The Talented Tenth

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The Talented Tenth

Memorial Address



W. E. B. DuBois


Some years ago I used the phrase "The Talented Tenth," meaning leadership of the Negro race in America by a trained few. Since then this idea has been criticized. It has been said that I had in mind the building of an aristocracy with neglect of the masses. This criticism has seemed even more valid because of emphasis on the meaning and power of the mass of people to which Karl Marx gave voice in the middle of the nine teenth century, and which has been growing in influence ever since. There have come other changes in these days, which a great many of us do not realize as Revolution through which we are passing. Because of this, it is necessary to examine the world about us and our thoughts and attitudes toward it. I want then to re-examine and restate the thesis of the Talented Tenth which I laid down many years ago.

In a day when culture is comparatively static, a man once grounded in the fundamentals of knowledge, received through current education, can depend on the more or less routine absorption of knowledge for keeping up with the world. This was true for decades during the nineteenth cen tury, and usually has been true in the slow drift of many other centuries. But today, the tide runs swiftly, and almost every fundamental concept which most of us learned in college has undergone radical change; so that a man who was broadly educated in 1900 may be widely ignorant in 1948, unless he has made conscious, continuous, and determined effort to keep abreast with the development of knowledge and of thought in the last half century.

For instance, since 1900 physics and chemistry have been revolution ized in many of their basic concepts. Astronomy is today almost a new science as compared with the time of Copernicus. Psychology has risen from guess-work and introspection to an exact science. Biology and An thropology have changed and expanded widely; and History and Sociology have begun in the middle of the twentieth century, first, to take on the shape of real sciences rather than being largely theory and opinion.

If, now, a college man of 1900, or even of 1925, has spent his time since graduation mainly in making a living, he is in fair way not to be able to understand the world of 1950. It is necessary then for men of education continually to readjust their knowledge, and this is doubly necessary in this day of swift revolution in ideas, in ideals, in industrial techniques, in rapid travel, and in varieties and kinds of human contacts.

Turn now to that complex of social problems, which surrounds and conditions our life, and which we call more or less vaguely, The Negro Problem. It is clear that in 1900, American Negroes were an interior caste, were frequently lynched and mobbed, widely disfranchised, and usually segregated in the main areas of life. As student and worker at that time, I looked upon them and saw salvation through intelligent leadership; as I said, through a "Talented Tenth." And for this intelligence, I argued, we needed college-trained men. Therefore, I stressed college and higher train ing. For these men with their college training, there would be needed thorough understanding of the mass of Negroes and their problems; and, therefore, I emphasized scientific study. Willingness to work and make personal sacrifice for solving these problems was of course, the first pre requisite and Sine Qua Non. I did not stress this, I assumed it.


I assumed that with knowledge, sacrifice would automatically follow. In my youth and idealism, I did not realize that selfishness is even more natural than sacrifice. I made the assumption of its wide availability be cause of the spirit of sacrifice learned in my mission school training.

I went South to Fisk University at the age of 17, when I was pecul iarly impressionable, from a region which had opened my mind but had not filled the void. At Fisk I met a group of teachers who would be un usual in any time or place. They were not only men of learning and ex perience, but men and women of character and almost fanatic devotion. It was a great experience to sit under their voice and influence. It was from that experience that I assumed easily that educated people, in most cases were going out into life to see how far they could better the world. Of course, as I looked about me, I might have understood, that all students of Fisk University were not persons of this sort. There was no lack of small and selfish souls; there were among the student body, careless and lazy fellows; and there were especially sharp young persons, who received the education given very cheaply at Fisk University, with the distinct and single-minded idea, of seeing how much they could make out of it for themselves, and nobody else.

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.


This, historically, has always been the danger of aristocracy. It was for a long time regarded as almost inevitable because of the scarcity of ability among men and because, naturally the aristocrat came to regard himself and his whims as necessarily the end and only end of civilization and culture. As long as the masses supported this doctrine, aristocracy and mass misery lived amiably together.

