Almost one-hundred years ago, W.E.B. Du Bois proposed the notion of the "talented tenth," an African American elite that would serve as leaders and models for the larger black community. In this unprecedented collaboration, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Cornel West--two of Du Bois's most prominent intellectual descendants--reassess that relationship and its implications for the future of black Americans. If the 1990s are the best of times for the heirs of the Talented Tenth, they are unquestionably worse for the growing black underclass. As they examine the origins of this widening gulf and propose solutions for it, Gates and West combine memoir and biography, social analysis and cultural survey into a book that is incisive and compassionate, cautionary and deeply stirring.
"Today's most public African American intellectual voices...West and Gates have made a valuable contribution."--Julian Bond, Philadelphia Inquirer
"Brilliant...a social, cultural and political blueprint...that attempts to illumine the future path for blacks and American democracy."--New York Daily News
"Henry Louis Gates., Jr., and Cornel West are among the most renowned American intellectuals of our time."--New York Times Book Review
Two preeminent black American scholar/ authors, both affiliated with the department of Afro-American studies at Harvard, offer contemporary responses--reflections rather than policy recommendations--to W.E.B. Du Bois's famous challenge to "the Talented Tenth" about service to the black community. Given the ambitiousness of the title, the essays are brief--not much longer than Du Bois's 1903 essay plus his own later self-critique (both published in an appendix here)--and somewhat derivative of the author's previous writings. Gates recalls his passage to the Ivy League 25 years ago and the subsequent American political retrenchment and black middle-class's sense of guilt. The two black men he admired the most at Yale died young and unfulfilled; Gates suggests that his generation may find the quest for identity within their community more daunting than the struggle against white America. West, more directly critiquing Du Bois, argues that the patriarch disdained all but elite culture, and that black "cultural hybridity" (Coltrane, Wright, Morrison, etc.) best engages the challenge of America's "twilight civilization." Thus the Talented Tenth faces an identity crisis: it must decide whether to retreat into cultural rootlessness and hedonism or to strive, as West has argued often, for "radical democracy."