Book Review: The Covenant with Black America

The Covenant with Black America is the brainchild of Tavis Smiley. For the past seven years, the talk show host has had his own "State of the Black Union" symposium. Seeing that simply exchanging opinions with the nation’s top black leaders was not sufficient, he decided to chart a course for the African American Community. To provide a structured blueprint, The Covenant with Black America have assembled a scholarly collection of 10 short essays by esteemed experts in various disciplines to address the devastating social, political and economic disparities facing many African Americans. Each chapter or "covenant" looks at one pivotal issue and supplies the reader with a list of resources and suggested plans of action that individuals and governments can do to make a difference in their communities. This high-octane approach, as the book indicates on its back cover, is "to shift the conversation from talking about our pain to talking about our plan" for the African American community.

As might be expected, any best-selling book that tackles such a profound and often neglected need in our society is likely to generate some controversy. The proposed formulas for addressing a host of ills, from the skewed criminal justice system to substandard education to toxic waste in poor neighborhoods, to name a few, is not without it’s critics. For others The Covenant with Black America did not meet some expectations and go far enough.

Despite the diversity of contributors of the various covenants, the book has a rather monotone character throughout. This is probably due to the consistent format that each essay follows as dictated by the book. Each chapter starts out with an introductory essay identifying the issues at hand. Then there is a treatise of the subject, complete with a table of statistics, followed by shared solutions under the headings of "What the Community Can Do", "What Every Individual Can Do", "What Works Now", and "What Every Leader and Elected Official Can Do." However, the general theme, despite the shared solution topics, seems to be almost always weighted towards heavy governmental intervention. In short, a "fix it with finance" solution to the problems. Critics of this book, both black and white, point out that the Government does not solve problems, it funds them. It could be pointed out, for example, that the past governmental housing projects have in fact created a type of apartheid for much of the African American community, thus isolating and amplifying the negative thought processes of those so confined. The symptomatic results are evidenced in school dropout rates, drugs and gang violence. So dysfunctional has this public policy been, that some cities have started to tear down their projects. Throwing more money at the problem, for them, is not the solution.

In this same vein, the tile "covenant," is perhaps a misnomer for this book. A covenant is a pact. And a pact, as such, requires that both parties perform a specific set of criteria. Although there is a "What every Individual Can Do" section of each chapter, there is not a clear sense of endorsement as to a national plan of action by individuals in addressing these problems. As there are 10 different introductory essays, each written by different individuals, it is difficult to get a comprehensive picture of what is promised by whom and when, with no real teeth of accountability as might be expected in an actual covenant. Equally disappointing, the book does not really explore core self-responsibility issues, such as the need to look at the spiritual, mental and emotional health of the individual as a way of making true progress.

Also, what would be refreshing would be to have each essay focus on setting definitive goals over a specific time period. Such as by 2015, 60 percent of black males will be in college; or that 80 percent of toxic waste in poor neighborhoods will be cleaned up. Without specific goals, many of the suggestions, while well intentioned, seem ineffectual.

Still, the real virtue of this book lies in putting these critical issues before all Americans. Whether you agree with the diagnosis and prescriptions of the essays in The Covenant with Black America is not the issue. The issue is to increase awareness, dialogue and debate in how best to address the needs of those most disenfranchised in our nation.

At 254 pages, this provocative book is well worth the modest retail price of only $12.00. Given the many social challenges we as a nation face, it is a small price to pay to be a party to the trends of a bestseller. All profits from this book are dedicated to Third World Press.

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