Into this situation, came the revolutionary thought, first voiced in former ages by great moral leaders, which asked charity for the poor and sympathy for the ignorant and sick. And even intimated eventual justice in Heaven. But in the suddenly expanding economy and marvelous tech nique of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there came prophets and reformers, but especially the voice of Karl Marx, to say that the poor need not always be with us, and that all men could and should be free from poverty.

Karl Marx stressed the fact that not merely the upper class but the mass of men were the real people of the world. He insisted that the masses were poor, ignorant, and sick, not by sin or by nature but by oppression. He preached that planned production of goods and just distribution of in come would abolish poverty, ignorance and disease, and make the so-called upper-class, not the exception, but the rule among mankind. He declared that the world was not for the few, but for the many; that out of the masses of men could come overwhelming floods of ability and genius, if we freed men by plan and not by rare chance. Civilization not only could be shared by the vast majority of men, but such civilization founded on a wide human base would be better and more enduring than anything that the world has seen. The world would thus escape the enduring danger of being run by a selfish few for their own advantage.

Very gradually as the philosophy of Karl Marx and many of his suc cessors seeped into my understanding, I tried to apply this doctrine with regard to Negroes. My Talented Tenth must be more than talented, and work not simply as individuals. Its passport to leadership was not alone learning, but expert knowledge of modern economics as it affected Ameri can Negroes; and in addition to this and fundamental, would be its will ingness to sacrifice and plan for such economic revolution in industry and just distribution of wealth, as would make the rise of our group possible.


Moreover, Biology and Sociology were reconstructing my idea of lace. This group was not simply a physical entity: a black people, or a people descended from black folk. It was, what all races really are, a cul tural group. It is too bad that we have to use the word "cultural" for so many meanings. But what it means in modern scientific thought is that 15,000,000 men and women who for three centuries have shared common experiences and common suffering, and have worked all those days and nights together for their own survival and progress; that this complex of

habits and manners could not and must not be lost. That persons sharing this experience formed a race no matter what their blood may be. That this race must be conserved for the benefit of the Negro people themselves and for mankind. I came then to advocate, not pride of biological race, but pride in a cultural group, integrated and expanded by developed ideals, so as to form a method of progress.

Immediately this posed a paradox. Those Negroes who had long trained themselves for personal success and individual freedom, were com ing to regard the disappearance of segregation as an end and not a means. They wanted to be Americans, and they did not care so much what kind of folk Americans were, as for the right to be one of them. They, not only, did not want to fight for a Negro culture, they even denied the possibility of any such animal, certainly its desirability even if it could be made to exist. The leadership, then, of my Talented Tenth over the mass of young colored men and women, college-trained and entering their careers, faced rejection and disappearance of the Negro, both as a race and as a culture.

But this, as I have said, was paradoxical. The United States has a large number of Negroes. We number as many as the inhabitants of the Argentine or of Czechoslovakia; or the whole of Scandinavia, including Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. We are very nearly the size of Egypt, Rumania and Yugoslavia. And we are larger than Canada, Saudia Ara bia, Ethiopia, Hungary, or the Netherlands. We have twice as many per sons as Australia or Switzerland, and more than the whole Union of South Africa. We have more people than Portugal or Peru; twice as many as Greece and nearly as many as Turkey. We have more people by far than Belgium, and half as many as Spain.

A nation of such size, such history, such accomplishment, should be able to look forward to something more than complete effacement and utter absorption in another and foreign entity. It should have legitimate dreams of continuity, unity, and immortality. It should plan a life and future, not in world antagonism and enmity, or narrow racial provincial ism, but in higher and broader helpfulness to all, through self-knowledge, self-realization, and self-control. Not only that, but the world has at least 250,000,000 Negroes and Negroids. They cannot disappear physically, much less culturally, without deep loss to themselves and humanity.


The question is: how and by whom can Negro culture be preserved? Not simply for the social movements of America, but for the greater world of human culture.

