Black America and the Class Divide

Henry Louis Gates Jr. in The New York Times:

GatesIn 1903, W. E. B. Du Bois, the leading scholar of the first half of the 20th century, defined the urgency of black social responsibility in his famous essay “The Talented Tenth” — 10 being the percentage of the African-American demographic needed to lead the race into an integrated, equal America. In “The Talented Tenth,” Du Bois called for “intelligent leadership” directed by “college-trained men” devoted to a “thorough understanding of the mass of Negroes and their problems” for the purpose of solving these problems, still so deeply entrenched a half century after the abolition of slavery.

Forty-five years later, Du Bois would lament, this call had been largely ignored. He worried aloud about the growing class divide within Black America and how the consequences of that divide might affect the task of “lifting as we climb,” the motto of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, describing the privilege and burden of the middle class to facilitate black upward mobility. Indeed, by 1948 Du Bois felt that the new black middle class had forgotten this noble calling. There had been, even during his college days at Fisk, troublesome warning signs: “sharp young persons, who received the education given very cheaply at Fisk University, with the distinct and single-minded idea, of seeing how much they could make out of it for themselves, and nobody else.” Du Bois knew, of course, that any black person at that time had to struggle to tear down barriers just to lift oneself and one’s family. But that was not enough: Successful black people, he said, must recognize that their place in life was merely a matter of opportunity. “If such opportunity were extended and broadened, a thousand times as many Negroes could join the ranks of the educated and able, instead of sinking into poverty, disease, and crime.” Du Bois also knew that Black America had never consisted of one social or economic class. Even before the outbreak of the Civil War, about 11 percent of Black America was free, some born into families that had been free for generations. And in 1899, when Du Bois published his seminal sociological study, “The Philadelphia Negro,” he was already noting that these two classes had morphed into four: the middle class and above, working people (“fair to comfortable”), the poor and, in terms his Victorian contemporaries would have approved of, the “vicious and criminal classes.”

More here. (Note: At least one post will be dedicated to honor Black History Month throughout February)