The Talented Tenth is a term that designated a leadership class of African Americans in the early twentieth century. The term was created by Northern WASP 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 Negro 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 which was 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, W. E. B. 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.
- 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 Negro Problem, New York: James Pott and Company, 1903
- W. E. B. Du Bois, Dusk of Dawn, “Writings,” (Library of America, 1986), p 842
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