Where is DuBois' talented tenth? Historian envisioned a guiding intelligentsia

August 09, 1998|By Mike Adams

Ten years after W.E.B. Du Bois graduated from Fisk University, he returned to deliver the commencement address to the class of 1898. He spoke about the careers available to college-educated blacks and urged the class members to use their knowledge to enrich the black community. Du Bois' speech became the basis of the "talented tenth," his idea that a well-educated group of blacks - comprising 10 percent of the black population - could become the vehicle to pull the remaining 90 percent from the pit of racial oppression.

Du Bois did not recommend careers in law or religion. Even among whites, wealth and influence dictated which lawyers would succeed - black lawyers had trouble merely finding clients with money to pay them. As for the ministry, he said: "What we need is not more but fewer ministers, but in that lesser number we certainly need earnest, broad, and cultured men; men who do a good deal more than they say." To make progress, what the black community really needed was an intelligentsia composed of teachers, farmers, physicians, artists, merchants and "captains of industry."

"[What] schools like this must begin to supply in increasing numbers is the captain of industry," Du Bois said, "the man who can marshal and guide workers in industrial enterprises, who can foresee the demand and supply it - note the special aptitude of laborers and turn it to advantage - so guide with eye and brain the work of these black millions, that, instead of adding to the poverty of the nation and subtracting from its wealth, we may add to the wealth of the land and make Negro poverty no longer a byword."

A century has passed since Du Bois' speech, and his message is as relevant today as it was then. The black middle class has grown, and there are many more black millionaires, but the underclass remains mired in poverty, and overall blacks still trail whites by a substantial margin when it comes to personal wealth.

Du Bois had an extraordinary career as a historian, teacher, thinker, journalist and social activist. He died in 1963 - at age 93 - in Accra, Ghana, a bitter expatriate whose frustration with racism drove him to the Communist Party.

Du Bois went to his grave waiting for the talented tenth to emerge. Today, it exists on paper, but its potential leaders have not stepped forward. They lack the leadership skills, the social consciousness or the desire to bear the burden of lifting their less fortunate brethren. Some members of this group have made fortunes in occupations that Du Bois couldn't have envisioned a century ago. They are entertainers and athletes, people who reap millions of dollars acting, singing, dancing, running and jumping to meet America's insatiable appetite for amusement.

Michael Jordan made $78 million last year and has generated an estimated $10 billion for the U.S. economy since he joined the NBA. But how much wealth has he generated in the black community?

Oprah Winfrey's personal fortune is estimated at $550 million, and she ranks third on Forbes' list of the highest-paid entertainers. How much wealth has she generated for the black community?

The same question could be asked of the following - Eddie Murphy, who had a combined gross income of $49 million for 1996 and 1997; Michael Jackson, who had a combined gross income of $55 million in '96 and '97; Bill Cosby, who made $36 million in 1996 and '97; music producer, songwriter and singer Babyface, whose combined income was $44 million in '96 and '97; Grant Hill, who is paid $15.5 million a year by the Detroit Pistons and has an $80 million sneaker contract with Fila; Shaquille O'Neal, who has a seven-year, $120 million contract with the Los Angeles Lakers; Tiger Woods, the professional golfer who made $25 million from endorsements last year; and Evander Holyfield, who made $11 million from his first fight with Mike Tyson in 1996 and $35 million for the 1997 rematch. (Tyson received a total of $50 million for both fights.)

While blacks account for only 13 percent of the U.S. population, more than 80 percent of the players in the NBA are black, 67 percent of the NFL is black and 17 percent of Major League Baseball players are black. The average yearly salary in the NBA is $2 million, $1.1 million in Major League Baseball and $767,000 in the NFL.

It's time to focus attention on the growing list of black entertainers and athletes who are raking in huge amounts of money and investing little time or money in the black community. Sadly, it appears that the people who are the most capable of generating capital for a black economic renaissance are the least capable of understanding how or why they should do it.

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