An Igbo proverb cited in Bartlett’s Familiar Black Quotations reads, “A man who pays respect to the great paves the way for his own greatness,” and acts as the new book’s guiding principle. A tribute to millenia of uncollected black thought, it gathers together five thousand quotes from ancient times to the present and focuses only on sayings from people of African descent. In its pages, one finds a diverse understanding of the word “greatness,” as the quotations come from sources as geographically, culturally, and historically various as ancient Egypt, the Caribbean, Africa, and America; Jamie Foxx, Natasha Trethewey, Kanye West, Nelson Mandela, President Obama, and Condoleezza Rice; The Book of the Dead and the Holy Bible. In compiling all this, Retha Powers, the book’s general editor, showcases the depth, complexity, and persistence of black social engagement, and so presents a fine and nuanced linguistic and epistemological portrait of the black diaspora.
Powers has a long history with collecting. As executive editor of the Quality Paperback Book Club, she manages acquisitions, collecting publishers, editors, agents, sub-rights directors, and authors. She is the editor of Black Silk: A Collection of African American Erotica (Grand Central Publishing) and co-editor of This Is My Best: Great Writers Share Their Favorite Work (Chronicle Books), which was one of USA Today’s “Best Summer Reads.” She also collects quotes—or “microhistories,” as she calls them—that she finds inspirational. A writer herself, Powers earned a master’s of fine arts in creative writing from Goddard College, and has published in The New York Times Magazine, Essence, Ms., Vibe and Glamour.
Bartlett’s Familiar Black Quotations: 5,000 Years of Literature, Lyrics, Poems, Passages, Phrases, and Proverbs from Voices Around the World is Powers’s most recent collection project and by far her largest undertaking yet. In an interview that just aired on MSNBC, Henry Louis Gates Jr., who wrote the foreword, described the collection as one of the “great intellectual accomplishments in terms of reference works in the history of [black] people.”
On a chilly Friday morning, Retha Powers talked about her journey to and through Bartlett’s Familiar Black Quotations—from the process of gathering and winnowing thousands of years of material to achieving a balance in perspectives, and the importance of collecting the language of a culture for posterity.
—Lauren K. Alleyne for Guernica
Guernica: How did your role as compiler and editor of the first book of black quotations come about?
Retha Powers: Sure. I was having lunch with an editor at Little, Brown, who mentioned to me in passing that they were doing a book on black quotations. She asked if I knew of anyone who would be interested, and wanted me to send her some names. Meanwhile, I was sitting there at this business lunch thinking: Me!
What she couldn’t know was that in that moment, in my purse, I had these scraps of paper with quotes written on them. I had always found that sort of microtext really interesting and inspirational. Back in my office, I spent the afternoon pacing around. And then the editor actually called me back and said, “You know, I asked you if there was anyone interested, but would you be interested?” So that’s how I got to this project.
Part of working on this book was creating a bridge forward and a bridge back.
Guernica: Tell me more about those microtexts in your purse.
Retha Powers: Well, as an editor and as a writer, certain words and ideas have always jumped out at me. I started out as a poet. A really horrible poet, so I am interested in that kind of distillation of thought, of big ideas into a very small, simple statement. And my impulse was always to write things down, because there’s so much in them. And my hope is that a lot of the quotations the book has are read as microhistories, because you start with one quote by somebody and realize there’s a whole lot around that statement. So, yes, I have quotes in my purse always, and so now it’s nice to have this book. I can’t fit it in my purse, but some of the quotations in Bartlett’s Familiar Black Quotations will be included in an app.
Guernica: Could you give an example here of the thought processes you found yourself following—how one quote led to other quotes and other ideas?