In our concentration of thought on the United States, as the locus of our fight, we have come to think of this land as the center of the universe and lately as the predestined leader of civilization. This is because of our recent growth in world power, based on unusual natural resources; a de mocracy in government which emancipated former lower classes, and gave them work and high wages; and finally, because the leading nations of Europe lost their power through rivalry, exploitation, and war.

It was not America's virtues, but Europe's mistakes, that gave us per-sent [sic --- but maybe meant present?] primacy. We Negroes have thoughtlessly failed to recognize this and have tried to become more American than the Americans; loud in our conversation, our boasting and arrogance, showy and ostentatious in dress, careless in manners, wasteful in conspicuous expenditure, and smug and uncritical in judgment. Like all America we read few books; we get su perficial "news" from radio gossip and doctored opinion from a press known to be prejudiced and monopolized. We do not realize, that today the United States is probably the most thoroughly hated and despised na tion on earth, especially among the really cultured and civilized. Its nat ural resources, industrial techniques, and control of credit make it pow erful and feared; but it is not recognized as leading in science, in morals, or toward human happiness. The remaking of human culture, so as to fash ion a decent world, is being pursued today mainly in Europe and Asia.

Cooperation then, with the forward-looking forces of civilization in the world, can be carried out in this land by Negroes, quite as well as by any other large coherent American group. This is recognized in foreign thought. It is becoming a matter of open expression among hundreds of millions of people in Africa and in Asia. These people are not, as we usu ally assume when we unconsciously take over American prejudices, people who deserve to be ignored, in our estimate of the world and in our dreams of what the world may be. Not only have they been influential in their contributions to the past, but today, there is a leadership from the col ored world which is beginning to be powerful on earth.


Now the central thought of any cultural effort to restore the civiliza tion which has collapsed in two world wars, and to build something better is economic reconstruction. Ignorance of this central fact is widespread. Economics is not being taught as it should be in the schools and colleges today: and I mean of course by economics—knowledge of the meaning of work, of how it may best be done; of the significance and ownership of machines, of the role of credit and money; of the distribution of goods and services, of the possibilities of human effort today.

The new economics starting almost exactly a hundred years ago is clear and unanswerable in its facts and knowledge. It says that nature is the source of all wealth: that human effort transforms natural resources for human use: that the results of this work should be divided among men according to need and not by chance, or privilege or by individual power. It says that industry should be controlled by the state, and planned by science and that all goods should be owned and distributed in such ways as result in the greatest good to all. All persons should be educated according to ability and should labor according to efficiency. Health and housing, social security, facilities for recreation and for human intercourse should be public responsibilities.

Within this framework of necessary work for general welfare there should be the widest possible area reserved for liberty of thought and of action and for creative ideal.

This program of progress is the concensus [sic] of the civilized world to day. It is called by many names: Socialism, Communism, Liberalism, name according to place and time and emphasis.

In the United States, this idea has made wide-progress [sic] beginning with the populist movement, progressing with Bryan and LaFollette and cul minating with the New Deal under Franklin Roosevelt. But it has been steadily and often successfully opposed by industrial interests, which have tried desperately to make Americans turn back to the belief of the eigh teenth and nineteenth centuries, that free individual enterprise, with the least possible social control and spurred mainly by the incentive of private profit, is the only method which can bring and preserve prosperity. This doctrine is contradicted by two World Wars and the imminence of a third. It is denied in our own history by six industrial crises, a great depression which threw world industry into chaos, and threat of another tomorrow.

Yet triumphant reaction spurred by fantastic war profit is forcing the United States, against the consensus of the best opinion in the world, to block real economic progress by misdirecting knowledge through a monopolized and commercialized press and by a series of witch-hunts to scare and silence thought. This is a day of critical danger to us and to the world. Whatever we can do to avert disaster, is our bounden duty to attempt.


