MOAA board member Lt. Col. Walter Smiley Jr., USA (Ret), joined 99 other Black fathers as part of a special production featuring Oprah Winfrey that focused on how the men are raising their families in this moment.
Smiley, who capped a 25-year career as the chief of operations for the Rapid Equipping Force at Fort Belvoir, Va., was in the virtual audience for OWN Spotlight: Oprah and 100 Black Fathers, which touched on the urgency of having “the talk,” among other topics. Smiley caught the eye of Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) producers after he shared some of his experiences as a minority officer with the New York Times.
“It’s about time there’s a discussion about it,” Smiley said.
Smiley and daughter Kaitlyn (Courtesy photo)
He remembered being called to help resolve racial issues as a newly minted officer, and throughout his career until retirement. Such experiences weren’t among stories shared by his father, a retired Army master sergeant who influenced Smiley’s decision to serve.
His father first talked to him about race when Smiley was 12, he told MOAA. The pair was lost, driving around Oklahoma trying to a find a church. The elder Smiley pulled over to ask for directions and his son recalled hearing a racial slur. When they drove off, he told his dad he thought it was strange.
“I did have ‘the talk’ with my father early on … My dad sat me down early, just letting me know that the world is a little bit different,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that you’re different, just the world’s a little bit different and there could be somebody that just doesn’t like you because of the color of your skin.”
A few years later, Smiley’s car was mistakenly reported stolen. A police officer stopped Smiley, who was in the passenger seat of the car with a friend who was driving. Smiley, recalling his father’s wisdom, calmly explained it was an error and it was his car. He was booked into a county jail for a few hours while it was sorted out.
“It was a scary experience for me,” Smiley said. “But I used that experience as I’m talking to African-American soldiers just to understand that this may happen, but try to stay in control as much as you can and never let a bad experience totally disrupt everything you’re trying to do.”
Smiley has had similar conversations with his own daughter, 12-year-old Kaitlyn, who’s interested in history. She’ll read about segregation and Jim Crow laws, then talk to her uncles and grandfather about their experiences. Smiley said he’d rather engage his daughter in deeper conversations about race, instead of her reading about it on social media from sources that may not be credible.
“It is better that we sit down and we talk about what’s happening because I want her to know that she’s a minority – a female and African-American – but let her know she’s no different from anybody else,” Smiley said. “We do talk about racial issues that are current right now because I want to hear what she thinks. I challenged my daughter to be open in her thinking and not to be one-sided.”
Smiley said he felt called to serve as a mentor for minority officers, guiding them down a path toward a successful career. He said he hopes to someday see diversity reach every rank of every service.
“Even though there were some challenging times in the military, I enjoyed my miltiary service,” Smiley said.
The OWN special, which premiered June 30 and features film industry mogul Tyler Perry and actor Courtney B. Vance among its 100 guests, is available free at OWN.com through July 31 or via the Watch OWN mobile app.