Retha Powers: For example, when Malcolm X says in a speech in the early 1960s, “Who taught you to hate the color of your skin? Who taught you to hate the texture of your hair? Who taught you to hate the shape of your nose and the shape of your lips? Who taught you to hate yourself from the top of your head to the soles of your feet? Who taught you to hate your own kind? Who taught you to hate the race that you belong to so much so that you don’t want to be around each other?” This might make me think of the work done around children and self-image by Kenneth and Mamie Clark—in particular, the experiment done with black and white dolls that was pivotal in Brown v. Board of Education. Which then leads me to Ethiop, a nineteenth-century journalist who wrote in a letter to Frederick Douglass, “We despise, we almost hate ourselves, and all that favors us. Well may we scoff at black skins and wooly heads, since every model set before us for admiration has pallid face and flaxen head. … [A] black girl would as soon fondle an imp as a black doll.” But then I think of “Black is Beautiful,” Alice Walker’s essay about no longer straightening her hair and then musings on post-blackness.
Guernica: Did you have a vision for the book when you first said yes to this project? And did it change at all once you began?
Retha Powers: Obviously, the Bartlett’s name has been synonymous with quotations and words, and I [knew I] would be working within that framework. But I was very clear that I wanted the voices in the book to tell a diasporic story of the black experience.
The Bartlett’s model is organized from ancient to contemporary times, which was a very handy tool. A smarter person would have started at the beginning and worked to the end, but I did not do that. I started in the middle. I started with the writers of the Harlem Renaissance and some nineteenth-century writers because I felt like these were the people who really galvanized a philosophy of activism, of poetry and fiction, and as I say in my introduction, part of working on this book was creating a bridge forward and a bridge back. So my working question was: How did they get to this moment that we still refer to, that we still go back to? So I began there, and worked out.
[Blackness] is a narrative and identity that is at once collective and diverse.
Guernica: “Diasporic story” and “the black experience” seem to be contradictory phrases. Can you talk more about what you mean here? Is there such a thing as the black experience, in America or elsewhere?
Retha Powers: It’s a narrative and identity that is at once collective and diverse. When I use these terms, I am referring to the collective experiences of people with a shared ancestry that links to the continent of Africa and within the continent of Africa. “Black” as a label unites, but there are different experiences in African countries, the Americas, Europe, the Caribbean. For the sake of argument, what is common and shared is that link to Africa, though the degree of closeness and distance varies. So perhaps what I really mean to say is “black experiences” rather than “the black experience.”
Guernica: You pull from all spheres of knowledge. It’s not just the arts—you’ve got humor, songs, politics. How did you find all this material?
Retha Powers: I spent a lot of time at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture; it was my second office. At first, I thought this book was going to take three years, but it wound up taking almost seven years. I really wanted as much as possible to use primary resources for everything, the original source and the documentation. And then some of it I wasn’t able to find, but for the most part that was really important to me and it was a long, slow process of going through these things we call books—you know, with pages—and looking and looking at them.
What I really wanted was as much of a 360-degree view of black experiences as possible. So there are a lot of quotations that tap on particular movements and struggle. I have Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth and Fredrick Douglass, and necessarily those quotations needed to be about the themes that might be more obvious to people about justice, freedom, and struggle. Truth said, “I could work as much and eat as much as a man (when I could get it), and bear the lash as well—and aren’t I a woman?” One hundred years later, Langston Hughes asked, “What happens to a dream deferred?” In 1961, Nelson Mandela declared: “The struggle is my life. I will continue fighting for freedom until the end of my days.”
But as we know, at the same time, life continued to happen. There is also humor and introspection about a myriad of things: Ama Ata Aidoo quips, “Our people say a bad marriage kills the soul. Mine is fit for burial.” Rita Dove writes, “You start out with one thing, end up with another, and nothing’s like it used to be, not even the future.” And then there’s Prince writing songs about, among other things, “what it sounds like when doves cry.” And so there were other aspects of black experience—songs were written, literature was created, poetry was written. I wanted to make sure to include writing about love, and the contradictions of everyday life, childhood, parenting, and all those kinds of things.
Guernica: What do you say to those who might consider this book an unnecessary project, maybe even a frivolous one?
