W.E.B. Du Bois' The Talented Tenth: Essay Summary & Theory

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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature and is completing a Ph.D. He has taught college English for 6 years.

'The Talented Tenth' is a 1903 essay by W.E.B. Du Bois that popularized the theory that cultivating a class of exceptional leaders through classical education was crucial to African American empowerment.

Overview of 'The Talented Tenth'

'The Talented Tenth' is an influential 1903 essay by W.E.B. Du Bois that popularized the concept of the title. White philanthropists debating the best way to educate and empower African Americans had first suggested the idea of a talented tenth. The talented tenth theory argued that the focus should be on providing classical education for the top ten percent of African Americans, teaching them to become leaders of the community. The theory argued that with an educated group of exceptional leaders, the rest of the African American community would also benefit. In Du Bois' essay, he largely uses it as an alternative to the focus on industrial education promoted by his intellectual rival Booker T. Washington.

Theory and Background

The theory of the talented tenth originated with white philanthropists, primarily in the North, in 1896. It was largely a response to the Atlanta Compromise of 1895. African American leader Booker T. Washington brokered the Atlanta Compromise with Southern white leaders, which was intended to ease racial tensions in the South. Under the Atlanta Compromise, Southern blacks agreed to submit to white rule and not agitate for equal rights and, in return, the white leadership agreed to provide basic education and due process.

The education provided under the Atlanta Compromise, and endorsed by Washington, was industrial education, which taught students to work in manual trades and manufacturing. Since the Atlanta Compromise did not allow for black leadership, there was no need for classical education, the traditional training in the liberal arts that was thought to be the cornerstone for careers in politics, law, medicine, and education.

Due to the racism of the time, many whites thought blacks were incapable of receiving this kind of education anyway. However, some Northern white leaders who disapproved of the Atlanta Compromise thought that there was at least a small group of blacks that were intellectually exceptional and, if they received the proper education, could become leaders of the African American community. It was out of this idea that the concept of the talented tenth was born, arguing that approximately one in ten African Americans did have this capacity for classical education and leadership.

Summary of 'The Talented Tenth'

'The Talented Tenth' is an essay that appears in the influential 1903 essay collection The Negro Problem, which featured contributions from many African American leaders. Du Bois was a professor of history at Atlanta University and would go on to be one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He had originally supported the Atlanta Compromise but turned against it, realizing it was just another way for the white elites in the South to keep African Americans under their control.

In 'The Talented Tenth,' Du Bois speaks to white leaders to make his case for the talented tenth, and for the need of educating them. He opens by saying, 'The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men.' He then sets out to show that African Americans, like all other races, have among them varying intellects and abilities and that there actually is a talented tenth of exceptional men.

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