If it seems pat to suggest that any quotation from the black community is like a tweet, consider that last year, 28 percent of African Americans online were using Twitter—more than any other demographic online, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project.
With a nod to that heavy use, Retha Powers, general editor of the new compendium Bartlett's Familiar Black Quotations, says the book has an additional significance this day and age. "I think quotations are the original tweets," she says. "They are distillations of how we feel and quick summations that can be used in informal conversations to talk about things that might be difficult to say."
In the tradition of John Bartlett's Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, first published in 1855 and now in its 18th edition, Powers has organized 5,000 years of phrases, lyrics and poetry from notable African Americans ranging from poet Phyllis Wheatley to President Barack Obama. She aimed both "to create a bridge forward and back" through time with the chronological framework Bartlett first used and to "err on the side of fullness," as Bartlett says.
The book took several years to complete in part because of the diversity of the African Diaspora in scope, language and volume. Powers, assistant director of the Publishing Certificate Program at City College of New York, says she wanted to include phrases readers might expect to find in such a collection, particularly from key moments in black history, including excerpts from writers of the Harlem Renaissance like Langston Hughes, quotes from Frantz Fanon and Nelson Mandela. "I wanted to capture these key moments, but also lifetime moments, the kinds of things we like to see quoted because quotes capture emotional realities in addition to historic ones," Powers says.
Veracity and correct attribution turned out to be easier for Powers to ascertain for early figures like Ignatius Sancho, an avid letter writer born on a slave ship. In epistolary correspondence from 1777, he writes, "Zounds! If alive—what ails you?" Powers underscores the quote as emblematic of one of the threads that tied speakers together across the 764-page book. "He was writing at a time when there was a lot that ailed black people," she says. "He had this incredible sense of hope and focus on life that was philosophical, in a way. I appreciated quotes like that." Another Powers favorite, from opera singer Jessye Norman, comes from a Life magazine interview: "Pigeonholing is only interesting for pigeons."
For entertainers, comedians and poets in the 21st century, finding appropriately attributed documentation in a sea of online and printed materials was more challenging. Powers says she relied mostly on old-school research—listening to recordings, digging through paper archives—since remarks from well-known leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela have been wildly misquoted online.
Then there was the question of who to include. "I tried to be as inclusive as possible," Powers says. Now that the book is being published, she has heard questions about missing people—dancers, entertainers and the like. "My concern was more about having missed people as an oversight,” she explains. “There are figures who are really important and what they did was really important, but they didn't have powerful quotes for me to draw on."
Bartlett's Familiar Black Quotations also includes quotes that aren't necessarily flattering. Former Washington D.C. mayor Marion Barry Jr., for instance, has three quotes in the book—one from 1969, calling attention to the plight of hunger in the black community, and two related to surveillance revealing that he had smoked crack cocaine while serving his third term as mayor, including "Bitch set me up."
Among other quotes, former Secretary of State Colin Powell is quoted, too, both from his memoir and in his 2003 Security Council Address to the United Nations: "There can be no doubt that Saddam Hussein has biological weapons and the capability to rapidly produce more, many more." These media-driven moments appear in Bartlett's Familiar Black Quotations because "these are moments in history and politics that are very important," Powers says. "I'll have to wait and see what the answers are to the choices I made in the book, whether news cycles or posterity will define these figures."
Powers says it was gratifying to see "all the voices together from ancient times to the present circling around the same things—justice, resistance, poetry or love, considering very universal concerns." Black humor, love and resilience, "it's there all the time,” she says. “That for me, makes it an enjoyable book to flip through, because there are a lot of different interpretations of what it means to be black, what it means to be a woman and man in different periods of history. I see a narrative thread of incredible hope and the act of hope is an act of resistance."
Joshunda Sanders is a writer and journalist.