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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 us—in wonderful stories and alternately stern admonitions—were the dreams of the Freedom Riders, bus boycotters and the courageous souls who advanced on America’s all-white lunch counters. They who could not eat hamburgers at Wool-worth’s 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 came from.

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 mandate—from 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, failed.

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 troop

Those ads stand as a call to arms, in that I—like many others of my generation—benefited 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 only—volunteering for a homeless shelter or an adult-literacy program.

One’s community, however, is no longer limited to being part of one’s 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 back—for instance, providing opportunity where none existed before we got where we are. As Henry Louis Gates Jr. writes in The Future of the Race:

This new Talented Tenth,
then, while remaining an
elite, a vanguard, is acutely
aware of its social and ethi-
cal obligations to the larger
group, its members keenly
aware that their privileged
positions stem not from
their own inherent nobility
of mind and spirit but from

Few of the neighborhoods that spawned us still exist. Of those that do, they continue to bring forth hopeful progeny in spite of our apathy. Just imagine what they could do were we actively remembering “not to forget where we came from.”

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 name’s 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 part—written not on my resume but in the soul of my race—might have exposed these continuing injustices, possibly even changing the day’s outcome for many more African Americans.

This essay first appeared in the spring 2001 Emory Women’s Center newsletter and is reprinted with permission.



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