanzant said. "Don't give away your dreams. Don't give away your identity."

"Keep asking that question," Glaude said. "And tell us what you hear."

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