12 September 2007

The Talented Tenth

W.E.B. DuBois wrote this in 1903. What scares me is that it may be too late for us, as a race, to be saved by our "Talented Tenth". (Although he uses this term to refer only to men, I'm going to ignore his misogynistic bent. The women of our race continue to distinguish themselves both for their fortitude and their ability to succeed.)

The introduction reads as follows: The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men. The problem of education, then, among Negroes must first of all deal with the Talented Tenth; it is the problem of developing the Best of this race that they may guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the Worst, in their own and other races. Now the training of men is a difficult and intricate task. Its technique is a matter for educational experts, but its object is for the vision of seers. If we make money the object of man-training, we shall develop money-makers but not necessarily men; if we make technical skill the object of education, we may possess artisans but not, in nature, men. Men we shall have only as we make manhood the object of the work of the schools — intelligence, broad sympathy, knowledge of the world that was and is, and of the relation of men to it — this is the curriculum of that Higher Education which must underlie true life. On this foundation we may build bread winning, skill of hand and quickness of brain, with never a fear lest the child and man mistake the means of living for the object of life.

This is his conclusion: Men of America, the problem is plain before you. Here is a race transplanted through the criminal foolishness of your fathers. Whether you like it or not the millions are here, and here they will remain. If you do not lift them up, they will pull you down. Education and work are the levers to uplift a people. Work alone will not do it unless inspired by the right ideals and guided by intelligence. Education must not simply teach work — it must teach Life. The Talented Tenth of the Negro race must be made leaders of thought and missionaries of culture among their people. No others can do this work and Negro colleges must train men for it. The Negro race, like all other races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men.

My concern, as both a black person in 2007 and member of the Talented Tenth, is that DuBois' contention is no longer relevant. Is there still such a thing as the Talented Tenth? Decades after the end of Jim Crow, segregation, and The Black Panthers, we seem to moving backwards rather than forward. We are divided by our socioeconomic status, by our region of origin, by our generation gaps and by our stubborn insistence on pat definitions of blackness. If there is no Talented Tenth, where does that leave us?

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