In the ironically-titled The Negro Problem, a volume of seven essays published in 1903, African American scholar W.E.B. DuBois spoke of “The Talented Tenth.” 

It was during a period known as the nadir of American race relations, when racism in this country was so nakedly overt DuBois argued that higher education must develop the intellectual capacities of the most capable 10 percent of Black Americans who would become leaders in their communities and agents of social change.

So what are members of the Talented Tenth talking about nowadays?

Well, pretty much the same things that the other 90 percent of drylongso colored folk mull over each day, starting with some peace, love, and unity in the Black community.

Nearly 120 years after DuBois’s hope for the emergence of a talented tenth to lead, Black men and women who have benefitted from a college education are still working on behalf of marginalized communities yet striving to reach a higher ground across the anatomy of the American landscape.

The acronym “A.S.C.E.N.D” is at the heart of the Black Alumni Collective’s (BAC) National Conference that starts today at Duke University. The hundreds of highly accomplished Black college graduates who are expected to attend the conference — not unlike DuBois—believe in the power of coming together to make a difference and create change.

“A.S.C.E.N.D” stands for “Amplify, Serve, Commune, Excel, Network, Diversify,” Allyson Reaves, the BAC’s national retreat coordinator told the INDY this week. Reaves said about 300 people are expected to attend the conference.

The overarching purpose of the event is to “convene Black alumni from universities across the country to fellowship, celebrate, and share our experience, around the issues that mean the most to us,” said Reaves, adding that during a period of increasing political polarization largely defined by race, the aim of the conference is to mobilize college campuses and make clear that student activism must be in alignment “with the most important topics in Black America.”

The A.S.C.E.N.D. Conference is hosted by Duke Black Alumni (DBA). This week’s conference was preceded by a virtual event in March that featured a panel discussion on “Sports, Protest, and Racial Reconciliation.” The focus of that panel, moderated by Duke African and African American Studies professor Mark Anthony Neal, was the prominent “voice of the Black athlete in the public arena pushing for social, economic and racial justice… particularly in the wake of the worldwide protests around the murder of George Floyd,” according to a BAC post on Facebook.

The conference begins tonight with a greeting and call to action from its co-chairs, Lisa Borders, the former president of the Women’s National Basketball Association, and Derek Penn, an independent trustee with the Charles Schwab Mutual Fund. Borders and Penn are both Duke graduates.

The centerpiece of the four-day summit, which ends Sunday, are daily panel discussions beginning Friday that will focus on lessons learned with Black leadership, the growing political resolve, leadership and power of Black women, navigating the health disparities that have long bedeviled Black communities, the Black alumni experience, along with voting, Black political power, and the “new Black Wall Street.” 

The old Black Wall Streets across America were destroyed by racist violence like the Wilmington coup d’etat in 1898 and the Tulsa Race Massacre in 1921, or during the horribly misnamed, federal urban renewal programs that destroyed thriving Black business districts like Hayti here in Durham.

Duke Today writer Bridgette A. Lacy this week noted that the conference speakers will include Dr. Eugene Washington, chancellor for health affairs at Duke and president and CEO of the Duke Health System; Blayne Alexander a 2008 Duke grad, who is now a NBC News and MSNBC correspondent; Satana Deberry, a 1994 Duke Law School graduate who is now Durham’s district attorney, along with “dozens of Black leaders in the fields of medicine, technology, business, law, and nonprofit organizations.”

Conference organizers have also put together a slate of cultural, social and networking events including book talks that will feature Black alumni authors discussing and signing their books, and a tour of the Duke Basketball Museum.

There’s also a community fest and fair in downtown Durham to support nonprofits. Conference attendees are encouraged to support the city’s Black-owned businesses.

The conference begins tonight with a greeting and call to action from its co-chairs, Lisa Borders, the former president of the Women’s National Basketball Association, and Derek Penn, an independent trustee with the Charles Schwab Mutual Fund. Borders and Penn are both Duke graduates.

The BAC’s mission echoes the principles observed in the seven-day Kwanzaa holiday that was created in the 1960s by Black nationalist-turned-college professor Maulana Karenga as a means of uniting and empowering the African American community after the 1965 Watts Rebellion in Los Angeles.

“We reclaim the power of the ‘alumni network’ and we define it in a way that ties us to principles that we, as Black alumni, know well: unity, self determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith,” its members state on the BAC website.

“The collective was created in Atlanta in 2018 by alumni leaders from more than 10 schools, including Duke, with the vision that Black alumni from universities across the country should know each other and work together to achieve a common purpose,” Steve Hartsoe, a Duke spokesman wrote in an email to the INDY. “They wanted to not only improve campus life but life after graduation in their communities.”  

“We want to go forward, go higher … there’s power in a collective voice,” Sanders Adu, a 1994 Duke University graduate and BAC conference co-chair, told Duke Today this week. “We are targeting 500 Black alumni from more than 50 schools. We have reached out to HBCUs, large state schools, and private schools.”

The BAC lists as its “six pillars of impact” advocacy for inclusion, encouraging student recruitment, supporting philanthropy, broadening their community service outreach, promoting leadership, along with celebrating their universities, and each other.”

“The conference is a collective space for thought leadership,” Reaves said. “And shared learning.”

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