The Talented Tenth is a phrase made popular by Du Bois in an article published in The Negro Problem in 1903. In the essay, Du Bois issues an argument for the higher education of African Americans. He claims “to attempt to establish any sort of a system of common and industrial school training, without first providing for the higher training of the very best teachers, is simply throwing your money at the winds.” He strongly believed that African Americans needed a classical education to be able to reach their potential and become leaders of the race; he contends that industrial training is effective in teaching technical skills, but does not create Men. “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” (33). Educating the best minds of the race disseminates into the rest, allowing the general uplift of all.
Contrary to popular belief, Du Bois is not opposed to technical or industrial schools. He argues that there must be a system of education in place for African Americans in the same way there is a system for white Americans. This must include both technical and/or industrial schools, classic educational schools, and schools of higher education capable of training teachers for all. This is counter to the belief held by Booker T. Washington, who argued the African American community should focus on industrial training. Du Bois’ program of higher education, on the other hand, seeks to promote “intelligence, broad sympathy, knowledge of the world that was and is and of the relation of men to it” (33-4).
The essay is a prime example of Du Bois’ skill as a scholar, writer, and social activist. Du Bois uses historical evidence to justify his argument. Outlining the breadth of intelligence the race has displayed from the beginning of its time in the United States, Du Bois provides a list historical figures (known and little known) that exemplify the idea of the Talented Tenth. These figures include David Walker, Sojourner Truth, and Frederick Douglass. Then, he uses sociological figures of African American college graduates and their subsequent occupations to better prove his point on the necessity of higher education. Most African Americans who attend college go on to become teachers, professors, principals, and Deans; followed by a distant second who become members of the clergy (52). These figures outline Du Bois’ point that the college educated among a race are at present group leaders and ought to be seen as “the man who sets the ideals of the community where he lives, directs its thoughts and heads its social movements” (54).
Credit: The Negro Problem: A Series of Articles by Representative American Negroes of Today. (1903). New York: James Pott and Co.