'In Search of the Talented Tenth'

In the era before desegregation, Howard University was home to a constellation of black intellectual leaders -- professors who shaped public discussion about race and who built a vibrant intellectual community, even as they faced bigotry outside the university's gates. A new book, In Search of the Talented Tenth: Howard University Public Intellectuals and the Dilemmas of Race, 1926-1970, has just been published by the University of Missouri Press. Zachery R.

December 22, 2009

In the era before desegregation, Howard University was home to a constellation of black intellectual leaders -- professors who shaped public discussion about race and who built a vibrant intellectual community, even as they faced bigotry outside the university's gates. A new book, In Search of the Talented Tenth: Howard University Public Intellectuals and the Dilemmas of Race, 1926-1970, has just been published by the University of Missouri Press. Zachery R. Williams, assistant professor of African American history and associate director of Pan-African studies at the University of Akron, is the author of the book and he recently responded to questions about the work.

Q: What drew you to this topic?

A: My road in search of the talented tenth is somewhat autobiographical. Of course, an obvious starting point revolves around my encounters with W. E. B. Du Bois, arguably the preeminent 20th century African American male intellectual. Through the work of Manning Marable, David Levering Lewis, Joy James and Du Bois himself, I encountered the usage of themes such as "the talented tenth," "the color line," and "the veil," the engagement of which played a decisive role in leading me along my scholarly journey.

In terms of the Howard group’s connection to Du Bois, I would say, first, as an undergraduate history major, African American studies minor at Clemson University, I came across an article in Daedalus, by Michael Winston, entitled, "The Negro Scholar in Historical Perspective." It spoke specifically of Howard as representing the preeminent location of black scholars, against the larger genealogical backdrop of black intellectual life in the United States. The article also focused attention on the policy research nucleus, which included Ralphe Bunche’s work on minority organizations and foreign policy, E. Franklin Frazier’s work on the Negro family, Negro youth, Abram Harris’s work on black economic development, Charles Houston and Charles H. Thompson’s work on ending legalized segregation in the U.S. That groundbreaking article, along with Kenneth Janken’s important biography of Howard historian Rayford Logan, with an incisive chapter on the Golden Years at Howard, further piqued my interest in a major way.

Later I also communicated with a number of black intellectual historians, including Jonathan Scott Holloway, who himself provided critical insights about his important biography of Frazier, Bunche, and Harris. Despite reveling in these important works, I was stunned at each point in my journey that no collective biography or work had been attempted. I was cautioned by a number of scholars about the seeming impossibility of approaching the task of attempting a book on the Howard intellectual community, owing to the fact that there were so many important scholars there, and too much necessary research to plow through to produce an adequate work. It really amounted to the point that doing such a work appeared too large a task for one scholar. However, I decided to jump at the opportunity and kept at my task, although I must admit that the book is far from definitive or the last word on the Howard community. I hope that this book sparks even more of a debate, especially the parts that speak to the important role of African American women public intellectuals at Howard -- the likes of Merze Tate, Dorothy Porter, Lois Mailou Jones, and Lorraine Williams.

Q: Why did Howard emerge as a place with particular strength -- even among other black colleges -- as home to so many key figures during the era of segregation?

A: Howard emerged for a couple of reasons. One was the intrusive educational policy of segregation in higher education that caused an unintended consequence of allowing for the collection of a tremendous array of the best black minds at predominately black colleges and universities, most notably Fisk, Atlanta, and Howard. Howard stood as the pinnacle of a black scholar's career, in part because of its location in the nation’s capital, and in part because of the annual appropriations to the university that were garnered during the tenure of its first black president, Mordecai Wyatt Johnson. Secondly, Mordecai Johnson, in his inauguration address in 1927, while affirming Howard’s intellectual tradition, committed his administration to further developing the intellectual community there, and develop it he did. Charles Houston was brought in to head the law school, as scholars such as Rayford Logan, Benjamin E. Mays, Howard Thurman, and others were lured to Howard to add to the already impressive array of brain gain, creating a veritable think tank at what was championed in the 1940s by Howard historian Walter Dyson as the Capstone of Negro Education. Howard soon became a seminal incubator in the development of what we know today as Black studies, African studies, Africana policy studies, and Pan Africa Studies.

