PBS host Smiley (Hard Left, 1996) tells his rags-to-riches—or, more precisely, trailer-park-to-television-station—story.
Born in Gulfport, Miss., in 1964, the author grew up in a large family that included first cousins who were more like siblings. He was attached to the church from his earliest days, attending prayer meetings, choir rehearsals, worship services and Bible classes. When papa Smiley, who served in the Air Force, was stationed in Indiana, the family headed north, cheerfully cramming into a trailer and adjusting to life in a predominately white town. The portrayal of his family is confusing. The clan is seemingly warm and snuggly, but suddenly, Smiley’s father begins beating him, and the boy lands in foster care. The parents’ marriage seems happy, with hubby garnering lavish praise for his loyal, family-man values—and then that’s it: They divorce. As a youth, Smiley visited with a local councilman and saw the power of government to “come to people’s aid.” He admired and memorized the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. During his years at Indiana University, he discovered African-American artists and musicians, particularly Richard Pryor and Prince. Smiley traces his evolution as an “advocate-maverick” and journalist, putting positive spins on such seeming setbacks as getting canned by Black Entertainment Television and getting caught on tape raving and cursing about National Public Radio. Though he affirms the American creed that people can overcome adverse circumstances through hard work, he argues forcefully that the government has a crucial role to play in making America a just and equitable society. Even readers who agree with him will be annoyed by his incessant use of motivational slogans on the order of “View yourself as a winner, and you become a winner.”
Alternately inspiring and anodyne.