Illustration of W. E. B. Du Bois

The Souls of Black Folk

by W. E. B. Du Bois

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What did Dubois mean by the talented tenth?

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“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.

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