Profound and Poetic: The Greatest Black Quotes in History

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Retha Powers used to dream in quotes. It wasn’t always this way, but after the publishing house Little, Brown and Co. approached the author about compiling and editing a reference volume that chronicles black life through quotations from early Egyptians right up to Cory Booker, the words became a part of her.


“There was a point, a few years ago, that I was dreaming in quotes! Before I began this project, I was the kind of person who could easily quote people, but now my mind is one long, continuous quote. It’s a good thing I can refer to the book I edited,” says Powers, whose book Bartlett’s Familiar Black Quotations is being released today.

The book, which is a spinoff of the library staple Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, consists of 5,000 quotes that span ancient Egypt, the Bible, Aesop’s Fables, U.S. slavery, Jim Crow, the civil rights era, apartheid, Malcolm Gladwell and Jay Z.

“Because I was able to use the Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations structure of organizing the book by dates, any emerging narrative was driven by the speakers, their times and, of course, their words,” Powers says. “My task was to compile the quotations most emblematic of the speakers and their times and also to find the poetry in those words.”

John Bartlett’s life is the stuff of legend. Born in the early 1800s, he was reading by the age of 3. He’d read the entire Bible by age 9. He would finish school by 16 and work for a bookstore that supplied Harvard. By age 29 he would own the bookstore, and having become revered for his memory of quotations and facts, the phrase “Ask John Bartlett” became commonplace for the stumped Harvard community. In 1855 he would privately print the first edition of his Familiar Quotations.

But John Bartlett was white, and 1855 didn’t really lend itself to the quoted voice of African Americans.

“When my fellow Cantabrigian John Bartlett printed the first private edition of his Collection of Familiar Quotations in 1855, race-based slavery in America was still legal in 15 states and the District of Columbia,” The Root’s editor-in-chief, Henry Louis Gates Jr., writes in the foreword. “Many slaveholders, mindful of laws forbidding their ‘property’ from learning to read and write, would have punished them (or worse) for even looking at a book like Bartlett’s, out of fear that it would talk back to them (a recurring trope in the first half-dozen slave narratives)—and thus incite them to think for themselves, to recognize their common humanity with their putative ‘owners,’ and then to run away or revolt.”


The book, which was conceived some seven years ago, is a 764-page tome to blackness that opens with 40 pages of biblical quotes that help put the book in context. It follows the same structure as other Familiar Quotations books before it, with all noted speakers in the index listed alphabetically.

There is the pride-inducing moment that comes when you’re browsing through it and see rappers Kurtis Blow and Black Thought occupying the same page as South African activist Stephen Biko and Harlem Renaissance writer Marita Bonner.


Bartlett’s as a brand is the authority on quotations, so having a book focused on black speakers is important for black folks as a source of history and a tool for celebrating and living our cultures, and for other cultures as well,” says Powers.

Having browsed through countless quotes to read, compile, scour and decide which ones make the cut, Powers still has a few that she keeps handy to help guide her life:

Pigeonholing is interesting only for pigeons. —Jessye Norman

Men can starve from a lack of self-realization as much as they can from a lack of bread. —Richard Wright

Damn the lights. Watch the cars. The lights ain’t never killed nobody. —Moms Mabley

Identity would seem to be the garment with which one covers the nakedness of the self; in which case, it is best that the garment be loose. —James Baldwin

The cause of freedom is not the cause of a race or a sect, a party or a class—it is the cause of humankind, the very birthright of humanity. —Anna Julia Cooper


When asked about the cultural impact a book of this nature would have, Powers says, “I’m going to quote Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who said in a TED Talk, ‘The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.’”

How fitting that the woman who once dreamed in quotes closes with one so effortlessly.


Stephen A. Crockett Jr. is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.