‘I Have Achieved a Modicum of Success, But I Never Stop Working’: Roxane Gay on ‘The Price of Black Ambition’

I have come to realize how much I have, throughout my life, bought into the narrative of this alluring myth of personal responsibility and excellence. I realize how much I believe that all good things will come if I—if we—just work hard enough. This attitude leaves me always relentless, always working hard enough and then harder still. I am ashamed that sometimes a part of me believes we, as a people, will be saved by those among us who are exceptional without considering who might pay the price for such salvation or who would be left behind.

Du Bois was a vocal proponent of the “Talented Tenth,” this idea that out of every ten black men, one was destined for greatness, destined to become the powerful leader black people needed to rise up and overcome and advance. This 10 percent of men were to be educated and mentored so they might become leaders, the front line for much-needed sociopolitical change.

We often forget, though, who first came up with the “talented tenth.” The idea first began circulating in the 1890s, propagated by wealthy white liberals. The term itself was coined by Henry Lyman Morehouse, a white man, who wrote, “In the discussion concerning Negro education we should not forget the talented tenth man… . The tenth man, with superior natural endowments, symmetrically trained and highly developed, may become a mightier influence, a greater inspiration to others than all the other nine, or nine times nine like them.” Here was a somewhat repulsive proposition gilded in condescending intentions, that if the strongest efforts were focused on the best of black folk, a few might be saved from themselves. Here we are today, still believing this could be true.

— Roxane Gay, in an essay for VQR, examining her success through the lens of racial inequality in the U.S.

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Photo: Kelly Writers House