More than any other group in America, the Black community has been thoroughly colonized into embodying the tragic American Nationalist identity. That identity being framed by imperialism, white-supremacy, capitalism, and patriarchy, flaws the ideologies produced by American culture. For the ideologies of the Black community, this is dangerously problematic.
The framework of American Nationalism instills, in Americans who embrace it, a way of being and acting that is anchored by certain values and principles that justify these behaviors. For instance the fact that part of American Nationalism is an imperialistic world view and a white-supremacist domestic view means that those who embrace American Nationalism, inadvertently approach people who are non-white as non-American and anyone non-American is engaged with an air of fascism that relegates those individuals to being inferior because they are different. The other part of the American Nationalist framework is capitalism and patriarchy. Both of these ideologies provide the groundwork for hostile interpersonal relationships between citizens. In America, it is capitalism that creates social class and patriarchy that promotes gender supremacy (for males ofcourse). Capitalism with its promise of an economy not regulated by the government and the opportunity for anyone to ‘make it big’ is America’s greatest delusion. However, many Americans support and protect capitalism (usually the ones who have made gains within it or at least have the potential to). For Minorities (and by minorities I mean non-white ethnic groups and women) the playing field of capitalism is a mountain that begins on a slippery hill beneath the plateau that White Americans usually begin their climb. This means that because we begin with a deficit of financial resources and because of discrimination our ability to accumulate financial resources through working income or income generating assets, the playing field is not leveled. Since the capitalism relies on competition to obtain the greatest gains and the only way to be competitive is to have access to financial resources, which we can scarcely accumulate, then, in truth, we are never let into the game let alone allowed to play. This creates hostility between the haves and the have nots. It creates a social class system that surrounds material assets, prestige, and power. The 99% of Americans who do not and my never obtain such wealth, spend their lives working to try and obtain it. For minorities it becomes an obsession. For Black people, in particular, it becomes the standard against which we measure our lives, social standing, success, and self esteem.
Party to Privilege
It is from this obsession that if Black people have fought for the equal opportunity to access those things that they feel will allow them to climb the mountain of capitalistic success. Enter Affirmative Action. This piece of legislation opened doors for Black people — doors people still didn’t want open. So, even when Black people got there, they were met with resistance, discrimination, and prejudice. Being surrounded by an environment like that on a daily basis with no space to nurture, heal, and resist the bombarding messages, is dangerous. It often fractures the psyche of that individual as they try to reconcile how they have finally arrived but not really arrived at all.
The national middle class which takes over power at the end of the colonial regime is an under-developed middle class. It has practically no economic power, and in any case it is in no way commensurate with the bourgeoisie of the mother country which it hopes to replace. In its wilful narcissism, the national middle class is easily convinced that it can advantageously replace the middle class of the mother country.
– Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth
Those individuals who have been offered a seat at the welcome table and become party to privilege soon find that entry to these spaces and access to these opportunities does not erase the hatred that sought to keep them out. Instead the hatred just finds other ways of expressing itself and limiting the potential. This is something I have often seen in academia. I remember meeting Black students who were attending or had attended prestigious white universities. I remember all too often they looked like the walking dead. There seemed to be something hollow behind their eyes and they were defensive. These were the people that I saw viciously criticize their own community. And not in the tough love kind of way, they did it the way someone from outside the community might do it: with ignorance. What happened was they had gained access to this new world and in order to survive they had to assimilate. That brought a level of detachment from their own community. So that they could no longer understand their own people — and in many cases these students had always gone to predominately white schools and, therefore, never really had a sense of understanding Black people beyond their families. That is the cost of the ticket when you want to sit at the table of the privileged and even while you are allowed to sit and eat as a guest, you will never be considered a resident.
This native bourgeoisie, which has adopted unreservedly and with enthusiasm the ways of thinking characteristic of the mother country, which has become wonderfully detached from its own thought and has based its consciousness upon foundations which are typically foreign, will realize, with its mouth watering, that it lacks something essential to a bourgeoisie: money. The bourgeoisie of an under-developed country is a bourgeoisie in spirit only.
– Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth
The Talented Tenth
It is from this kind of experience that W.E.B. DuBois formulates his theory of the Talented Tenth. I remember reading The Negro problem for the first time and I remember the distaste I had while reading the essay, The Talented Tenth. I kept re-reading it because all of my professors went on and on about DuBois and I had researched the term after hearing one of my professors make mention of it to the class by telling us that we were as college students part of the talented tenth and that we had a duty to fulfill. So I kept reading this essay and I kept thinking, this motherfucker is elitist as hell! I finally decided that regardless of what anyone thought, that whole theory was bogus and problematic and that DuBois wasn’t all that to me. It was some years later when I returned to DuBoise body of work and discovered that he, himself, had later denounced the entire idea (now why the hell doesn’t anyone ever talk about that?! I guess because talented tenth is catchy and sounds nice).
When I came out of college into the world of work, I realized that it was quite possible that my plan of training a talented tenth might put into control and power a group of selfish, self indulgent well-to-do men, whose basic interest in solving the negro problem was personal; personal freedom and unhampered enjoyment and use of the world, without any real care, or certainly no arousing care as to what became of the mass of American negroes or of the mass of any people. — Selfishness is even more natural than sacrifice.
– W.E.B. DuBois, The Talented Tenth Memorial Address
DuBois, with an emphasis on education as a means of liberation, built this ideology in the hopes that other Black people who, like him, were finally gaining access to higher education, would lead their people. However, what he found beyond the safety of the academy was a much different reality. This revelation that he makes in his address clearly describes what has become of the Black middle class/Black Bourgeoisie, which by DuBois’ estimations would be the academics. Today’s Black academics take their seat at the welcome table and the only true concern that they have is to secure and retain their place and enjoy and use the world to secure a better place at the table of white-supremacy. That is our talented tenth.
The Guiding Hundredth
In his memorial address, DuBois revisioned his idea of the talented tenth of what he’d learned of the world outside the academy and the theories of Karl Marx and more radical minds. He then suggested that we realize that the struggle would have to be a “group-leadership” in which not just a few elites would change the destiny of the people, but the people themselves ‘with clear vision of present world conditions and dangers.”
This, then, in my re-examined and restated theory of the “Talented Tenth,” which has thus become the doctrine of the “Guiding Hundredth.”
-W.E.B. DuBois, The Talented Tenth Memorial Address
For whatever reason, it is only quietly noted that the concept of the Talented Tenth is an ideology that would never produce its intended results and would, in effect, create internal tensions for the Black community. Yet, we continue to glorify and glamorize it because, like well trained Americans, we want to believe that we are superior and privileged (even though it’s only supposed to be a tenth of the Black population which means some us were not meant to be Talented Tenthers). That is tragedy.
The problem is that without first decolonizing one’s mind, a Black leader will stumble blindly through the imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Because they have not redesign and realigned their desires and values, they will only replicate the same system they sought to oppose.
It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being determines their consciousness.
– Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy
Institutions are how ideology is passed along and sustained. This is not to say that any institution, by itself, is evil or bad. This is simply to say that it has an inherent flaw because of the system that designed it and that it must serve. For example, institutions of higher learning are excellent places for intellectual growth and scholarly development; however, most of these institutions serve at the pleasure of the federal government which allocates finances to students through grants and loans to students. So while indirect, there is a level of control beyond the institutions governing powers and that influences what gets taught, how policies are formed, and how students are engaged. So to enter an institution of higher learning is a worthwhile endeavor but one must struggle constantly to retain one’s own sensibilities and ideologies.
We must recognize that every institution by its inherent design holds the danger of leading us back into the imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy that we are trying to free ourselves from. If anything institutions lure us into them with the promise of freedom and change and once we are there they bombard us with their ideologies. It is an attack on radicalism. The attack is not an overt one; it is a gentle touch that soothes and a sweet voice that hypnotize and convinces us to pledge our allegiance to the lies once more.
Unless we fundamentally change and radicalize the ideologies of our culture, we cannot expect our institutions to do anything more than replicate what has been. Traditional institutions, as they are, cannot save us. This is the lesson to be learned from DuBois’ work on the Talented Tenth and the revision of that theory which became the Guiding Hundredth. That the only thing that will result from elitist, fascist thoughts that are supported by the ideals of American Nationalism, is division, selfishness, and a stagnation in actual progress. If we, as a Black people, are to fight this battle, we are going to have to do it together: as equals, as comrades, as a people.
I’m not sayin; I’m just sayin,
An Angry Black Man
DuBois, W.E.B. “The Talented Tenth Memorial Address.” 1948
Fanon, Frantz. “The Pitfalls of National Consciousness.” The Wretched of the Earth.
Marx, Karl. A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.