SOCIAL ANGST is more than just a blog, it is an invitation to aid in the building of wealth through the shared task of information distribution and discussion. It is a call to engage – engage in society, engage with your peers, engage in your political system, engage in spreading the wealth that is information, and engage in multiplying that wealth through discussion – so that collectively we may become more socially aware, more socially responsible, more socially vocal and ultimately more socially valuable.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Talented Tenth?

It's been a long time...I shouldn't have left you...

I dropped the Social Angst ball earlier this year due mostly to a health condition that crept upon me and messed with my eyesight, coordination, concentration, and energy levels. Needless to say, such circumstances had a disabling effect on my blogging efforts, so I retired my Social Angst keystrokes for most of this year. (I refuse to go into any more detail than that on Social Angst, but I speak of those circumstances on my more personal, more ridiculous site

My plan was to reintroduce Social Angst in January 2010, but thanks to Belle over at, it seems my sabbatical ends today. Oh my Belle, the one person who can be both the bane of my existence and my greatest inspiration all at once. She posted a controversial blog earlier this week that lit a fire under my hind parts (she is actually very capable with a lighter when it relates to my backside). In response, I wrote the piece below, which is also posted on Belle's site today. If you are interested in being a part of the broader discussion, head over to to read comments and join the conversation. As always, I hope you enjoy.

(P.S. Special thanks to Raq, Nic, Mr. E.P., and Ben for helping me work out the kinks)

The Talented Tenth?

I read a blog over at this week in which Belle asked her readers about the responsibility of the Black elite – in relation to reproduction and W.E. Dubois’s “Talented Tenth” leadership theory. The blog, in (objective) summary, asks: do the Talented Tenth of our society have an obligation to the Black community at large, to procreate the next generation of Black leaders

While the language of Belle’s friend could be described as divisive and wrought with elitist bias, I must admit that the logic behind the language seems sound. Black society could undoubtedly benefit from the active reproduction of our most educated population (though there are far more efficient and effective ways to affect wide spread positive change within our society – mentorship and community service being among them). It stands to reason that children raised by educated parents who place value on higher education, will in turn seek and value education themselves. Unfortunately, such measures would bring about only minimal change in the greater evolution of Black society as a whole, especially if the Black elite maintain their self-imposed isolation from the broader Black populace – but that is another conversation for another time.

Today’s conversation regards Belle’s friend’s use of the term “Talented Tenth”. After reading the post and the subsequent comments, I realized that the term was being used quite broadly across the Belle fan base. It seems that many Belle readers consider themselves among this prestigious group, and, to be honest, that really surprised me. According to Dubois the characteristics of the Talented Tenth are clear:

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. . . .

The Talented Tenth is not defined by level of education alone, but also by the level of education they choose to impart. The Talented Tenth makes “manhood the object of the work of their schools”. In essence, they facilitate the broad teaching of manhood among their peers, community, and Black American society at large – through “intelligence, broad sympathy, knowledge of the world that was and is, and of the relation of men to it”.

Dubois premised his Talented Tenth leadership theory on social and intellectual philanthropy. He recognized the Black class structure as a constant tiered evolutionary process – one that will always consist of the Black elite, the Black middle class, the Black working class, and the Black poor. However, the most powerful tenet of the Talented Tenth ideology is that under the right leadership, the Black elite will grow larger and the Black poor will grow smaller because the Talented Tenth will continue to move our society as a whole (not just the Black elite) towards positive progression.

Dubois selects deliberate examples of who embody the qualities of Talented Tenth. He speaks of men who worked, not in self-interest, but in the interest of evolving Black society. Individuals like Fredrick Douglas, Sojourner Truth, and Alexander Crummel, who instead of focusing on the freedom and future of their own families focused on the freedom of their people. He talked about Langston Hughes and other greats of his time, men who together worked to inspire the masses. It is that ability, to empower and energize the masses, that ultimately sets the Talented Tenth apart from the rest. I am hard pressed to believe that individuals who so easily and deliberately separate themselves from the (ghetto) populace would warrant even passing consideration for this accolade.

The most pressing issue of Black America is the growing divide between the “haves” and the “have-nots”. Those who have access hoard it. And the talent of lower class individuals is being both unrecognized and unsolicited by the top tier of Black society. We are not meeting our obligation to nurture those who have less access. We are failing ourselves and it is starting at the top. In his “Plea to the Talented Tenth,” Langston X Thomas writes:

W.E.B. Dubois envisioned that the 10% of Black Americans who acquired the skills and/or education that enabled us to succeed in the larger society would eventually "come home" and use our tools and talents to build a bridge between the Black "haves" and the Black "have-nots." Unfortunately many of the "talented tenth" (and I speak from personal experience) used our tools and talents to build personal bridges between the so-called races and then used these bridges as private access roads from the ghetto to the suburbs. In the process, of course, we left our less fortunate sisters and brothers behind. Hebrew scholar Ben Ammi, writes in his book, God the Black Man and Truth, "Education today is based upon class, aimed at attaining power and fulfilling materialistic desires rather than providing a service to our fellow man." I remember how my college classmates and I laughed at the African brothers who said they were going to get an education and then go back home to help their people. In retrospect I now know, an immigrant wants to help his people while a slave wants to help himself.

The Talented Tenth is not a label of affluent or educational distinction, it is a covenant and the terms of the covenant are simple:

“the Talented Tenth rises and pulls all that are worth the saving up to their vantage ground. This is the history of human progress; and the two historic mistakes which have hindered that progress were the thinking first that no more could ever rise save the few already risen; or second, that it would better the uprisen to pull the risen down.”

If you are not actively seeking out and pulling up the deserved, can you truly call yourself part of the Talented Tenth? Without commitment to the covenant aren’t you just simply elite? And, if you are simply elite, is your impact on Black American culture benefitting anyone other than you and your insular circle of friends?

In 1903, when Dubois penned his theory, the Talented Tenth was equal parts higher education and social proactivity. In present day, with the advent of public libraries and the Internet, perhaps (formal) higher education is no longer as important as it once was. It would seem that today, the true leaders of Black culture are defined mostly by their ability to recognize and sympathize with all social circumstances, engage all social classes in dialogue, encourage active participation and problem solving among all Black people, and inspire empowerment through change. (Sound like any leader of the free world that you know?)

What does it really take to be part of the Talented Tenth today? I dare say a masters degree and a job title alone is insufficient. I submit that your willingness to provoke action, regardless of your education level, is the true mark of the “Talented” title. Or more plainly said, a high school graduate who actively works within the “hood” to combat gang violence is just as, if not more, “talented” than you.

Engage. Inform. Discuss.

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