Particularly during the period 1895 to 1930s, Howard represented, as Wilson Jeremiah Moses informs us, an important epicenter of the New Negro Renaissance, some argue rivaling if not eclipsing the cultural production of New York City. During the period, Howard sociologist and public intellectual Kelly Miller, in Alain Locke’s famous anthology, The New Negro, characterized Howard as "the national Negro University." In the heart of Black Washington, there was of course famous U Street, which featured some of the greatest black entertainers the world over. Of course, Howard professors were active in the community, seeing as they lived in and around the immediate D.C. area. Unlike today, class did not so grievously separate African America in such an alienated way as we witness today.

Even though he taught and served at Howard for only one year, the Father of Black History, Carter G. Woodson, built his black history movement, the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, along with the active support of many of Howard’s women and men public intellectuals. Interestingly enough, we see in letters and other correspondence that W. E. B. Du Bois sought employment at Howard and was courted by some of his colleagues. Although he never officially became a regular member of the faculty, he often visited the campus as a speaker.

Q: How do you see Howard reflecting the concepts of the "talented tenth" and also perhaps the critiques others offered of that concept?

A: Many of the members of the Howard community looked to W. E. B. Du Bois as an important model of intellectual life. In fact, part of the impetus for this book on the Howard University public intellectual community exists for two main reasons. One, Howard public intellectuals were indeed members of Du Bois’s talented tenth, in fact many members of the community -- Alain Locke, Ralph Bunche, E. Franklin Frazier, Rayford Logan, Abram Harris -- were students, to some degree, of Du Bois, following in his intellectual footsteps, taking their lead from his life example and career. The second reason why this book is important to the above discussion is that Howard men and women intellectuals -- successes, flaws, faults, and all -- continue to epitomize the standard of what a black public intellectual should be.

The term talented tenth represented members of the black professional and intellectual elite, known as race men and race women, particularly drawing attention to their continuous achievements in lifting the race. Black scholar and public intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois popularized the phrase in an article entitled “The Talented Tenth,” which appeared initially in September of 1903 in a book entitled, The Negro Problem. The concept gained increasing popularity with Du Bois’s publication of his landmark book of essays, The Souls of Black Folk in 1903. Du Bois, the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in history from Harvard University, himself a staunch advocate of classical education, believed that the top 10 percent of the black race would serve as the leadership vanguard of the race, elevating the remaining 90 percent by their efforts, achievements and advocacy. Later, Du Bois revised his earlier pronouncements regarding the role of the black elite in racial advancement, instead advocating a more significant role for the black masses in assuming black leadership and promoting social change within the race. In fact, as black women’s studies scholar, Joy James recounts the efforts of Du Bois’s stepson, David Du Bois, to posthumously publicize his father’s revised views, stating, "Dr. Du Bois’ conviction that it’s those who suffered most and have the least to lose that we should look to for our steadfast, dependable, and uncompromising leadership."

Howard as an institution, especially its faculty, represented the best of the black intellectual elite. The institution’s academic curriculum, customs and student body epitomized the elite of Black America, producing women and men who were intent on uplifting the race. Over the course of its history, you can see the litany of black history makers who have graduated from Howard or at least attended for some period.

Interestingly enough, it was during the New Negro Renaissance that efforts by students, administrators (the black triumvirate of deans, most notably Kelly Miller), and alumni pressured the university to factor in more courses on the black experience. One of the reasons for Woodson’s departure from Howard had to do with the lack of support by then Howard president J. Stanley Durkee to emphasize the role of black history and studies in the university curriculum. Howard’s intellectual elite, led by the likes of Kelly Miller, Alain Locke, William Leo Hansberry, and Woodson spearheaded early efforts to institutionalize black history and studies at Howard.

The full historical meaning of the concept "the talented tenth," as Manning Marable writes in Living Black History in his chapter on resurrecting the radical Du Bois, has been sorely misunderstood and misrepresented in our contemporary context, even to the point of discounting Du Bois’s later revision of his own concept, designed to better incorporate the role of the black masses in social change. Today, the notion of the talented tenth is used exclusively to uncritically celebrate black middle class advancement, to the unintended detriment of repairing broken relationships within the black community, especially those seeking to better empower working class and poor African Americans, who would qualify as a part of Du Bois’s revised talent corp.

The criticisms of the talented tenth’s excesses and parochialism are warranted. One cannot examine race without also looking squarely at class and gender in thinking about the historic impact of the Howard public intellectual community.

Q: While the scholars you discuss were able to create a remarkable home for themselves at Howard, they also clearly suffered from the racism of the wider society. How did this experience shape their scholarship and ideas?

