The Talented Tenth | Why Black Success Matters


This week I wrote a post celebrating the success of four black students in my network. They had all received unconditional offers to study at the Oxbridge universities. Growing up whilst I had very strong and inspirational role models around me no one ever pushed me to look at the likes of Russell Group universities as examples of places I could go to study. In fact I only remember two people who actually did go to Oxbridge when I was in my late teens. One was an talented young man from West London and the other a young lady who tragically committed suicide as the pressure was so intense.

As youth advocate I have had the pleasure of mentoring and working with some amazing students of African and Caribbean. The two pictured above are just examples. Lola Adeisoye I started mentoring over 12 years ago when she went to Cambridge. She remains one of my closest friends and has crafted an amazing career as a writer for the Guardian, Huffpo and as media expert Stateside appearing on CNN and MSNBC. George Mpanga aka George the Poet is an undergraduate at Cambridge. He has had an amazing year showcasing his work as a spoken word artist and social commentator, appearing on Channel 4, BBC, for Formula 1 as well as sharing the stage with the likes of Nas and Wretch32.  There are others from fields such as law, engineering, medicine and finance.

Why does this matter so much you may ask?

My Dad was a key inspiration in me doing youth work. Long before I even started doing my work in this area he told me that no matter how successful I am to make sure that I invest energy in to other generations being as successful if not as more successful as myself. Especially those in my ethnic grouping who are often not encouraged to stretch to excellence in all areas of their education. I celebrate the achievements of all my students I work with but sometimes I like to take time out to celebrate those who don’t necessarily fit the stereotype of those who could make it to the most rigorous academic institutions.

The historian and social activist W E Dubois wrote an essay called The Talented Tenth. In it he explained why he thought it was important for at least one in ten of black men to become leaders through science, the arts, publishing, education and enterprise. He felt this was important to create social change in a community damaged by the legacy of slavery and inequality in North America. In many ways I agree with the core sentiment of this essay, obviously including women as leaders too. Of course we don’t have the kind of discrimination in the UK that birthed this essay but there are large issues of social change around success and achievement in the UK that can be addressed by leaders and influencers within the community. For me educated and visible role models who can demonstrate that the paths to such places of education are not limited by race are cause for celebration for me.

Institutions such as Rare Recruitment, Powerful Media, SEO London and a host of others are increasingly making the effort to ensure that more of the ‘talented tenth’ are being recognised. My friend Hugo Obi started to pull together a number of the African Caribbean societies at the top universities together and expose undergraduates to some of the more prestigious companies and the internships they provide too. Whilst these success tories don’t get much as headlines as the negative stories they continue to develop and be celebrated in the black community (and beyond) which is cause for celebration.

By all means this kind of success is not restricted to just attending an Oxbridge or red brick institution, of course not. I think of educators like myself or the incredibly talented and erudite rapper Akala neither of us who are graduates but share a thirst for educating all. Without apology we make no bones for how much our African roots shape our thinking and desire to educate. Within the UK perceptions of the black community in the media tend to focus primarily on what I call the trinity of Entertainment, Sports and Crime. Being able to recognise and support those who are pushing back against this to demonstrate exceptional learning prowess with the clear intention of being make social change is for me cause for celebration.

Truth is this in an ideal world we should not have to look at success in terms of colour, race or ethnicity. We don’t live in an ideal world. Yet we celebrate anyway. If we don’t who will?


6 thoughts on “The Talented Tenth | Why Black Success Matters

  1. Spot on! We need more trailblazers across all fields who do more, speak more, think more and act more. Its not enough to complain or to applaud tokenism. We need sustainable growth and visible change in the world, a world which is not yet ideal.

  2. Certainly understand the importance of celebrating the successes that we have. Interesting to see although we don’t live in the ideal world, what steps would have to be taken in considering our identity both as a human being and as a member of an ethnic group to work towards that ideal where celebrating success is a human deal and not one based on the ethnic grouping issue. Good blog as ever Mr. McQueen, obviously when I grow up I’d like to be almost as effective as you. Funnily enough, however, I guess the suggestion is your hope is that when I grow up, I’ll be twice as effective! We shall see.

  3. Great blog post David and I couldn’t agree more with what you have said. This is the reason I launched PRECIOUS, there were no visible examples of successful black women (and men) outside of sport and music being celebrated. I launched PRECIOUS in 1999, not much has changed!
    Love the points you make about formal education too.

  4. Just discovered this blog thanks to Foluke on Twitter. Interesting and insightful post. Working for the Journalism Diversity Fund, I’m particularly interested in your comments of how minority communities are portrayed in the media. We have some incredibly talented bursary recipients who are working on changing that negative perception.

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