Old Ideologies Die Hard: The Persistence of “The Talented Tenth”

Historicizing “heroes” has proven to be a tricky business for black folk in America, that is, when we choose to undertake the endeavor at all. Oftentimes, our proclivity to re-imagine our icons is nothing more than a static idolatry that fails to account for the full complexity of the individuals we claim to acknowledge. We cherry pick the facts we want to remember about them, and disingenuously disregard the rest, similar to public school texts that maintain Christopher Columbus discovered America, the pilgrims and Indians enjoyed Thanksgiving meals together and Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves. Indeed it appears that we have bought into the American tradition of creating myths and branding them as history.


Rather than deal with the complicated ideological and political trajectories of our respective heroes, we prefer to pancake their existences and stretch these flat, singular moments into the homogenous narratives that we romanticize. And it is in this regard, that we ignore the true hope of radical change presented in the political possibilities of El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz as we obsess over Malcolm X’s sterile nationalist rhetoric that we have confused for progressive politics. And it is precisely in this regard, that we are still haunted by the reactionary bourgeois claims of W.E.B. Du Bois’ notion of “The Talented Tenth” as we ignore his shifts toward Marxism, the hopes of a unified black proletariat and third world solidarity.


The persistent demands of The Talented Tenth have most recently been articulated by the retrograde perspectives of backwards negro elitist, Juan Williams. In a recent article in the Washington Journal entitled “Precious Little of Value in Ghetto Lit”, Williams delivers a tired diatribe against “black” popular art (i.e. books, movies and rap music) engaging the ribald expressions and experiences of black urban life. His pretentious contempt is mainly aimed at a popular genre of black fiction that he refers to as “ghetto lit.”


Craftsmanship aside, Williams is completely turned off by narratives that reflect the sensibilities, trials and triumphs of the black and poor. He contends that ghetto lit ignores the “common late 20th-century theme of black middle-class striving” and that these books “celebrate the worst of black life.” Williams opines that these works should instead embody the fantasy of “becoming editor of the Harvard Law Review or chairman of the board.” In other words, instead of contesting oppression or voicing how one’s life has been tragically scarred by oppression, the already-marginalized and economically-vulnerable should fantasize about occupying the spaces that exploit them.


While this scathing critique of ghetto lit is guised in the language of the age-old debate concerning the identity politics of “blackness”, it amounts to nothing more than Mr. Williams looking out for his own class interests. Williams acutely understands that at the point where the downtrodden and poor begin to tell their own stories in their own proletariat voices, then the oppressive yokes of the capitalist bourgeoisie will begin to loosen. And this is something that the ruling class is determined to fight at every turn. In order to crush the manacles of inequality and class rule, we must begin by ridding ourselves of nefarious ideologies (like The Talented Tenth) that work to perpetuate the systems of oppression that have subjugated the poor and working classes for centuries.


Du Bois eventually realized this himself and abandoned the notion of The Talented Tenth accordingly. It is imperative for us to do the same. Like Du Bois, we must amass the fortitude to critically examine ourselves and our histories and heroes in their totality. We must endeavor to wrestle with the wide-ranging implications of each contradiction, complication and point of divergence if we wish to learn from our collective past in order to undo our thralldom.


At the age of 95, as an expatriate in Ghana who no longer believed in the farce of the American Dream, W. E. Du Bois expired one day before the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. He never heard Dr. King’s legendary “I Have a Dream Speech,” but I conjecture that speech would not have aroused sentiments of hope for Du Bois just as President Obama’s acceptance speech did not conjure hope for me.


First black president notwithstanding, the unemployment rate for blacks still nearly doubles the rate for whites. That said, I wonder how Juan Williams can assert that, “{Ghetto lit} does not reflect reality in most of black America. We now have the largest black middle class in American history and even a black president.” If we’re not careful, mindless drivel such as this will (as it already has for far too many) lead us to believe that King’s dream of equality has finally been actualized as debasing chants of “YES WE DID!” echo from Grant Park to the Ghanaian grave that Du Bois is no doubt turning in.   

12 Comments to ‘Old Ideologies Die Hard: The Persistence of “The Talented Tenth”’:

  1. Fredric Mitchell on 15 Nov 2009 at 5:43 pm: 1

    interesting piece dude, although i respectfully disagree.

    first, i do agree that the many prisms of important historical figures are often watered down to segments that can be easily passed down. however, i don’t think that because that happens that it takes away from the power of that singular message. just as i wouldn’t discount michael jackson’s messages of love and harmony because he did a lot of weird things, i wouldn’t put an asterisk near MLK’s teachings because he cheated on his wife. the human element is infinitely complicated and to expect an ideal to be diamond-tough and crystal clear withstanding of the messenger is literally impossible.

    while juan williams is an idiot, and i’m not defending what he’s saying, i think the concepts of DuBois deserve some context.

    second, the ideas of class, wealth, and advantage are children of capitalism. whether inadvertent or purposefully, progression is about using the blessings, opportunities, and freedoms to maximize your potential. class is vehicle to measure the quality of those said blessings.

