Illustration of W. E. B. Du Bois

The Souls of Black Folk

by W. E. B. Du Bois

Start Free Trial

Student Question

What did Dubois mean by "the talented tenth"?

Quick answer:

The Talented Tenth (a phrase that pre-dated Du Bois's writings on the subject) refers to the one in ten Black men who are "capable by character and talent to receive ... higher training" and who subsequently acquire a college education which can help them motivate and lead the Black community.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

“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.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What did Du Bois mean by the Talented Tenth?

Du Bois did not coin the phrase "the Talented Tenth," but he uses it here in the same sense in which he used it in his 1903 essay of the same name. The Talented Tenth is a phrase which refers to the small number of Black men (approximately one in ten) who are able to become teachers and leaders. These men are the ones who are "capable by character and talent" of receiving higher training from universities, allowing them to become cultured enough to be "useful" to their race. Essentially, the Talented Tenth represent a group of college-educated Black men who have the training and culture to transform the Black community—and the position of the Black community within America as a whole—if they are permitted to do so.

Here, Du Bois is arguing that there can be no remedying the unequal South unless these talented young Black men are allowed to access the higher training for which there is a strong and growing demand. Du Bois states that if the "key" to learning is denied to these very capable young Black men, it is ridiculous to assume that they will simply be content to return to menial tasks like hewing wood and drawing water. It is vital that proper colleges are founded so that educated Black men can strive alongside white men to create social change.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on