The Volume That's Making a Loud Noise

People wave their copies of
People wave their copies of "The Covenant With Black America" at Shiloh Baptist Church, where Tavis Smiley spoke about the book's call to action. (By Michael Temchine For The Washington Post)
By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 7, 2006

When a book becomes a collection of people, not just pages, we sit up and pay attention.

"The Covenant With Black America," a volume of essays pulled together by omnimedia personality Tavis Smiley, may be doing just that. At No. 1 on The Washington Post's paperback nonfiction bestseller list, "Covenant" is the book of the moment. It's been on the list for four weeks. And it is No. 2 on the upcoming New York Times paperback nonfiction list.

All across the country, many black Americans are gathering, mostly in churches, to hear Smiley spread his gospel of response and responsibility and to buy a bunch of books. The publisher, Third World Press, reports that more than 200,000 copies have sold -- at $12 apiece -- since "Covenant" was published less than two months ago.

In downtown Washington last night, Smiley's rousing presentation from the lectern of Shiloh Baptist Church is greeted with scores of amens and several standing ovations. Brandishing a copy, he says, "Make black America better, you make all America better."

Funny and self-effacing, Smiley asks the thousand or so people in the pews, "Can we go from moment to momentum to movement?"

The volume could also be titled "The Purpose Driven Community."

"Covenant" is a collection of pieces by notable contemporary African Americans, including former U.S. surgeon general David Satcher; Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children's Defense Fund; Angela Glover Blackwell, founder of the think tank PolicyLink; and Cornel West, who teaches religion at Princeton University.

The 250-plus-page book is divided into 10 core chapters, each plumbing a single subject, such as the right to health care, the unequal justice system or the racial digital divide. Arguments are buttressed with statistics and calls to personal and political action. For example, in the chapter on accessing economic prosperity, the book encourages elected officials to "increase the minimum wage to a living wage" and urges individuals to "open and maintain a savings account, no matter what your family's income is."

Smiley, who has written a handful of books and is a regular on public television, is proud that "Covenant" has sold mostly through the traditional African American grapevines of church meetings, talk radio and word of mouth. And that he has bypassed the Great American Buzzmaking Machine.

"We haven't been on 'Oprah'!" he shouts to the crowd. "We haven't been on the 'Today' show! And we haven't been on NPR! That's all black folks," he says about the book's phenomenal rise on the bestseller lists. "Black folks did this."

He uses the success of his book to illustrate the economic and political might of the African American community. He also points out that he chose Third World Press in Chicago, an influential African American publishing house founded in 1967, to publish his book.

"It's selling so fast we can't keep up with demand," says Bennett J. Johnson, vice president of Third World.

Johnson says one of his friends describes the book as "an oasis in the desert" because it is the rare volume that "allows black Americans to view their own interests in an organized fashion, and it provides white America with an articulated version of what black America wants."

This will be "a wedge book," Johnson predicts, that will make book buyers and the publishing industry look at black publishers and writers in a different light.

" 'Covenant,' " he adds, "is not a bible. It's not 100 percent right on each issue. But it starts a dialogue."

The book does touch a certain chord with some people. Pamela Johnson, 38, of Upper Marlboro, for instance, who is sitting near an aisle in the church. She heard Smiley talking about his ideas on the Tom Joyner morning radio show. African Americans have to "understand what we have to do to improve our situations," Johnson says. An industrial engineer and a mathematics professor at Strayer University, she is especially interested in the book's emphasis on establishing an equitable system of public education.

Edelman, who is onstage with Smiley, wrote the book's statement of purpose. "Covenant," she writes, "calls on parents, educators, preachers, social service providers, community leaders, and policy-makers to act now and create a brighter future for our children."

The book grew out of several annual State of the Black Union symposiums that Smiley conducted. Contributor Blackwell explains from her home in California that Smiley wanted to take the conversations from those confabs "and harness the intellectual power and the energy."

So he has taken his act, and his action, on the road. He has staged "Covenant" tour stops in more than a dozen cities. He plans to visit more. Saturday morning he will be at Sharon Baptist Church in Baltimore.

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