Books we love
The Exuberance and Lyricism of Black Quotations
As Black History Month comes to a close, we are proud to feature a fantastic new reference book: Bartlett's Familiar Black Quotations. As Henry Louis Gates, Jr. states in the foreword, it is "an impressively researched and documented collection of the finest thought produced by writers throughout the African diaspora." Here we present an excerpt from the preface by the book's editor, Retha Powers.
[Learning to read] was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty—to wit, the white man's power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom.
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass 
We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and to the future.
The Meaning of the Fourth of July to the Negro. Speech, Rochester, New York [July 5, 1852]
In 1855 Frederick Douglass published his second enduring autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom. That same year John Bartlett, a bookstore owner in Cambridge, Massachusetts, published a 258-page volume titled A Collection of Familiar Quotations. Douglass, who had long been known as a stirring orator in the cause of abolition and for his nationally best-selling Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (which also received international attention), did not make it into Bartlett's collection; nor did any women, save Mrs. Barbauld. But, then again, neither did George Washington or Thomas Jefferson. In fact, Benjamin Franklin was the most prominent founding father to gain inclusion, alongside such notables as Shakespeare and Lord Byron. Both Douglass and Bartlett published their books just before the Civil War, amid a bitter battle over the enslavement of people of African descent that would continue to challenge notions of who was and what it meant to be American, making Douglass's absence from Bartlett's anthology even more glaring.
Up until the fourteenth edition, in 1968, only a few black voices could be found in what came to be known as Bartlett's Familiar Quotations. Editor Emily Morrison Beck boldly revamped the book, adding many more black and female speakers, and deepened the international scope. She added Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Barbara Jordan, and writers such as Nikki Giovanni, Derek Walcott, and Ralph Ellison. Morrison Beck was criticized for expanding the international definition in Bartlett's beyond Europe and redefining ancient and contemporary speakers, but by doing so she set the tone for broader inclusion in future editions.
John Bartlett wrote that the purpose of his book was "to show, to some extent, the obligations our language owes to various authors for numerous phrases and familiar quotations which have become household words." This first edition of Bartlett's Familiar Black Quotations does the same specifically for black cultures while also restoring words lost, omitted, or forgotten during slavery and the struggles for freedom and equality.
Sources range from African proverbs to the rhyming verse of Muhammad Ali; from the separatist philosophy of Marcus Garvey to the humanistic, visionary grace of Nelson Mandela; from the musings of Benjamin Banneker to the Nobel Prize–winning words of Toni Morrison. Bartlett's Familiar Black Quotations also records the "folks" from various eras, through popular sayings and anonymous speakers. It was, after all, a church elder known as Mother Pollard who said during the Montgomery bus boycott, "My feets is tired, but my soul is rested." Quotations have been selected for popularity and familiarity, originality, historical significance, and sometimes simply for eloquence and beauty.
Quotations have been culled from novels, poems, speeches, essays, memoirs, slave narratives, films, television shows and appearances, radio interviews, song lyrics, letters, biographies, and black and mainstream periodicals. Speakers in Bartlett's Familiar Black Quotations include writers, artists, musicians, poets, philosophers, politicians, athletes, activists, playwrights, singers, actors, religious leaders, and others whose words were significant in their time and have endured beyond it. Many of these speakers have never been represented in such a collection before.
Building Bartlett's Familiar Black Quotations has been a process of reaching back and reaching forward. Various schools of thought are represented: Huey P. Newton's black power stance is given a place at the table, along with the nationalist philosophy of Malcolm X and the civil disobedience of Bayard Rustin. The result is a range of speakers and wellknown quotes: "I have a dream" (Martin Luther King, Jr.); "What happens to a dream deferred?" (Langston Hughes); "Look up, you mighty race!" (Marcus Garvey). And lesser-known but equally powerful quotations are included, such as "When and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole Negro race enters with me" (Ana Julia Cooper).
In Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin writes, "They face each other, the Negro and the African, over a gulf of three hundred years—an alienation too vast to be conquered in an evening's good-will, too heavy and too double-edged ever to be trapped in speech. . . . [The Negro] cannot deny them, nor can they ever be divorced." Although a majority of the quotations in this collection come from African Americans, Africa and the African diaspora are also represented.
Challenges linked to racism and oppression have been continuous in black lives, and so the recurrence of themes leads sometimes to a similarity of sentiment and conversations within and across eras. Opposition to slavery and oppression is as old as the "peculiar institution" itself, as evidenced by King Afonso's sixteenth-century letter to the king of Portugal: "We cannot reckon how great the damage is, since the . . .merchants daily seize our subjects, sons of the land and sons of our noblemen, and vassals and our relatives. . . . They grab them and cause them to be sold; and so great, Sir, is their corruption and licentiousness that our country is being utterly depopulated." And as the enslaved African playwright and poet Terence writes, "In fact, nothing is said that has not been said before."
Although black speakers have had much to say about the struggle against oppression, Bartlett's Familiar Black Quotations does not limit itself to protest alone. Once again in the words of Terence, "While there's life, there's hope." Nikki Giovanni writes about love as often as she does about race, and comedians such as Bert Williams, Richard Pryor, and Chris Rock have blended highly quotable humor with social insight.
In his introduction to the Fourth Edition of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, John Bartlett writes, "It has been thought better to incur the risk of erring on the side of fullness." In that tradition, the reader of Bartlett's Familiar Black Quotations will find quotes that are urgent ("If a race has no history, if it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated"—Carter G. Woodson); exuberant ("Imagination! who can sing thy force? / Or who describe the swiftness of thy course?"—Phillis Wheatley); saucily defiant ("Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company?"—Zora Neale Hurston); and lyrical ("This is the urgency: Live! / and have your blooming in the noise of the whirlwind"—Gwendolyn Brooks). As a whole, the quotations included capture humor, strivings, insights, history, and moments of controversy as observed by black people.
Excerpted from the Preface to Bartlett's Familiar Black Quotations, edited by Retha Powers. Published in November 2013 by Little, Brown and Company. Copyright © 2013 by Retha Powers. All rights reserved.