Talented Tenth Revival
In 1903, W.E.B Dubois said, “The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men.” This group, which he referred to as the Talented Tenth, would be responsible for uplifting the race by providing morally sound, socially conscious, and thoroughly unselfish leadership. In 1948, Dubois recanted this claim, acknowledging that he didn’t realize the extent to which egotism, self-interest, and self-righteousness would prevent the Talented Tenth from serving its intended purpose.
This history lesson seems to have been lost on Tavis Smiley, who on February 25, 2006 organized and hosted his seventh annual State of the Black Union conference. The event brought 45 of the nation’s leading intellectuals, politicians, activists, and clergy together to discuss Black America’s most pressing issues. Unfortunately, the event fell short of its goal and degenerated into an all-too-familiar day of posturing, ego-boosting, and unsatisfying dialogue.
With the notable exclusion of Minister Louis Farrakhan, who rightly took the panelists to task for their milquetoast politics, the participants demonstrated a shared commitment to engaging in business as usual. Once again, our self-appointed leaders squandered valuable hours by hawking books and
accumulating sound bites instead of openly wrestling with some of the day’s most pressing
In spite of their expressed commitment to developing a more complex set of political stances that reiterate the importance of both individual responsibility and social critique, the participants spent the bulk of the time refusing to implicate White supremacy, sexism, homophobia and class arrogance as
fundamental sources of social misery. By doing this, these leaders unwittingly echoed the unprincipled and paternalistic “blame the victim” discourses of White conservatives and the naïve market-driven optimism of neo-liberals.
It is also unclear how the particular issues discussed at the forum were determined to be most critical in Black American life. From whom did these people receive a mandate with which to make such decisions? To be clear, I am not disputing the intentions of the participants per se, nor am I challenging the legitimacy of their concerns. Still, it is highly problematic to presume a one-to-one relationship between the agendas of the liberal bourgeois elites in attendance and those of everyday Black Americans.
Like any group, Black Americans are a diverse body of people with a wide range of opinions, beliefs, and commitments. In order to fully account for this diversity, it is absolutely necessary that we create spaces in which ordinary people can speak the truth as they see it and articulate their needs as they
imagine them. This cannot happen at a national “Who’s Who in Black America” event, where the masses sit and listen to a series of condescending monologues from privileged pundits about how they can improve their lives.
As Dubois’ taught us nearly 60 years ago, we simply cannot look to a select few to determine and respond to the lived realities of many. Instead of celebrating these annual reunions for Black elite, we must begin to underscore the importance of local discussion, organizing, and activism as necessary
responses to our conditions. If not, we will be doomed to repeat the same historical mistake.