Sarba Aguda " The Talented Tenth"

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C&T 5000.001 Study Notes

Sarba Aguda

The Talented Tenth”

W.E.B. DuBois
Answers to Pre-Reading Questions:
1. What problem(s) does each author frame?

DuBois argues that the problem of education for the majority of the blacks in America has been largely ignored and approached incorrectly. He believes that in order to uplift the race, its “exceptional men” must be well-educated in the meaning and means of life.

2. What assumptions are embedded in the problems the author frames?

DuBois assumes that education is in and of itself a natural pathway to a better life. He admits that it is important to train people in a useful trade, but asserts that this means nothing if a person isn’t enlightened as to the meaning of life. He assumes that education and happiness are intrinsically connected. He also assumes that this educated exception will feel naturally responsible for uplifting the rest of their race. He also assumes when seems like an inherent inequality between white and black men—saying that blacks need different education that can only be provided by blacks.

3. What context does the author acknowledge in the framing of the problem and its historical response?

He asserts that the burden is on American society to take on this problem now, because for the past 300 years blacks have been oppressed.

4. What stance on history is each author engaging with? How do you know?

I’m not sure what stance on history this is, honestly. He relies on history a lot, though, when presenting his argument. Because of his own historical context, he actually had to “prove” that there have been valuable black contributors to society—something no one has to prove anymore because we know it’s true.

5. What are the consequences of the author’s interpretation?

I’m also not sure about how to answer this question.


In this essay, DuBois argues several points:

  • He believes that the Negro race, and any race, will be saved by its “exceptional men.” He calls this portion of the race “The Talented Tenth,” and gives them the task of guiding the rest of the race away from contamination and death.

  • He spends the first section of the essay demonstrating that, although they may now be overlooked, there have been several Negro men and women that have made valuable contributions to society. He cites the examples of Phillis Wheatly, Paul Cuffe, Benjamen Banneker, Dr. James Derham, Lemuel Haynes, David Walker, Purvis and Remond, Pennington and Highland Garnett, Sojourner Truth, and Frederick Douglass.

  • DuBois raises the question of where these black leaders were trained. Many were self-trained, others were educated at foreign universities, and others were college-bred either in colored schools or white universities.

  • He points out that many, those who are “blind worshippers of the Average,” might argue that the black race is full of death, disease, and crime—but people only believe this because our nation has for 300 years crushed the spirit of the black people, allowing “to flourish servility and lewdness and apathy.”

  • DuBois believes that it will always “be from the top downward that culture filters.” Therefore, the Talented Tenth will have to be extremely well-trained in order to spread their knowledge and ability through the rest of the race. The two historic mistakes that have hindered progress in this area have been: “first that no more could ever rise save the few already risen; or second, that it would better the uprisen to pull the risen down.”

  • He argues that the only way to improve the condition of black people is through education. Educated leaders of the race will uplift the entire race.

  • DuBois argues that blacks need their own particular curriculum, because “It need hardly be argued that the Negro people need social leadership more than most groups; that they have no traditions to fall back upon, no long established customs, no strong family ties, no well defined social classes.”

  • The purpose of Negro education, DuBois believes, must be to “strengthen the Negro’s character, increase his knowledge and teach him to earn a living.”

  • The way to accomplish these things is by (1) opening common schools and (2) opening industrial schools. Schooling will only be successful if there are well-educated and trained individuals teaching.

  • DuBois also believes that “human education is not simply a matter of schools; it is much more a matter of family and group life - the training of one’s home, of one’s daily companions, of one’s social class.”

  • DuBois quotes the Sixth Atlanta Conference: Negro schools should be a public burden, since they are a public benefit. The Negro has a right to demand good common school training at the hands of the States and the Nation since by their fault he is not in position to pay for this himself."

  • This is DuBois’s closing argument: “Men of America, the problem is plain before you. Here is a race transplanted through the criminal foolishness of your fathers. Whether you like it or not the millions are here, and here they will remain. If you do not lift them up, they will pull you down. Education and work are the levers to uplift a people. Work alone will not do it unless inspired by the right ideals and guided by intelligence. Education must not simply teach work — it must teach Life. The Talented Tenth of the Negro race must be made leaders of thought and missionaries of culture among their people. No others can do this work and Negro colleges must train men for it. The Negro race, like all other races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men.”

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