A: The world that Howard intellectuals made and the world that made them represented a world that held as its backdrop segregation, colonialism, imperialism, and apartheid. These Howard scholars were regularly inundated by racism, sexism, and issues of class. Their professional role as scholars was politicized on account of the particular racialized, gendered, and class challenges they encountered in a segregated and colonized world. Segregation, then and now, has evidenced a double-edged nature. As African American men and women, these scholars sought to connect with larger national and international debates, while also attending to race matters in the United States and around the world. Like Du Bois before them, many received doctoral degrees from some of the finest Northern and Midwestern elite institutions in the country. However, most were relegated to teaching at black institutions, because of academia’s policy of racial segregation and exclusion. A few, notably Abram Harris and the late John Hope Franklin, began to break barriers by integrating college and university faculty, Harris at the University of Chicago in the 1940s and Franklin taking the helm of all-white Brooklyn College’s history department in the late 1950s. Most of the well-known Howard scholars, men and women, remained at Howard throughout their careers, largely by policy and somewhat by choice. Towards the end of his career, Frazier, for instance, lamented what he saw as a lessening of intellectual talent at Howard, partly due to the evident brain drain taking full effect by the mid-to-late 1960s.

Despite these tremendous geopolitical challenges, based in the nation's capital and the world's policy center, at arguably the preeminent institution of higher learning for African Americans, members of the Howard University scholarly community were steeped in a rich black intellectual tradition that garnered and maintained for that institution the reputation as the Capstone of Negro Education; these scholars advanced the public intellectual model, engaging the national and global black public around many of the salient issues of the day, namely Jim Crow segregation, civil rights, decolonization, and women's rights. In their scholarship and intellectual activism, Howard scholars, particularly members of the policy research nucleus, sought not only mere understanding and illumination of social phenomena and problems, but boldly proposed innovative prescriptions designed to counteract systemic local, national, and global challenges confronting Black America, the nation at large, and the Cold War world.

Although non-monolithic, highly opinionated, and imperfect to a fault, Howard scholars forged meaningful personal and professional networks, cemented in and by varying degrees of community, which enabled them to substantially impact social change and demonstrate the capacity to inform public policy in the local, national, and global black public. As women and men highly trained in the life of the mind, Howard scholars functioned as public intellectuals, well before contemporary language and post-modern media representation legitimated, popularized, and distinguished that role. I argue that Howard scholars represented more of a definite model of what a public intellectual was, is, and should be.

In some ways, these race men and women simultaneously were before their time, products of their times, and situated right in time. Using as public vehicles, commentaries in the black press, articles, speeches, books, and other forms of expression such as poetry, they advanced a paradigm shift in thinking about race and culture, even as they struggled to hammer out any definitive school of thought on these matters and others.

Q: How do you view desegregation as changing the community you write about?

A: I certainly do not want to romanticize racial segregation as being a harbinger of community. Notwithstanding, I believe that the firm dream of Mordecai Johnson and Charles Houston was of a successful post-segregated Howard, one that was best represented by a decisive transference of communal life under segregation to a desegregated and integrated context. This hopeful dream has yet to fully materialize in the manner many at Howard hoped and believed it would. The cynic in me points to the critical work of Howard sociologist E. Franklin Frazier, who chided the black middle class, especially black intellectuals, in his work The Failure of the Negro Intellectual, in much in the same way as Woodson did in the Miseduation of the Negro in 1933, by highlighting the gross self-indulgence of that group with the onset of desegregation.

Today, Frazier’s critique dovetails with Cornel West’s Dilemma of the Black Intellectual and other works that emphasize the role of the black intellectual as one of self-imposed marginality. Too many black public intellectuals of today, in the words of sociologist Patricia Hill Collins, lack the necessary spatial and cultural groundedness in communities beyond the ivory tower -- a kind of groundedness that members of the Howard community maintained even post-Brown. West, who lauded Howard poet and cultural critic Sterling Brown as "a genius," who "at his best produced a whole generation of folk," commented that he was inspired by Brown’s role as “a cosmopolitan intellectual who had a sense of calling, not just a career.” West further highlighted Brown’s possession of "a sense of vocation, not just a profession."

Known among today’s most known contemporary black public intellectuals, West has also written of a deep sense of class alienation within the African American community today. The reality is that class has always mattered, but today we’ve seen a tremendous increase in a very bitter sense of class hatred, rather than class envy, that has derailed that hopeful, substantive dream of community in contemporary African America that desegregation and integration dreams once promised. The Black public intellectual must come down from the ivory and ebony towers and dwell in these communities in crisis, not dictating but functioning in a transformative resource fashion. As Howard public intellectuals consciously and intentionally decided to remain apart of the community, current black scholars and public intellectuals must do the same.

