This article is about the African-American leadership class and W. E. B. Du Bois essay. For the hip-hop album, see Talented 10th.
The Talented Tenth is a term that designated a leadership class of African Americans in the early 20th century. The term was created by Northern philanthropists, then publicized by W. E. B. Du Bois in an influential essay of the same name, which he published in September 1903. It appeared in The Negro Problem, a collection of essays written by leading African Americans.
The phrase "talented tenth" originated in 1896 among Northern white liberals, specifically the American Baptist Home Mission Society, a Christian missionary society strongly supported by John D. Rockefeller. They had the goal of establishing black colleges in the South to train black teachers and elites.
Du Bois used the term "the talented tenth" to describe the likelihood of one in ten black men becoming leaders of their race in the world, through methods such as continuing their education, writing books, or becoming directly involved in social change. He strongly believed that blacks needed a classical education to be able to reach their full potential, rather than the industrial education promoted by the Atlanta compromise, endorsed by Booker T. Washington and some white philanthropists. He saw classical education as the basis for what, in the 20th century, would be known as public intellectuals:
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.
In his later life, Du Bois came to believe that leadership could arise from many levels, and grassroots efforts were also important to social change. His stepson David Du Bois tried to publicize those views, writing in 1972: "Dr. Du Bois’ conviction that it’s those who suffered most and have the least to lose that we should look to for our steadfast, dependable and uncompromising leadership."
Du Bois writes in his Talented Tenth essay that
"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.”
Later in Dusk of Dawn, a collection of his writings, Du Bois redefines this notion, acknowledging contributions by other men. He writes that “my own panacea of earlier day was flight of class from mass through the development of the Talented Tenth; but the power of this aristocracy of talent was to lie in its knowledge and character, not in its wealth.”
- Negro Academy - Scholarly institute that published many works of the Talented Tenth.
- The Negro Problem, New York: James Pott and Company, 1903
- W. E. B. Du Bois, Dusk of Dawn, “Writings,” (Library of America, 1986), p 842
- ^Booker T. Washington, et al., The Negro Problem: a series of articles by representative American Negroes of today, New York: James Pott and Company, 1903
- ^W.E.B. Du Bois, "The Talented Tenth" (text), Sep 1903, TeachingAmericanHistory.org, Ashland University, accessed 3 Sep 2008
- ^Joy James, Transcending the Talented Tenth: Black Leaders and American Intellectuals, New York: Routledge, 1997
“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.