In September of 1903, W.E.B DuBois said this in his essay about the Talented Tenth:
Men we shall have only as we make manhood the object of the work of the schools–intelligence, broad sympathy, knowledge of the world that was and is, and of the relation of men to it–this is the curriculum of that Higher Education which must underlie true life. On this foundation we may build bread winning, skill of hand and quickness of brain, with never a fear lest the child and man mistake the means of living for the object of life.
The Talented Tenth was a collective group who also coined the term to describe a leadership status for African Americans in the early 20th century. The term was created as an example for us to achieve higher for ourselves. Most people would say that the Talented Tenth set the bases for what is now considered "black excellence". The question now is have we lived up to the mission of the Talented Tenth?
Here's my story
Since I came into this world, on a February day, I’ve always loved being black, as well as have a love for black people. Why wouldn’t I? It was hard not to. I grew up in an upper-middle class neighborhood, seeing successful, confident people who looked like me. I went to a predominately black elementary school, where most of the teachers and faculty members were black and did not forget to let us know where we came from. I remember the days of singing the black national anthem before every assembly, and Black History Month being a big deal at my school. Even throughout the school year, we learned about African-American writers and historical figures that most people don’t learn about until they enter high school or college. Looking back, my early childhood was a window into black excellence; between school and my family, I was starting to form a sense of who I was as a person, and what the concept of “black excellence” was.
My views of being black and what black excellence meant started to take a detour when I went to high school, I’ll admit. It changed from going to a predominately black elementary school to a predominately white, yet still somewhat mixed, high school, a private school at that. By that time, I thought black excellence was standing out, having to secretly compete with other black students, not fall in the same category as the “ghetto” students or the students that had less than me. During high school, many students, in my school and at other high schools, were faced with an underlying message, a message of classism. The black students who had more, were the ones more acceptable to the white and Latino students. The students with more money, and (like any high school), the ones with the more expensive clothes, seem to be looked highly upon. Even in high school, I noticed after someone found out I had something or knew someone or was cool with someone who they thought highly of, I was treated differently. At one point, I found myself redirecting my views and definition of black excellence, since everyone else did. I didn’t associate with certain people and places because to many it was considered “ghetto” or “ratchet”, something I would regret years later.
Going to college was blessing. I had my challenges, of course, but those were the years that made me shake off the person who I once was. I was a sophomore in college when Trayvon Martin was killed and when Michelle Gregory, a girl I went to elementary school with was gun down at a party because a guy didn’t like the way she turned him down. I was a junior when Trayvon Martin’s case started to really get the attention of mainstream media, and when Kevin Ambrose, a freshmen at the same college I went to, was gunned down by the CTA Green Line a week days before the school year ended. By mid-summer of 2013, George Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder of Trayvon Martin. I’ll never forget that week; it was eye opening for me. People showed their true colors and their thoughts on race. I realized you can racist without saying racial slurs, no amount of money and designer clothes can shield you from discrimination, and you can have the best education and still be ignorant.
That summer, I decided to continue with music, entrepreneurship, and journalism, but I wanted to set an example and invest more into my community, with research, economics, and emotions. I decided to let go of any preconceived notions once learned before. I replaced those notions with new information and a new appreciation for people. As I learned more and my appreciation for my community grew, I realized something; what detoured and questioned my views “black excellence” when I was younger, was really black elitism. When we were younger, and use to look down upon the “ghetto kids” and “ghetto places”, that was black elitism. When we would measure our success and lifestyles to our white counterparts, instead of appreciating what we had, that was black elitism. When we felt validated because white people loved us (yet were still racist) and wanted to kick it with us, we were blinded, and we were elitist.
I would first like to apologize to anyone if my friends or myself have made you feel less than because of the elitist shit we did and said back in the day.
Today, as a college graduate who works within the community, I want to ask, where do you stand? Are you really for black excellence or are you for black elitism?
I ask this question because unfortunately, black elitism is an issue that’s often swept under the rug in my community. I’m glad I moved past that stage in my life, but others aren’t. In a time where people are becoming more aware and socially conscious of police brutality, discrimination, and gentrification, now is the time to use whatever pedestal we have to make a difference. The ones with most power and leverage should be at the front of line, helping those who need it the most. We shouldn’t use economics and education to disconnect with one another. It bothers me when I see and hear people from my community reach a level of affluence, only to have such dense view of the world. I am disappointed in those in my community who social climb for their own gain and spotlight, and not connect with the community that helped them get to the level they are at. If black lives truly matter, we cannot go on judging certain people, actions, and neighborhoods. We cannot be selective about who deserves support in the black community and who showcases “black excellence”. Your classism and bourgeoisie presence does more harm than damage. LaTasha from Compton deserves as much love and respect as Courtney, the proud AKA at Howard University. Tyrone from the west side of Chicago deserves a safe haven and a brotherhood, just as much as Josh, the Jack and Jill member on his way to Morehouse.
We must start caring about all the people in our community, instead of just the people in our community…with money…in higher places. There is no limit to black excellence, but it’s time to put a limit on black elitism.