    with that said, the ideas of the talented tenth in our society was to get past the tired idiom that somehow race was a REAL barrier. to have the visual stimulus of ‘those who look like me and classified like me’ as a beacon to the doorway of infinite possibility was and is extremely powerful. i think the idea breaks down when the logic is applied conversely instead of contra-positively.

    small example: black pride describes the investigation, investment, and showcase of the harmonic symphony of our history. many use it as indictment of American or white culture, when, in fact, the IDEA is far from that. black pride is NOT anti-white folk, at its core. slanted examples supporting this are just that…edge cases that probably deserve some context (hoses, dogs, murder, etc).

    the talented tenth concept, while tip-toeing the obvious hurdle of the next generation regarding class, was, in its own right, a call to those to never stop striving and if you are blessed with such opportunity, to be conscious of that. i dont believe its an indictment on those who would not considered themselves ‘elite’. in fact, i believe its wrong for anyone to snicker and look down on the expressions of other voices because of class just as much as i think its wrong for others to judge me for taking advantage of the opportunities provided by my family.

    finally, to answer your point about those striving to be part of positions that currently take advantage of them is powerful, indeed. individually, i think the answer is as simple as ethics and a reflection of your meek journey in the eyes of God. institutionally, you’re right, but i think it goes back to the nature of capitalism. while you can argue that the debra lee’s of the world make your point exactly, it can be argued that simply being an American is, essentially, a ‘talented tenth’ position in the eyes of the world. as was illustrated by malaak compton-rock, while being on welfare and food stamps may be the penultimate advantage to Americans, to some of our African brethren, it would be a privilege.

    ultimately, i think the talented tenth philosophy should be used for looking up…not down.

  2. sarah c on 15 Nov 2009 at 7:35 pm: 2

    great insights–you should check out Angela Davis’ “Meditations on Malcolm X”–It’s in-line with your critique of the politics of memory and the ways in which the profoundly insurrectional and intersectional qualities of Black radicals is often forgotten in favor of monolithic investments

  3. Rashad on 15 Nov 2009 at 10:35 pm: 3

    I contend that we must engage in open-minded dialogue. Within each viewpoint, some validity is contained. We can view the discussion as a battle between darkness and light. Or we can view the discussion as an attempt to allow darkness and light to exist in balance. Regardless, neither will reign indefinitely.

  4. ML on 16 Nov 2009 at 8:54 am: 4

    Powerful stuff!

    But what if it is exactly the educated (like you yourself) who will actively work to subvert the system that exploits the community? Isn’t that largely what motivates you and the others who push aggressively to understand and be able to articulate the problems and their causes? I’ve always thought that was my goal–to “radicalize” the students who would otherwise happily join the buppies… help them see through the scaffolding erected around the Wizards of Oz and make them more interested in doing something to change vision than in reaping the rewards of mainstreaming.

    I’m thinking of the postcolonial situation. Without their elites, no real revolutions could have occurred. True, too often once the colonizers were gone, the elites replaced them as exploiters of the people. But Ghandi, for example, DID plant the seeds of revolution.

  5. Cameron Denson on 17 Nov 2009 at 5:22 pm: 5

    Good points made throughout and for lack of time and to a degree knowledge I will respond to ML. I believe tossing the word “elite” out there is a dangerous and divisive tool. One of Ghandi’s themes throughout his revolution was that he would not ask people to do work that he would not do himself. This disctintion seperates Ghandi from this discussion of “elites”. One more important point, while the British did want to work with Ghandi and proliferate his influence into their parliament, Ghandi would have none of it. Ghandi did not compromise with the power, he simply told the British they had to leave!

  6. Pierce on 17 Nov 2009 at 11:10 pm: 6

    Juan Williams is a clown: Here’s an excerpt from his article:

    “the cover (had) an angry, gun-packing black man and a black woman standing behind him. As the author of books on black history and black culture, I was disappointed but not surprised.”

    What a condescending and arrogant tone. This dude really thinks that his tenured, educated voice is of more value than someone from the hood. Then he had the nerve to attack Hip Hop:

    “Much as rap music—also fascinated with predatory sex, anger and violence—has displaced jazz or soul singers on the black music charts, gangster lit now overshadows the common late 20th-century theme of black middle-class striving.”

    Somebody needs to send him a copy of 400 Degreez, so he can scoff at how “ghetto and angry” Juvenile looks, with a black woman standing behind him.. He’d probably be disappointed and disgusted (but not suprised) at the audacity of this young Black man’s attempts at self-expression.. Doesn’t he understand that Hip Hop artists ARE the “jazz or soul singers” of our generation??? You can’t tell me you don’t hear the moans of Bessie Smith, James Brown and Ray Charles in the beats and rhymes of Kanye West, Mos Def and Old Dirty Bastard!

    “This phenomenon is like a weed that takes over the whole garden.”

    Negro, please.

