W.E.B. Du Bois’ “Talented Tenth”

Whenever I read Du Bois, I found myself a little uncomfortable by the discussion of the “Talented Tenth.” Initially, it seemed to reflect something of an assumptive classism by Du Bois’ argument only his race’s social betters could effectively lead the struggle to equality. After discussing this issue in class, I believe Du Bois’ understanding and motivation with the “Talented Tenth” was less classism and more about addressing the need for African-American education and the strengthening of social institutions, rather than tying their struggle to issues of economics or class. While addressing economic inequality was important, racial prejudice was the larger umbrella under which the struggle of the black condition fell, a struggle Du Bois determined blacks largely had to wage on their own by the self-actualization of their own social position. These factors contextualized Du Bois’ advocacy of the “Talented Tenth” for me, but still left open some areas I feel he was not entirely correct on.

Speaking to the connection between black’s social and economic conditions, Du Bois describes the industrializing period following Reconstruction as a “psychological moment when the Nation was a little ashamed of having bestowed so much sentiment on Negroes, and was concentrating its energies on Dollars.” [1] This shift allowed for the ascendancy of Booker T. Washington’s ideas of economic advancement through racial submission and black and white workers uniting to economically modernizing the South. While recognizing the need to address class and economic inequalities, Du Bois argued that for African-Americans to relinquish their rights for economic improvement was meaningless, as a deprived social position made it impossible to move ahead economically, regardless of any progress the larger South might make.

This mirrored his later criticism of the Communist Party in attempting to tie black’s condition to the economic welfare of white workers against an exploitative capitalist class, while criticizing the middle- and upper-class blacks as “capitalist pawns.”  In Du Bois’ eyes, boiling the issue down to a class struggle ignored that white laborers were leading instigators of prejudice against African-Americans, while the black middle- and upper-class had done the most to fight the racism pervading every aspect of black life. On this point, there was no common ground with the white working class: “to be a poor man is hard, but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardships.” (7) Ultimately, Du Bois rejected the view advanced by Washington and the Communists that common economic growth would “raise all boats,” given how African-Americans were still weighed down by the anchor of race prejudice.

Instead, Du Bois believed only through education could African-Americans bring down the many bonds of inequality that held them. However, Du Bois knew African-American’s marginalized place in white society precluded their receiving the necessary skills to move ahead. To succeed, they needed a social education uniquely tailored to address their condition and struggle. This was why Du Bois advocated the “Talented Tenth.” It was not because they were inherent social betters, but because they had the greatest ability to elevate black institutional life in education, government, business, and more, providing them more comprehensive skills and resources in the fights for civil rights, political rights, and economic inequality. Beyond increased wages, African-Americans needed to advance all facets of their social sphere to achieve a self-actualization as citizens necessary to control their fight against their inequality on their terms. In the “Talented Tenth,” Du Bois saw the capacity to lead this improvement forward.

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Exterior view  of “Dr. McDougald’s Drug Store” with three African Americans standing in the doorway and a horse-drawn carriage in the foreground, ca. 1900. Courtesy of American Memory, Library of Congress. http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/D?aaodyssey:2:./temp/~ammem_xAb1::@@@mdb=aaodyssey,berl,consrvbib,coolbib,cowellbib,afcnyebib,mcc,fawbib,psbib,pin,mesnbib,varstg,rbcmillerbib,awh,awhbib,sgproto (accessed February 10, 2016).

Yet despite this more contextualized view of his race’s “social betters,” there still is the fact that they were acknowledged as social betters. And to me, it still raises the question of how black advancement would be distributed through the select advancement of the “Talented Tenth.” In building up black institutional life, were the seeds of a greater dissemination of knowledge and ability laid? Or, did it threaten to create concentrated pockets of middle- and upper-class professionals whose circumstances were largely removed from the other ninety percent of their race? To speak of a role that is meaningful and accessible only to this group removes from a larger ninety percent a degree of empowerment and independence. That for self-actualization, the “non-Talented Tenth” has to be led, rather than contributing experiences, skills, and interests outside the “Talented Tenth” that could be an immediate part of the civil rights platform.

For me, these minor points highlight the multifaceted issues that fell under the larger umbrella of race prejudice with which Du Bois and his contemporaries contended. And that they are issues we still discuss, and still draw parallels to, highlights all the more the need to discuss them across multiple fronts.

Works Cited:

[1] W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (New York: Dover Thrift Editions, 1996), 25.

[2] Ibid, 7.

Featured Image: W.E.B. Du Bois, c. 1904.  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/W.E.B._Du_Bois#/media/File:WEB_Du_Bois.jpg (accessed February 10, 2016).

2 thoughts on “W.E.B. Du Bois’ “Talented Tenth”

  1. I agree that the idea of the “Talented Tenth” is uncomfortable. While I recognize that Du Bois’s intention was to establish leaders who would work for the benefit of the larger group, It seems strange to me to create strata in a movement that is about equality. I’m especially interested in your point about the “non-Talented Tenth” and what they might be able to contribute to the movement. While I recognize the need for leaders, I also dislike the idea of the leaders being the only ones who speak for a group.

  2. Good points. I liked DuBois’ idea that the community needs its own teachers who understand the community and can work with its children, but you’re right that he had some problematic ideas. The whole Talented Tenth thing implies that the other nine tenths will always be limited, needing the Tenth to lead them forever.

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