The question is then: Who can lead the way in this effort? Here comes a new idea for a Talented Tenth: The concept of a group-leadership, [sic] not simply educated and self-sacrificing, but with clear vision of present world conditions and dangers, and conducting American Negroes to alliance with culture groups in Europe, America, Asia and Africa, and looking toward a new world culture. We can do it. We have the ability. The only ques tion is, have we the will?

This calls for leadership through special organization. Such organi zation calls for more than a tenth of our number. One one-hundredth, or thirty thousand persons is indicated, with a directing council composed of educated and specially trained experts in the main branches of science and the main categories of human work, and a paid executive committee of five or six persons to carry out the program.

To launch so large a scheme as a new organization, would call for so much time, money and effort, that it would be more practical if an already existing body could be adapted to this work. Some of our secret fraternal orders might do it. The college fraternities would occur to all as best placed by education to inaugurate this work, if they could be persuaded of its necessity and feasibility. The under-graduate [sic] fraternities, even with their graduate chapters, have probably a constituency too young and too busy trying to make a living. Then, too, they are dominated by rather youthful ideals of the mis-called "college spirit." I turn then to this fra ternity but with some misgiving. What the guiding idea of Sigma Pi Phi was, I have never been able to learn. I believe it was rooted in a certain exclusiveness and snobbery, for which we all have a yearning, even if un-confessed. But such an object belongs to days of peace and security. To day is a time of crisis. Could then, this organization be adapted to the role of organized scientific leadership of the American Negro?


We consist of 440 families, (omitting the Boulé of Baltimore from whom repeated letters and cards, airmailed and special delivered have elicited no response.) Of 3,000,000 Negro families, we represent not a tenth, but a ten-thousandth of the group.

First of all, we are old men. Only one is under thirty: three-fourths of the Archons are between 30 and 60, and most probably nearer 60. More than a fourth are over 60. This means that by and large we re ceived our college education in the last century or the first decade of this, when the atom was indivisible: when light always spread in straight lines: when evolution was the survival of the fittest: when mankind con sisted of five separate, indestructable [sic] races and when socialism was a fool's dream.

In occupation our membership is not well-balanced. Nearly half (201) are physicians, dentists, and pharmacists. They are thus members of closed trade unions with rules coming down from another century: with highly individualized activities and restricted public contracts. The next group (144 in number) are teachers and administrators of schools, min isters and social workers. These men are more in touch with the new science and social movements, but have little first-hand experience in modern industry: that is, in the very activity which is ruling and condi tioning the modern world.

A further group of 65 persons consists of lawyers and business men. They not only themselves have limited contact with the laboring classes and their problems, but are over-exposed to American business philosophy — to the idea of industry primarily for profit, of trade unions is nuisances and of high wages as inflationary. This comes from their contact with) white fellow men in their professions, who are nearly all of the reactionary group. The remaining 30 members are varied in occupation but do not fill the clear vacancy which we have so far as authors and artists are concerned. We have 9 technicians but that is a very small number.

We do not represent then typical America. Nor do we represent at all the scientific and social leadership of the modern world, because we are overloaded with members of the professions, weighted towards American business, while science and art despite our teachers fall far behind. We are then in the mass, an old, timid, conservative group.

We are not. according to American standards, rich; but according to world standards, we are distinctly well-to-do and in the upper economic brackets. Of our membership, 127 receive over $10,000 a year and almost a score of these get over $25,000. There are 199 families who receive from $5,000 to $10,000 a year and only 86 who confess to less than $5,000, which may be modesty. Our interests then are not normally with the poor and hungry, yet we are not aware of this: we assume on the one hand our identity with the poor and yet we act and sympathize with the rich, an unconscious and dangerous dichotomy.

It is a matter of sorrow or congratulations, according to one's point of view, when we remember that this group is probably bound for ex tinction. Of the families, 159 have no children, and 88 only one child: three-fourths of the families have no grandchildren, and 39 only one grandchild. Our other 72 members may, barring accidents, partly repro duce our number, but at present there are only 243 grandchildren; when survival would call for 880!