  7. Amaris on 18 Nov 2009 at 12:13 pm: 7

    Wow! Great food for thought Brother Olokun and great discourse as well.
    I too agree that the idea of a “talented tenth” or black elite is very divisive for a people already divided in so many ways. This idea fuels and perpetuates Willie Lynch. This divisiveness has been used for centuries and it is sad to see that we choose to perpetuate it on our own. The most disheartening thing for me is that these so called “black elite” can not see that their elitism is a fallacy because under their money and individual success, they are still black and therefore subject to the same racism that their poor brothers and sisters encounter. Henry Louis Gates Jr. (an affluent black man) was recently arrested at his own home for being suspected of breaking into it. To those of you/us that believe your money will protect you, make you better, exempt you from racism…dream again because that dream is a dead end. When will we understand that this is a fight that we must fight together despite our minor differences, racism is your glass ceiling.
    As far as this American Dream it is just that, a dream not reality. And what kind of dream are we attempting to attain? The dream that says you can get somewhere as long as you step on others, keep others poor and destitute for your own personal gain. Even if by some chance you as an individual gains acceptance into the one percent of the population that is welathy then you may want to ask yourself…what you had to do to get there and who you put in poverty to stay there. Excuse my “ghetto venac” but money ain’t everything what about our souls. The black elite who are trying to live up to their oppressors can only hope to become what they are…oppressors. It sounds more like a nightmare to me. I suggest we wake up instead especially these so-called intelligent black folks who seem to have given up their own free mind for this elitist tag.

  8. Stan M on 19 Nov 2009 at 7:48 pm: 8

    That was a well written post. I agree with much of what you say. Keep up the writing. A person who writes and speaks frees up their mind for bigger and better things.

  9. BGC on 1 Dec 2009 at 9:59 pm: 9

    I’ll check Mr. Williams’ article in a sec but after reading the comments I didn’t see any opinions on this “Ghetto Lit”. I myself am very critical of this type of literature and reading. I see nothing to be gained from the countless tales of hood narratives and drama laden stories of jealousy, envy, and back stabbing that we see in movies and television 24/7. When I’m on the train I tend to check what people are reading and ironically I see alot of people reading these types of books and really it is particularly females. More after I read the article…

  10. BGC on 1 Dec 2009 at 10:20 pm: 10

    I’ll finish the article later, I’m a couple of paragraphs in and he’s saying exactly what I have noticed for maybe a couple of years now. He definitely has a point. I’m from SE (The District),Anacostia to be exact, so I know what’s on the mind of the people cause I’m there. I think alot of cats are stuck in some type of fantasy land and don’t wanna wake up or even care to. Situation is tragic and our culture feeds it till people don’t know the difference between carry out food and a real nutritious meal. On another note I saw Precious Sunday night and I thought it was one of the best I seen this year did not know it came from this genre…dumbfounded…

  11. Olokun Olugbala on 2 Dec 2009 at 7:33 am: 11


    Thanks for weighing in. Brother Pierce commented on “ghetto lit” and Mr. Williams’ response to it as well as Hip Hop. I would like to take a moment to address this issue further…

    Concerning the actual pop lit genre, I liken it to mainstream rap music. While I don’t belive in censure, I do believe in criticism. There are elements of ghetto lit that are problematic, but I would argue that those elements have less to do with the books themselves and more to do with the corporate politics and agendas that make them so popular and mandate their mass production without creative balance and counterpoints.

    Why is it that those books dominate the ridiculously small “African American Literature” sections of large commercial book retailers while the works of Gayl Jones, Gloria Naylor, Toni Cade Bambara, Charles Johnson, Randall Kenan, David Bradley, etc. are invisible? The reason is because there are narrow notions and imaginings of black people that coroporate America is willing to brand and market. According to the bourgeoise powers controlling the modes of production, more complicated considerations of “blackness” and the black experience are not commercially viable. This is why you have the proliferation of the limited and same, problematic tropes and stereotypes of black identity being mass produced through music, film, books and any other media one would like to consider.

    The answer then is not to blame the authors writing about a slice of black life that warrants investigation and expression, but rather question where are there creative counterpoints? And what type of serious expectations should we have to find more complex considerations of the black experience being represented through mainstream mediums? And most importantly, what are we doing to make sure that we are not buying in to tired, rehashed and articically manufactured notions of who corportae America tells us we are.

    Finally, I would like to respond to your “dumbfounded” reaction to the fact that the movie Precious originates from the ghetto lit genre. Piggybacking on what Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston and Amiri Baraka have been telling us for years, the most beautiful, riveting and expressive black art will come from the common people and from the artists whose attendant muses are the folk ways and experiences. This is what Juan Williams, and many other elitists like him fail to realize. I bet many people will be dumbfounded that so much truth, beauty, resillience and humanity can be found in a ghetto lit novel that cares to focus on the desperate, illiterate and marginalized masses enveloped in poverty. Who knew “those niggas” were so compelling?

  12. BGC on 7 Dec 2009 at 2:03 pm: 12

    Came across this interesting article to further the dialouge.


    “Barbara Kinzer, an employee of Borders’ Corporate headquarters, shared that the book’s publishers, Triple Crown Publications, determines a book’s category for placement in stores.”

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Published on November 15, 2009 at 4:27 pm. 12 Comments.
Filed under black culture,black image,entertainment,history,news/politics,poverty,President Obama,racial rhetoric,radical politics.