“I assumed that with knowledge, sacrifice would automatically follow. In my youth and idealism I did not realize that selfishness is even more natural than sacrifice.”
W.E.B. DuBois spoke those words when he reflected on the failure of his vaunted ‘Talented Tenth’ concept. He was, as many of us are today, very idealistic about what Black people would do collectively and for one another. He envisioned our talents would be leveraged and shared in such a way that a broader base of our people would be advantaged. DuBois, as he admitted some 45 years after he introduced it, decried the Talented Tenth, those ‘exceptional’ men to whom he referred that would lift up the other 90% of our people.
Obviously, that did not happen, and a case could be made today that it’s still not happening. Was DuBois just an optimistic, naïve, idealistic Black man who had confidence in his people? Did he live in anger and regret for 45 years before he finally admitted his doctrine was flawed? It makes me wonder what things would be like today if those exceptional few had followed through with their challenge from DuBois. As he lamented though, those men saw their accomplishments as an end for their own success rather a means by which others could be successful as well.
What is the application of that lesson for us today?
I think of a statement I made at a speech several years ago: “If each of us does a little, all of us can have a lot.” I was speaking about an initiative I started after visiting Piney Woods School in Mississippi in 2004, coincidentally, two weeks after Oprah visited the school, which is located near her hometown. After learning the history of the school, I felt compelled to do a national fundraiser. I wrote a column about it and asked readers and everyone else I could contact to send a minimum of $5 directly to the school in an effort to raise $1 million.
Confident that at least 200,000 people would read my column and respond, I figured we would raise that $1 million in no time, the same way $750,000 was raised in 1954 for Piney Woods by a White man named Ralph Edwards, host of the TV show, This is Your Life. After interviewing the school’s founder, Lawrence Jones, relative of Radio One’s Cathy Hughes, Edwards asked his viewers to send $1 to the school. I figured, 50 years later, with all the technology and communications we have at our disposal, we should be just as successful.
The goal was never reached, but we did raise a few thousand dollars, far below the million I sought. Highly disappointed, I continued my attempt to appeal to Black people to take care of our own entities and causes. The Piney Woods effort morphed into what I called The Blackonomics Million Dollar Club (BMDC). You can watch a short video about the BMDC on my website.
Through the BMDC we selected a recipient each month and asked members to send $5 or more directly to that school, museum, defense fund, or whatever organization we chose that month. My goal for membership in the BMDC was 200,000 people; there was no fee for joining and no administrative fees were charged. It was a totally free, minimum-effort way to help ourselves. It reached a high of 1,000 members, some of whom never kept their commitment to send their $5 each month.
Despite the usual questions, “What’s he getting out of it?” and “How will the organization spend the money?” I continued to pursue the ideal of moving a million dollars into a Black organization with the touch of a computer key. Unlike DuBois, it took me only 10 years to come to some of the same conclusions he drew about us as it pertains to collective responsibility and collective economics.
I remember the recent report of the elderly school bus monitor who was mocked and insulted by some of the students riding the bus. In a matter of days, it hit YouTube, and folks started sending her money—unsolicited! They sent her more than $600,000. That’s a far-reaching example, but there are many other efforts initiated by other groups that result in millions in a matter of days. Why can’t we do that? Why don’t we do that? Gabriella Calhoun, the young sister who was beaten by police officers in Bloomington, Ill. has been trying to raise $5,000 to pay for her defense against ridiculous charges for several months now. We have only contributed a little more than $1,200. (Read about ‘Justice for Gabby’ on ). This should have been exceeded in a few hours, folks. C’mon, make a donation.
Let’s start to exercise more sacrifice over selfishness, and help one another more.
(Jim Clingman, founder of the Greater Cincinnati African American Chamber of Commerce, is the nation’s most prolific writer on economic empowerment for Black people. He is an adjunct professor at the University of Cincinnati and can be reached through his website, www.blackonomics.com.)