Theoretically then this is not an ideal group for the kind of leader ship which I have in mind. Moreover, it faces peculiar trends and diffi culties. May I name six of these: first, a distinct indisposition to re-ex amine trends and knowledge or to question conclusions of the past. Sec ond, a disposition to accept the values and decisions of present-day Amer ica. Third, a deep-seated disbelief in Asia and Africa and even of the West Indies, springing partially from the prejudice of surrounding Amer icans: partially from the idea that we, ourselves, are unusual and excep tional colored folk. Fourth, a feeling of helplessness against too great odds and tendencies: if the white world is going along an accepted path even if that, is suicide, after all, what can we do about it, and what do we want to do about it? Fifth, a current philosophy among us as old as humanity, "eat, drink, and be merry" — a reaction towards throwing off of the ex treme depression of the days when we were fighting for sheer existence and determination to enjoy some of the possibilities which our income and new freedom open to us today.

And finally in spite of some of the extraordinary things which we have seen Negroes do in the last generation in America, there still lingers among us the deep-seated doubt of Negro ability to cope with the white world. We are so painfully aware of the degradation of millions of our masses of the crime and lechery that lurk in New York, Chicago and New Orleans; of the lying, dishonesty, and double dealing that mark so many even of our intelligent and rich, that we associate color and degradation and cannot make ourselves believe in any real triumph of black folk. Few of us know or try to know what human degradation on this earth can be and has been and is among other and fairer peoples.

Basically this confronts us with two problems: the leadership of the masses and the sacrifice necessary to leadership. The uplift of the mass cannot be left to chance. Marx and Lenin firmly believed it could only be accomplished by a dictatorship. I think in the case of Russia they were right; but in our plight, I think we can free our own mass by or ganization and group influence exercised through a self-sacrificing leader ship. This is primarily a question of character which I failed to empha size in my first proposal of a Talented Tenth.


In this reorientation of my ideas, my pointing out the new know ledge necessary for leadership, and new ideas of race and culture, there still remains that fundamental and basic requirement of character for any successful leadership toward great ideals. Even if the ideals are clearly perceived, honesty of character and purity of motive is needed without which no effort succeeds or deserves to succeed. We used to talk much of character — perhaps too much. At Fisk, we had it dinned into our ears. At Harvard we never mentioned it. We thought of it: but it was not good taste to talk of it: At Berlin we quite forgot it. But that was reaction. We cannot -have perfection. We have few saints. But we must have honest men or we die. We must have unselfish, far-seeing leadership or we fail.

What can Sigma Pi Phi do to see that we get it for the American Negro? So far as the group before me is concerned little can be done, for the simple reason that most of our present membership will soon be dead. Unless we begin to recruit this fraternity membership with young men and large numbers of them, our biennial conclaves will be increasingly de voted to obituaries. We should have a large increase of membership, drawn from men who have received their college education since the First World War. This new membership must not simply be successful in the American sense of being rich; they must not all be physicians and lawyers. The technicians, business men, teachers and social workers admitted must be those who realize the economic revolution now sweeping the world, and do not think that private profit is the measure of public wel fare. And too: we must deliberately seek honest men.

This screened young membership must be far greater in number than it is now. Baltimore for instance has more than 166,000 Negroes and only 23 in its Boule, representing less than 100 persons. Surely there must be at least 23 other persons in Baltimore worthy of fellowship. It is inconceivable that we should even for a moment dream that with a member ship of 440 we have scratched even the tip of the top of the surface of a group representative of potential Negro leadership in America. Nothing but congenital laziness should keep us from a membership of 3,000 by the next biennium without any lowering of quality; and a membership of 30,000 by 1960. This would be an actual numerical one hundredth of our race: a body large enough really to represent all. Yet small enough to insure exceptional quality; if screened for intelligent and disinterested planning.


