“Our Black Year” by Maggie Anderson is a chronicle of her family’s endeavor to buy Black for a year. The book is definitely worth a read. It makes Black people think about what it means to be Black in America and the progress of Black people from an economic perspective. Because the book inspired so much thought and brings to light a number of issues, I will probably have a series of posts related to the book.
In several sections of the book, Our Black Year, Maggie Anderson addresses DuBois theory of “The Talented Tenth.” The Talented Tenth is phrase coined by DuBois to identify those Black individuals who would be leaders for the Black race. I have heard people in recent years using this term and I’m not sure if they actually support the theory or if they just assume its a good idea because W.E.B. DuBois created it.
Let’s take a look at some of the main ideas about The Talented Tenth that DuBois detailed in an essay from his 1903 volume, The Negro Problem. In this theory DuBois states:
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.
And so we come to the present–a day of cowardice and vacillation, of strident wide-voiced wrong and faint hearted compromise; of double-faced dallying with Truth and Right. Who are today guiding the work of the Negro people? The “exceptions” of course. And yet so sure as this Talented Tenth is pointed out, the blind worshippers of the Average cry out in alarm: “These are exceptions, look here at death, disease and crime–these are the happy rule.” Of course they are the rule, because a silly nation made them the rule.All men cannot go to college but some men must; every isolated group or nation must have its yeast, must have for the talented few centers of training where men are not so mystified and befuddled by the hard and necessary toil of earning a living, as to have no aims higher than their bellies, and no God greater than Gold.
These figures illustrate vividly the function of the college-bred Negro. He is, as he ought to be, the group leader, the man who sets the ideals of the community where he lives, directs its thoughts and heads its social movements. It need hardly be argued that the Negro people need social leadership more than most groups; that they have no traditions to fall back upon, no long established customs, no strong family ties, no well defined social classes.
In essence, DuBois was lobbying for Black people to receive an education equal to that of White people so that their could be a formation of Black leadership. He believes that Black Leadership will be made of the exceptional Black people who will lead the race and solve the problems plaguing the Black community.
There are several problems with this theory in general and two huge problems with the idea of any Black person seeking to follow this model in this day and age.
First, it is ridiculous for any intellectual or educated Black person to put stock in this ideology when DuBois, himself, recanted this ideology in 1948 when he wrote:
When I came out of college into the world of work, I realized that it was quite possible that my plan of training a talented tenth might put in control and power, a group of selfish, self-indulgent, well-to-do men, whose basic interest in solving the Negro problem was personal; personal free dom and unhampered enjoyment and use of the world, without any real care, or certainly no arousing care, as to what became of the mass of American Negroes, or of the mass of any people. My Talented Tenth, I could see, might result in a sort of interracial free-for-all, with the devil taking the hindmost and the foremost taking anything they could lay hands on.
I’m just gonna say, hmm…
Secondly (as if DuBois didn’t say it plainly enough), the creation of these “exceptions” who should outshine “the blind worshippers of the Average” is divisive and perpetuates the fallacious mindset of the Black Bourgeoisie that somehow material wealth and education can place above your race.
From these notions comes The Messiah Complex. A psychological complex in the Black Community where individuals feel powerless and await some great Black Messiah to swoop down and save them from the race issues of America. It’s counterproductive to national Black progress to think that only a select few Blacks will be able to save the entire race.
Anderson identifies herself and her other well-to-do Black peers as members of The Talented Tenth who are given the charge of uplifting and saving the impoverished Blacks from themselves. She speaks about how “identity with poverty leads to laziness” and her frustration with what she calls the “advancement is betrayal perspective.” Those two statements stand out because they pissed me off so bad I had to sit the book down for a few hours to regroup. I do agree that glamorizing and glorifying ghetto life isn’t healthy or helpful for anyone. However, we cannot ever judge a person by who they become in order to deal with the tragedy that is life. We cannot ever judge a person by the life they have had to lead because of circumstances that were behind their control. We cannot ever judge a person for finding any way to live themselves and their life in a world that is constantly trying to get them to hate both.
For the Black Bourgeoisie (the term I think most applies to these contemporary Talented Tenthers) believe that they are the ones being judged for not being able to identify with ghetto culture and proclaim that the lesser Blacks are attacking them by calling them well outs and are persecuting them for their advancement when in truth the very thought that they could save the people in the ghetto – because certainly these individuals are too ignorant and uneducated to save themselves – is in it’s very premise is offensive. Therefore, they should not be surprised to find those individuals defending themselves. Let me also say that there are wealthy Blacks and poor Blacks who do not fall into either of these categories, Anderson is not one of them. Anderson proves this in a scene in the book when she and her husband are in the hood and a guy pulls up beside them with his car radio thumping. She is immediately offended by both the language of the music and the volume. She waits until the man emerges from the car and details his baggy clothes and his good fronts. She then turns to her husband and says “a successful business owner? And her husband responds “a successful business man and we don’t want what he’s selling.” Seriously?? Anderson has spent pages discussing the importance of Black unity and her frustration with the assumptions of Whites and Blacks as it persons to Black businesses but she would sit in her car and not only have the same kind of discriminatory thoughts about another Black person and be so ignorant and high-minded as to actually give them voice?? And yet we are to believe that she and her counterparts, self-proclaimed Talented Tenthers are going to save the entire Black race unbiased?? Not hardly with that attitude.
Effective leaders of today do not tower over their fellow-man as if they’re some god to be worshipped without question or doubt. This is evidenced by President Barack Obama who was criticized for having started his career as a community organizer instead of some high profile law firm. However, it was ability to make country feel that he was standing beside us and understanding what we were feeling. He didn’t promise us he would fix the country, he promised us that we would fix it together.
It is my firm belief that the psychology of change dictates that if you are going to change anything (especially a person) you must provide validation of its existence as it is by accepted without pretense or judgement what it is. If the Talented Tenthers must not separate themselves from the Black community as a whole. No matter whether they can identify with it or not, whether they like it or not, whether they agree with it or not because that’s what a messiah does. Christ proclaimed to have become all things to all men that he might win them over and hence he hung out in the hood with the drunks and prostitutes just as he sat in the temple with the priests and just as he graced the halls of kings and he saw them the same. That is how Christ gained so many followers. It is highly unlikely that a person can suspend all of their opinions in a way that allows them to reach everyone, which is why it is highly unlikely that the ideology of The Talented Tenth is relevant for the Black community of today. Which is why we must never look for a messiah in a man. So, put that Talented Tenth shit to rest.
I’m not sayin’; I’m just sayin’,
An Angry Black Man