At crucial moments in a people’s history, the question ‘‘What is to be done?’’ is raised. Alongside this question, additional questions will follow, such as ‘‘Who will do it, when, and how?’’ When one explores such works as Plato’s Republic, Machiavelli’s The Prince, Comte’s Course in Positive Philosophy, and Marx’s Communist Manifesto, one is deeply aware of the sense of crisis expressed by the writers and the urgency with which they raised the questions posed above. One must therefore understand the responses to group or national crises and the urgency of responses to such crises before fully understanding W. E. B. Du Bois’s own urgent response to the national crisis of race, and to the many ways in which the crisis was more pronounced and devastating to blacks.
Du Bois first proposed a highly visible role for the educated segment of the black population in an article entitled ‘‘The Talented Tenth’’ (1903), and throughout his long life, at least until the 1950s, his life and the organizational and institutional networks he constructed both amplified and represented the importance of the role of the educated. But what was successful in practice was, however, not quite as successful when it came to justifying the theory. In fact, Du Bois’s theory was attacked from two main quarters. First, Booker T. Washington criticized the usefulness of those who had devoted much of their life to book learning, and he doubted their proficiency in dealing with real people and their problems. Secondly, the very idea of an elite stratum, even one devoted to a good cause, did not sit well with many. Indeed, the elite theme was one closely associated with white supremacy, white privilege, and black exclusion. But a careful scrutiny of Du Bois’s logic surrounding an educated elite would lead one to disavow and refute both criticisms.
The justification for such a stratum was deeply rooted in the economic, cultural, and political realities of the United States, especially the South, during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Du Bois urgently wanted to jump start and accelerate racial and social change within black communities as well as open the larger society to black participation in all realms, especially the political. In this sense, the educated cadre had a dual mission, one of which would be addressing internal black matters such as education, health, and economics; the other, that of addressing the resistance to freedom, democracy, and justice which permeated white society. What is often missing from the criticisms leveled against the concept was the heightened sense of dedication, sacrifice, and special mission of this stratum that was at the core of Du Bois’s rationale for such an elite. The ‘‘Luke theorem’’ could be presented as a justification for expecting much from this educated stratum. The theorem found in Luke 12:48 asserts that:
‘‘For unto whomever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have com mitted much, of him they will ask the more.’’
Du Bois would certainly have disavowed any grounding of his idea in scripture given his general agnostic views, but the theorem clearly states the terms in the manner in which du Bois often stated why the educated stratum had an obligation to assist the black community: with its talent, skills, and opportunities, this stratum, Du Bois believed, comprised the natural leader ship of black America.
Du Bois embedded his talented tenth concept in an array of organizational and institutional structures. This point becomes obvious in any analysis of the organizations Du Bois assisted in founding: the Negro Academy, the Niagara Movement, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the various Pan African Conferences and Assemblies, and the Atlanta University Studies. In addition, there were the journals and periodicals: Crisis, Phylon, Moon, and Horizon. Du Bois viewed these organizations and periodicals as essentially tools to be used in propagandizing the population, blacks and whites. For blacks, the tools represented vehicles for presenting a more accurate and objective view of themselves, their successes and failures, but also their hopes and aspirations for new and rewarding racial and social advancements. For whites, Du Bois wanted to dislodge racial stereotypes and feelings and to present a picture of the New Negro, a term made popular by the anthology edited by Alain Locke (1969 ).
The idea of a viable and unique educated cadre would decline in importance in the 1950s, partially due to Du Bois’s disappointment at the lack of support for him among educated blacks when he was arrested and charged with treason during the McCarthy era, and perhaps partly due to a slow movement by Du Bois into the international communist movement. He formally joined the party in 1961, but even before doing so, he ceased to view black Americans as a possible beacon of strength and devotion to the cause of their own liberty, believing instead that freedom from the worst vestiges of segregation and terror only enabled blacks to follow whites down a path of worshiping money and success rather than a devotion to struggles for their liberation. But this view coincided with an increasing emphasis on the class factor in contemporary life.
A review of Du Bois’s concept of a talented tenth does not suggest that he wanted this cadre to lord over blacks, as Washington and others suggested. Rather, his rationale was a simple recognition that there were individuals with skills, talents, and interests who were willing to place their economic, educational, and cultural assets where they might be more useful to an entire population for its collective benefit; that there were those whose leadership skills would serve, from Du Bois’s perspective, as the natural bridge between the black and white worlds. What Du Bois wanted, above all, was a fighting cadre, one which would confront people and issues and fight the good fight for blacks, just as he had been doing himself.
Du Bois would agree with the assertion that the talented tenth is alive today, though many who comprise this group would refrain from using the term. They are organized into many professional, educational, political, social, and cultural groups. The Congressional Black Caucus would constitute such a group, as would groups such as the Association of Black Sociologists, associations of political scientists, psychologists, historians, anthropologists, and the various Black Studies Associations, and literally hundreds of other professional organizations and associations. Included in this group would also be the numerous black fraternities and sororities, as well as other interest groups. When one reads the goals and objectives of these organizations and associations, it is clear that the shadow of Du Bois lurks over them, because they all speak of a need to address and redress issues in black life. Black Americans were not unique in having one of their great scholars and leaders enunciate a theory of leadership to address pressing social issues. What was unique was the timing of such a leadership strategy and its emergence in an evolving American democracy during the last quarter of the nineteenth century when the nation, especially its black population, was in great emotional, political, social, economic, and cultural disarray. What was also unique was the enunciation of such a scheme in a society in which blacks were hated by many, greatly disliked by others, and largely ignored by still others. Du Bois’s concept of black leadership continues to be a viable and necessary feature of the American reality as long as race and the black presence continue to be a bone, as de Tocqueville so clearly stated it, in the throat of white America.
- Dennis, M. (1977) Du Bois and the Role of the Educated Elite. Journal of Negro Education 46: 388 402.
- Dennis, M. (1996) W. E. B. Du Bois: The Scholar as Activist. JAI Press, Greenwich, CT.
- Du Bois, W. B. (1903) The Talented Tenth. In: Washington, B. T. et al., The Negro Problem. James Pott, New York.
- Locke, A. (1969 ) The New Negro. Atheneum, New York.
Back to Sociology of Race
“The Talented Tenth” is the second chapter of Du Bois 1903 book The Negro Problem. Du Bois like many of his African American contemporaries was concerned with full emancipation for African Americans, meaning social and political equality at all levels. As a Harvard trained Humanist, he viewed the intellectual training as the prerequisite. This type of training affords one the ability to carry concrete problems into the abstract realm and theorize about them within the frame of civilized discourse. He also picked this issue up in his essay Of the Education of Black Men.
In The Talented Tenth he writes: “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…” To express it in more simple terms, he argues that the best and brightest African Americans, the talented ten percent, must be afforded higher education if progress is to made. The ten percent will then constitute leaders that effectively initiate change through their leadership.
Now, thinking simply in terms of numbers that is a very optimistic undertaking. Even today, in the percentage of African Americans earning a Bachelors degree is minimal. In California, for instance it hovers around 9%, but roughly 30% of 18-24 year- olds lack a high school degree, meaning they never make it into college to begin with. When we set out to evaluate Du Bois’ optimistic plan, we must look at the statistics as a whole, and understand that he meant that everyone should be afforded the chance of a higher education, but that only the talented ten percent will lead and elevate the masses.