From Fri Nov 2 05:03:58 2001
From: Art McGee <>
Subject: [BRC-NEWS] QUOTE: Joy James
Precedence: bulk
Date: Fri, 2 Nov 2001 05:52:10 -0500 (EST)


From Transcending the Talented Tenth: Black Leaders and American Intellectuals

By Joy James, 1997

[Admin Note: Normally, we post quotes like this on a companion list called BRC-ANNOUNCE (BRC-NEWS is limited to full articles and certain types of reports). However, because this is a longer and more important quote, which helps to dispel the ossified myth in Black people’s minds regarding W.E.B. Du Bois and the Talented Tenth concept, we’re giving it wider exposure here on BRC-NEWS.]

In 1951, Du Bois ran for the U.S. Senate on the American Labor Party ticket; he received 250,000 votes. In 1950-51, he was indicted and tried as an unregistered foreign agent. This personal and political crisis solidified his theorizing on the essentialism of a mass base for progressive movements. According to David Du Bois, his stepfather’s most thorough rethinking of the Talented Tenth occurred during these years of government persecution. Du Bois’s struggles with state repression sharply delineated his allies. His black middle- class support largely dissipated via its fears, political timidity, and conservatism. Du Bois’s support among workers who actively opposed his prosecution grew. The efficacy and militancy of workers and laborers agitating for his exoneration dispelled all specters of black elites as ideal race leaders. The memoir In Battle for Peace (1952) recounts betrayals by African-American middle-class colleagues as well as new alliances with working-class African Americans. While most of my educated and well-to-do Negro friends—although by no means all—were scared by the [anti-Soviet] war propaganda and went quickly to cover, Du Bois writes, an increasing mass of Negro working class, especially the members of the so-called left-wing unions, rallied to my side with faith and money. His own dependency on militant black workers brought the final transformation to his ideology on political leadership and agency: My faith hitherto had been in what I once denominated the ’Talented Tenth.’ I now realize that the ability within a people does not automatically work for its highest salvation...naturally, out of the mass of the working classes, who know life in its bitter struggle, will continually rise the real, unselfish and clearsighted leadership.

Workers not only share positions of leadership ideologically held previously by professional intellectuals. They also, by virtue of their confronting labor conditions that necessitate radical resistance, constitute a more courageous and committed cadre of organizers. Workers’ and radicals’ agitation likely kept Du Bois from imprisonment. For the elder leader, the development of the ability within a people, its real, unselfish, and clear-sighted leadership was no longer an attribute of privilege; the grass-roots bore progressivism.

Writing that little more is passed on to our youth today of W.E.B. Du Bois than the elitist concept of black leadership, David Du Bois wryly observes that the African-American tendency to want to hold on to this Talented Tenth elitist concept of black leadership has existed in the most unlikely places. Illustrating his point, Du Bois recalls that in 1972, after a twelve-year African sojourn from U.S. racism, he welcomed Black Panther Party newspaper editor Erika Huggins’s invitation for a feature article on his stepfather. Considering this an excellent opportunity to educate about W.E.B. Du Bois’s rejection of an elite Talented Tenth, the younger Du Bois wrote of 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. When his article appeared in the Black Panther paper’s December issue, all references to the senior Du Bois’s rejection of the Talented Tenth were deleted, according to David Du Bois, who suggests that the Panther leaders sought to hold on to vanguard elitism.

Not only marginalized black militants reasserted the mask of Du Bois as the patriarch of elite race leadership considered the vehicle for black liberation. Today many references to and representations of Du Bois disregard his evolving radicalization of agency. Some of the most unlikely places for a Talented Tenth fetish are located in the literature of cultural studies, critical race theory, feminism, black postmodernism, and Afrocentrism. Such writing excises Du Bois’s democratic radicalism and his conviction that those with the least to lose, and therefore the most to gain, are most likely to provide exemplary leadership in liberation struggles.

Joy James
Transcending the Talented Tenth: Black Leaders and American Intellectuals
Routledge Press 1997