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Aspen Seminar Takeaway: Is the ‘Talented Tenth’ Theory Working?

May 7, 2014  • Theodore R. Johnson, Guest Blogger

Writer Theodore R. Johnson, a former White House Fellow and naval officer, wrote “The League of Extraordinary Black Gentlemen” following his participation in the Aspen Seminar on leadership, values, and the good society. 

On a crisp morning in Aspen, Colorado, a moose appeared outside our classroom. The awe-inspiring moment occurred as my classmate read aloud a particularly moving passage in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” about a teary-eyed six-year-old who’d just learned about racism. We sat in silence, completely overwhelmed by it all.

The Aspen Seminar on leadership, values, and the good society brought us together for this experience. My classmates and I were from all walks of life, of different ages and ethnicities and professions, coming together to learn from each other and more finely tune our convictions. During the week, we communed with Plato, Darwin, and Hobbes to contemplate the same questions philosophers and leaders have wrestled with through the ages: what is the nature of man? And how can mankind best come together to form strong and fair societies? And as leaders, what do we believe about humanity and what is our role in its evolution?

As the pain in the King letter settled into us, it occurred to me that he was answering an old question about being black in America. In 1897, historian W.E.B. DuBois summed up the black experience in this very simple question: “How does it feel to be a problem?” He suggested that educating a select few black people to be responsible for saving the rest of the race was the proper course of action for eradicating discrimination.

Looking at what is today and working backwards, I sat in Aspen as the product of this DuBois thinking and saw the error. Socrates would’ve been proud. I determined in that moment to contribute to the conversation of the ages and take on DuBois, King, and the other great thinkers. More important, because of the Aspen Seminar, I knew that I could. The result is a recent essay in The Atlantic that places my race and class experience in the context of the American pursuit of the Good Society. I’d officially entered the age-old debate. In fact, in “Nicomachean Ethics” — one of the Seminar readings  — Aristotle argues that “the good of man is an activity of the soul in conformity with excellence or virtue.” I’ve only recently determined that writing is one of my soul’s activities, and Aristotle helped me know what to do with it.  

So, about that moose. Poet Elizabeth Bishop once described a scene where strangers heading towards different destinations suddenly became deeply connected for a moment in a time. This unexpected bond formed among them when a large, regal moose emerged from a nearby wood and caused them to gaze at it together in breathless wonder. Bishop’s poem — entitled “The Moose” — was also an Aspen Seminar reading and provided my class a term to describe our profound connection over Dr. King’s letter: a “moose moment.”

It is uncanny that the same existential questions that mankind has wrestled with for millennia are at the root of many of modernity’s issues. We did not study the past at the Aspen Seminar, we learned about ourselves. And just as many before us, each of us must evolve the conversation by making our unique, personal contribution to it.

Editor’s Note: Inspired by the readings in his Seminar, Johnson took a modern look at historian W.E.B. DuBois’ “Talented Tenth” theory through the lens of his own experience in The Atlantic piece, “The League of Extraordinary Black Gentlemen:”

In the 21st century, the Tenthers — the solution class DuBois envisioned — have arrived. These college-educated, middle-class black folks have left the South and inner cities to settle in suburbia, and fashioned an identity as bound up in class as it is in race. But like DuBois himself, they struggle with a double-consciousness — a twoness that makes it possible for them to enter predominantly white spaces while still holding positions of esteem in spheres of blackness. They move about both comfortably, but don’t fit neatly into either.

This is my reality: As an upper-middle-class black male, I am seen as part of the solution class tasked with rescuing my nation from its problem and my race from itself. Yet, ever since my childhood, I’ve been held at arms-length by two cultures.” (Read the full piece at The Atlantic)