Black Leaders Examine Responsibility to Black Underclass

Article excerpt

The Future of the Race

By Henry Louis Gates Jr., and Cornel West

Alfred A. Knopf

196 pp., $21

By focusing primarily on leadership, this book offers a refreshing way to think about race in the United States today.

The authors are top black scholars and writers in Harvard University's well-heeled Afro-American Studies Department. Henry Louis Gates Jr. heads that department and Cornel West, formerly head of Princeton University's African-American Department, teaches there now.

Both offer long essays commenting on aspects of a famous 1903 essay by the formidable American black intellectual and leader W.E.B. Du Bois. That essay, republished as an appendix in this book, is titled, "The Talented Tenth."

As Du Bois sees it, exceptional black men (evidently not women) are to save their race.

Du Bois's essay attempted to define the duty of leadership and service the black college graduate owes to the whole black community, and especially to the lower classes within it. The authors of "The Future of the Race" chose to comment on it as a means of thinking out loud about their own complex task today.

This reader began the book by first reading Du Bois's essay, which has a long and helpful introduction by Gates. DuBois was the first black man to earn a PhD from Harvard, in 1895 (after taking an AB at Fisk University and a master's at Harvard). He knew the classics and studied in Berlin with the famous German sociologist Max Weber before completing his PhD. And he writes with great power and elegance.

Du Bois and Weber remained close friends, Gates says, and Weber came to Atlanta University in 1904 to join in Du Bois's annual conference on the status of blacks. By 1903, Du Bois already had earned a top spot among black leaders, at the young age of 35, almost exclusively through the publication that year of a book of essays called "The Souls of Black Folk."

The "Talented Tenth" essay, also published later that year, complemented the book of essays by attempting to deal with the problem of class differences among blacks. These were largely caused, according to Gates, by unequal access to education. …