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OPINION | Orisabiyi Williams
I have been the victim of thinking that we need leaders to make sustainable change, and I perceived those leaders to be only the affluent. A recent situation that I experienced left me so dispirited and frankly, it made me want to throw in the towel on activism. When you seek support from affluent black leaders and told no, you begin to feel like it’s only you and a chosen few consistently in the fight; it gets exasperating. I started thinking of all the time I sacrifice away from family and friends, and the risks I have taken. Then, I heard that quote from Ella Baker just as plain as if she whispered it to me; “Strong people don’t need strong leaders.”
In Tulsa, we have some very educated African-American millennials who have become leaders in their own right; accepted and lauded as leaders by the establishment. They went away to college and some come back and got good jobs, even within the city government. Others leave and don’t come back. Some are so scared to say the words “racism” or “white supremacy”. The “Talented Tenth,” some may call them. It is important to understand that “The Talented Tenth” was coined by a white man who is the namesake for the historic black college Morehouse, Henry Lyman Morehouse.
In the Independent Magazine issue of April 1886, Lyman stated, “In the discussion concerning Negro education we should not forget the talented tenth man. An ordinary education may answer for the nine men of mediocrity; but if this is all we offer the talented tenth man, we make a prodigious mistake.” “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.”
It makes you wonder if Morehouse’s theory has caused class division among black folks. We have to be aware who is identifying the so called “talented tenth” and the litmus test being used to identify them. W. E. B. Dubois stated, “The talented tenth must be made leaders of thought and missionaries of culture among their people, education must not simply teach work, it must teach life.” These individuals are hard to find because too often our black “talented tenth” will collaborate with the white elite and become bought and paid. Most are so far removed from community and grassroots efforts.
We often depend on the help of African-Americans who are in positions close to the access of power to stand with us on the most controversial issues affecting the community. Truth is, “They won’t!” You may see them during the holidays handing out turkeys and toys but you will NEVER see them taking a stance on issues African-Americans face in their communities and you will NEVER see them at city council meetings supporting and speaking for the community. The silence of these particular black folks adds to our oppression. I have had some tell me that they simply cannot speak on our behalf because they too have families and jobs to maintain. In the meantime, their silence muzzles the voices of the people at the table where decisions are being made that affects us. What happened to integrity? Does it exist anymore? What happened to faith? I never knew faith had a For Sale sticker attached to it. I truly believe when you stand up for what is right, God and your Ancestors cover you.
However, hope remains. There is also an unimaginable strength in a few people whose spirits stand tall and hearts are aligned. Activism is definitely not for the faint of heart, nor is the quest to liberation. We are not in a position to be comfortable nor in a position to be complacent. You do not have to be identified as the “Talented Tenth” to be a leader. I don’t care if you don’t have a high school diploma, if you are suffering and you can articulate how and why you are suffering to the powers that be and seek solutions, you are a leader.
“Our crowns have been bought and paid for…All we have to do is put them on our heads.” – James Baldwin