Having gotten a group of predominantly active virile men of middle age and settled opinions, who have finished their education and begun their life work, what can they do? They must first of all recognize the fact that their own place in life is primarily a matter of opportunity, rather than simply desert or ability. That if such opportunity were extended and broadened, a thousand times as many Negroes could join the ranks of the educated and able, instead of sinking into poverty, disease and crime; that the primary duty of this organization would be to find desert, ability, and character among young Negroes and get for them education and op portunity; that the major opportunity should be seen as work according to gift and training with pay sufficient to furnish a decent standard of living.

A national organization of this sort must be prepared to use propa ganda, make investigation, plan procedures and even finance projects. This will call for an initial body of belief which even now can be forecast in outline.

We would want to impress on the emerging generations of Negroes in America, the ideal of plain living and high thinking, in defiance of American noise, waste and display; the rehabilitation of the indispensable family group, by deliberate planning of marriages, with mates selected for heredity, physique, health and brains, with less insistence on color, come liness or romantic sex lure, mis-called [sic] love; youth should marry young and have a limited number of healthy children; the home must be a place of education, rather than cleaning and cooking, with books, discussion and entertainment.

The schools where these children are sent must not be chosen for the color of their teachers or students, but for their efficiency in educating a particular child. In home and out children should learn no: to neglect our art heritage: music is not designed solely for night clubs; drama is not aimed at Broadway; dancing is not the handmaid of prostitution; and writing is not mainly for income.

Our religion with all of its dogma, demagoguery, and showmanship, can be a center to teach character, right conduct and sacrifice. There lies here a career for a Negro Gandhi and a host of earnest followers.

The dark hosts of Liberia and Ethiopia and other parts of Africa to gether with Asia, the Pacific lands, South and Central America, and the Caribbean area, have need for that broad knowledge of the world and special training in technique which we might learn and take to them. They do not need us for exploitation and get-rich-quick schemes. There is no reason why the sort of thought and teaching which 2,000 years ago made the groves of Athens the center of the world's salvation, could not live again in ten thousand Negro homes in America today.

Occupation should not, and need not, be left to chance or confined to what whites are doing, or are willing to let us do. It must involve innova tion and experiment. It must be a carefully planned, thoroughly thought-out with wide study of human wants, technical power, trained effort and consecrated devotion with the use of every scientific procedure in physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, sociology and history.

For this central object of planned work, this organization should as semble the best knowledge and experience. It should encourage pioneering and adventure; attacking desert places with modern technique; pro ducing new goods by new processes; avoiding the factory system and mass production as the last word in work, and returning to the ideal of personal consumption, personal taste and human desire; thinking of consumption and the consumers as coming before production, and not of production as the end of industry and profit as its motive.

The new generation must learn that the object of the world is not profit but service and happiness. They must therefore be directed away from careers which are anti-social and dishonest, but immensely profitable. Insurance can be a social help but much of it today is organized theft. We must have drug stores, but the patent nostrums in which so many of them deal deserve the penitentiary. Gambling not only as poker-playing but as a profitable career, is seeping through all kinds of American busi ness from the stock market, factory and wholesale store, to the numbers racket, horse racing, and radio gifts. Every effort should be made to warn the next generation away from this dry rot of death and crime.

An organization adapted to such a program of propaganda and work of guidance, and able to search for and select ability and character and finance efforts to give it opportunity, will need large funds at its disposal. The sacrifice necessary to provide such funds should be regarded not as sentimental charity or mushy religious fervor but as foresight and invest ment in the future of the Negro in America, and canny insurance against loss by wholesale neglect of invaluable human resources. We may reach the high ideal when again the tithe, the tenth of our income will go to the perfectly feasible effort of so civilizing the American Negro that he will be able to lead the world and will want to do so.


This, then, in my re-examined and restated theory of the "Talented Tenth," which has thus become the doctrine of the "Guiding Hundredth."

Naturally, I do not dream, that a word of mine will transform, to any essential degree, the form and trends of this fraternity; but I am cer tain the idea called for expression and that the seed must be dropped, whether in this or other soil, today or tomorrow.

Reproduced from The Boulé Journal, Volume 15, Number One, October, 1948