For the debut Bartlett’s anthology of black quotations, editor Retha Powers wanted to capture the personal, the political and the artistic.
“Bartlett’s Familiar Black Quotations,” which has just been published, has the most comprehensive of subtitles: “5,000 Years of Literature, Lyrics, Poems, Passages, Phrases, and Proverbs from Voices Around the World.” It reaches back to ancient times and oral cultures and continues right up to rap, Malcolm Gladwell and President Barack Obama.
In a foreword for the new book, the author and critic Henry Louis Gates Jr. notes that compilations of black quotations date back to the 19th century and that the “field has proliferated with a marvelous array of titles.” But, he adds, none of the reference works compares with “the scope of Retha Powers’ collection.”
The 764-page book includes lyrics by Robert Johnson, Smokey Robinson and Jay Z; the humor of Richard Pryor, Chris Rock and Eddie Murphy; the oratory of the Revs. Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesse Jackson; and prose and poetry from Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou. Gates himself gets a few citations.
Obama’s section covers 10 pages and features excerpts from his memoir “Dreams from My Father”; his campaign slogan “Yes, we can!”; his celebrated keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention; and highlights from his two inaugural addresses. Powers includes problematic moments, too, whether the “God damn America” sermon by Obama’s longtime pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright or Obama’s observation during a fundraiser speech that some people struggling economically “cling to guns or religion.”
The new Bartlett’s compiles statesmen (Nelson Mandela) and tyrants (Idi Amin), radicals (Malcolm X) and conservatives (Clarence Thomas), scholars (John Hope Franklin) and slaves (Nat Turner). There are boasts (Muhammad Ali’s catchphrase “I am the greatest”), protests (Tracy Chapman: “Why are the missiles called peacekeepers?”), jokes (Dave Chappelle: “Every black is bilingual. We speak street vernacular and job interview”) and pleas (Rodney King: “Can we all get along?”).