Desegregation was supposed to serve as a brief bridge on the way to full-fledged racial equality. Many of the scholars in the law school, notably Charles Hamilton Houston, and scholars in the social sciences who contributed research to the legal cases culminating in Brown, believed in integration as a political philosophy, although they may have differed somewhat on the manner to get there. Desegregation was a means to an end and not an end in itself. Conversely, desegregation, could have provided opportunities to construct viable black communities, especially in central cities like the nation’s capital. However, desegregation lacked sufficient political commitment and economic support -- and, coupled with deindustrialization and the resurgence of racism and sexism, integration has never materialized, leaving many poor communities, especially those highly concentrated African American ones, in a constant state of social and economic crisis. We have never fully achieved racial integration in fact. Instead, we remain at an advanced state of unsupported desegregation, which takes us back to a new form of segregation. Significant elements of the black bourgeoisie have escaped to America’s suburbs, awaiting a chance to return to revamped and gentrified central cities. Meanwhile, America’s prison industrial complex has become increasingly as segregated as ever, as is public education. A fairly recent Justice Policy report highlighted that states like Ohio spend more on prison funding than public and higher education funding, despite the severe retention rate challenges experienced among poor and working class African American students, especially males. It is my understanding that Howard scholars, especially those, like Daniel C. Thompson, that we are not as familiar with, would signal a similarly distressing conclusion, as equality remains ever more elusive for communities of color in relationship to the rest of the nation, in areas such as education, wage earning and employment, and health, among other areas.

Q: Today people talk about the "dream team" of black scholars at Harvard University and other institutions that have assembled cohorts of superstars. Are these universities carrying on the "talented tenth" idea? What do you think of these efforts?

A: While I have great respect for illustrious Black intellectual communities, I must disavow the notion that only committed black scholars exist for the purpose of superstardom or exist exclusively at Ivy League institutions -- although there are tremendous scholars at Harvard and other Ivy and Ebony League institutions. Regardless of where they call their academic home, African American women and men public intellectuals still experience the Dilemma of the Black Scholar, exacerbated as much by gender and class considerations as race, a peculiar triad or oppression, even in the age of the Obamas. Deborah Gray White and colleagues share this stark reality in their important recounting of the development of black women’s history as a discipline couched with autobiographical accounts of the social and intellectual sojourns of the nation’s prominent black women historians, past and present, Telling Histories.

There are tremendously gifted and committed black scholars researching, teaching, and serving in public at colleges and universities around the country. Serious, thorough and applied Black intellectuals are needed at institutions all across the country, especially in those urban and rural communities surrounding colleges and universities, those located in urban cities like the University of Akron. Today’s Black public intellectuals must come out of our academic caves and interact with the communities from which we originate, and out of which much of our research springs. Unless we reconnect these links, we will have missed the lesson that the Howard community, in all of their imperfections, tried to teach us. Instead of the term dream team or superstar, I prefer to use the term scholar-activist, believing that superstars have a different function than the scholar-activist. The superstar entertains while the scholar-activists uses her or his scholarship to transform social conditions, and if you look around African America, the American nation, and the world at large have a lot of serious social conditions that require transformation. I will mention that Rayford Logan speaks of a kind of Supa-Dupa professor who was, in his day, handsomely rewarded, although, monetarily speaking it is a far cry from the what today’s notable black public intellectuals earn for their intellectual capital.

In our postmodern society, we seem to crave existence on dream auto-pilot (King’s Dream, the Dream Team, etc). We need to, as the poets Wallace Thurman and Langston Hughes pushed during the Harlem Renaissance, deal with the realism of life and address conditions based on how they really exist. Too many intellectuals are in search of dreams of wealth and elite status, rather than using their intellect in a public way, especially in terms of devising, evaluating, and implementing public policies that can empower disadvantaged African American communities. For instance, how many black public intellectuals are influencing current debates being promoted by the Congressional Black Caucus for instance, in its challenge to address the least of these in our communities?

Taken together, it is necessary to view the concepts of talented tenth and black public intellectual in the same sentence. I argue that even before we deal with the current community of black public intellectuals, we need to revisit their more immediate intellectual predecessors, those who frame the crux of this story -- the Howard public intellectual community. Far too often, the media has bypassed the evident linkages with the Howard community. In my estimation, Howard set the standard for black public intellectual life, showcasing brilliant black women and men, following in the footsteps of Du Bois as race women and men, as scholar-activists intent on advancing the cause of the race in a world couched in Jim Crow segregation, blatant sexism, and global imperialism, colonization, and apartheid.


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