August 6, 2001
Time for Talented Tenth to lead
LaDonna Cherry is creative director at University Publications.
We were the children of the revolution that our parents bravely, sometimes
bloodily, waged. Drifting down to usin wonderful stories and alternately
stern admonitionswere the dreams of the Freedom Riders, bus boycotters
and the courageous souls who advanced on Americas all-white lunch
counters. They who could not eat hamburgers at Wool-worths taught
us that we could be president, if we chose.
With the hope of a new civil rights era in America in the mid-1960s,
we were nurtured in self-reliant, self-sufficient black neighborhoods.
We were taught to fear God, respect our elders and, above all else, observe
this rule: Once we got to where we were going, not to forget where we
By the time we entered first grade, Jim Crow laws had fallen to affirmative
action, school-busing protests were dying down and our paths had been
set. As young adults, we were recruited by the top schools in the country,
welcomed among the ranks of Fortune 500 companies and invited to serve
on the boards of organizations that once had campaigned to keep us well
beyond their doors. Our only mandatefrom one to whom much is given,
much is expected. Even if the much that we were given was
what everyone else had long enjoyed as a birthright, still we had to do
our part and do it well.
In 1930 W.E.B. DuBois published an essay titled The Talented Tenth.
In it he addressed the social and ethical responsibilities that black
haves bore to black have-nots. In the third section
of the essay, DuBois outlined the ethical functions of black leadership:
The Talented Tenth of the Negro race must be made leaders of thought
and missionaries of culture among their people.
As one of the Talented Tenth, I contend that we have, for the most part,
Aside from the cursory hours we logged to pledge our respective fraternities
and sororities, how may of us have come near to fulfilling our obligation?
Last summer, the Boys and Girls Club of America ran television ads asking
for community volunteers; last fall, similarly, the Girl Scouts of America
began a radio campaign calling for hip, cool women to become
Those ads stand as a call to arms, in that Ilike many others of
my generationbenefited from programs sponsored by organizations
such as this during my formative years. For all of us, the painful bathroom-mirror
question is this: How can we now sit idly by while the need for our involvement
is so great? How can we retreat to enclaves of black wealth and power
and not repay the people who got us there? Is our talent,
then, geared only toward self-advancement and not toward the profit of
our race as a people?
There are, naturally, different interpretations of the concept of giving
back. We were raised to believe that giving back meant
community involvement onlyvolunteering for a homeless shelter or
an adult-literacy program.
Ones community, however, is no longer limited to being part of
ones town; it is, instead, the too-wide world in which we live.
Does being wide and broad frighten us in the same ways that it once did
our oppressors? Is this why we live in segregated neighborhoods where
upward mobility seems the only air pure enough to breathe?
The answer may lie in finding our own way of giving backfor instance,
providing opportunity where none existed before we got where we are. As
Henry Louis Gates Jr. writes in The Future of the Race:
What qualifies me to preach, you ask? An unfortunate experience at the
polls last November. I was initially denied the right to vote. Despite
following all of the vaunted rules, I almost gave up in the wake of a
technicality surrounding my names mysterious disappearance from
a list of registered voters. But my responsibility to my ancestors and
my children made me fight back the tears and fight the system. After three
hours of waiting, enduring the curious glances of those who were voting
and an impassioned conversation with the regional polls manager, I triumphed.
But for all the steppin I was made to do just to execute my constitutional right to vote, I blame myself in the end and not the unsmiling white women who formed the blockade. More community involvement on my partwritten not on my resume but in the soul of my racemight have exposed these continuing injustices, possibly even changing the days outcome for many more African Americans.