The Miami Herald
Sun, Feb. 29, 2004

Discussion on Haiti becomes rallying cry

The escalating crisis in Haiti dominates a discussion among several leading black opinion makers, academics and civil rights leaders.


What was to be a national conversation about the status of the black family turned into a call for black Americans to rally around Haitians as they face the crisis going on in their country.

''It's a compelling story,'' said Tavis Smiley, radio commentator and activist who brought the fifth annual State of the Black Union symposium to Miami-Dade's New Birth Baptist Church on Saturday. ``You can't talk about the black family and just talk domestically. If we say we believe in the diaspora, we have to discuss these things.''

''When we see people being pilloried, it's important that we stand up and be heard,'' said U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, D-Texas, adding that Haiti's location just 700 miles from Florida makes it an important strategic challenge.


''They are our family, part of the Western Hemisphere family,'' she said.

``We can't stand by while the families in Haiti are murdered.''

Princeton professor Cornel West accused the Bush administration of engaging in hypocrisy in sending the U.S. military to protect U.S. citizens while Haitians were dying in front of them.

''The Marines are escorting white citizens while you have Haitians who are fleeing killing fields and are turned around to go back to killing fields,'' he said.

Smiley announced that he and disc jockey Tom Joyner will travel to Haiti today to interview President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Smiley said he wanted to give Aristide an opportunity to share his views on the violent rebel uprising that has engulfed three-quarters of the country.

If the trip goes as planned, the interviews would air Monday morning on Joyner's syndicated program and later in the day on Smiley's radio and television broadcasts.

Other panelists who spoke during Saturday's symposium, which was televised on C-Span, included former NAACP board Chairwoman Myrlie Evers Williams, conservative columnist Stanley Crouch, University of Pennsylvania professor Michael Eric Dyson, motivational speaker Iyanla Vanzant, and Vashti McKenzie, bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal church.


They and others offered a hodgepodge of ideas for improving the black family. Among the wide range of topics tackled were the specters of absentee fathers, low marriage rates, victimization mentality and crime.

''The point is that [the black family] is troubled. There needs to be dialogue on why that is,'' Smiley said. ``When we make black America better, we make all of America better.''

Smiley said the upcoming presidential election offered an opportune time to put on the table ``issues that ought to be higher on the American agenda.''

''We need to remind African-American people that when you talk about political, social and economic issues at the center we have to discuss how these policies will affect the black family,'' he said.

Stirring the capacity crowd even more, Bishop Victor T. Curry, the senior pastor at New Birth, told the audience to move beyond complacency. He urged them to participate in Tuesday's mass demonstration in Tallahassee against Gov. Jeb Bush and the GOP-dominated Legislature.