Retha Powers: It came home to me that this was a really important project when in the middle of working on the book, a couple years in, I went to a cocktail party, and a young woman, a black woman, asked me what I do. I told her, you know, I’m working on this book of black quotations. She said “Wow! That’s a lot. What are you going to do?” And I thought she meant the sheer volume of the approach and, you know, all the work, etc., but she said to me, “Well, we aren’t a very happy people, so… you know… what do you even do?” I was shocked. Here is this woman in her mid-to-late thirties, a black woman, and that she would say something like that—that black people are not happy people because of this legacy that we have of racism and enslavement… That she would think that that’s all of it—that that’s her takeaway—was a strong wake-up call for me for the necessity of a book like this.
Desmond Tutu wrote, “History, like beauty, depends largely on the beholder, so when you read that, for example, David Livingstone discovered the Victoria Falls, you might be forgiven for thinking that there was nobody around the Falls until Livingstone arrived on the scene.” It’s very similar to the idea of Columbus “discovering” America. The lens of history is often narrowed. Bartlett’s Familiar Black Quotations was an opportunity to record black history and cultures in a more expansive way and capture key touch points in history, which broadens this view. Lorraine Hansberry wrote, “In order to create the universal, you must pay very great attention to the specific.” By documenting and expanding the landscape of the “familiar,” we achieve a more accurate depiction of our collective history as it has been documented and as it emerges.
Guernica: Why specifically a black volume? Why not just inclusion in the original Bartlett’s?
Retha Powers: A few other people have asked me that question, and as you saw when you got the manuscript, it’s a really big book. What is it, 760 pages with the index? So given that, I don’t see it so much as a separation or segregation, but more as an expansion, an opportunity to go more in depth than the traditional Bartlett’s. The original is a very wide-angle view that encompasses the entire world, which is great, but in doing that certain things have to be left out. For example, in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, Robert Johnson isn’t included, and that’s in no way a criticism, it’s just that certain choices have to be made when you’re trying to include people from the entire world.
What I’ve been able to do here is to have that global experience in terms of looking at the black experience; it’s another lens through which to look at the same kinds of themes that are found in the “Big Bartlett’s,” which is what we’ve taken to calling Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.
Guernica: As you’ve pointed out, there’s not a “universal” black experience, so there are probably some ideas put across in quotations that you don’t agree with. How did you deal with that?
Retha Powers: That’s a fair question. I struggled a lot with making the book as inclusive as possible. For sure particular interpretation, my spin on blackness, is what it is, but it’s a diverse experience, which is what this book reflects. Definitely there were things that didn’t resonate with me personally, but as an editor I felt really strongly that I had to include these things, too.
I’m also anticipating that some people might be critical of my choice to include certain quotations; for example, Marion Barry’s infamous “Bitch set me up” is the quote that, unfortunately, he’s known for. It’s definitely a lightning rod for discussion, it’s a very blues line, it’s a lot of different things, but in this book what I could do is also have other quotations from him. One where he—I’m going to mangle it—but where he talks about the Apollo mission and is saying the idea of putting people on the moon was ridiculous when people on earth didn’t have enough food. It was very controversial, and, I think, emblematic of his career in the sense that he did a lot of work on behalf of Americans in Washington, D.C. I tried to do a full picture of Marion Barry because this book was focused on black speakers, and he was an important figure. I wanted to present an honest picture.
With regard to quotations from music, too, I really wanted to present a wide scope and view of the kinds of music that are a part of black culture. The book presents a full range—we have Scott Joplin and Jessye Norman and “Fuck tha Police” as part of the included lyrics; you know, the more hardcore hip hop or rap alongside your sort of more soft and fuzzy soul lyrics. But that’s how it is—it’s about the full picture. Of course in many ways my personal tastes are reflected in here, because as you said, as an editor, it’s a subjective process, but I really tried to challenge myself. I also had some people who worked with me as advisors; I would send them a list and they would tell me, You need this and that, and it was helpful to see what some of those folks thought, too.
You get rather different ways of coping with the condition of being oppressed and discriminated against. There are poets and writers who have this idea that if we just follow what we’re supposed to do, just work within the system, it’s all going be okay.
Guernica: You use a word I want to push on a little: You said challenge. What are the biggest challenges you encountered on this journey?
Retha Powers: The first thing that comes to mind is that when you’re talking about diasporic experience, language factors come into play pretty strongly. I don’t have a second language, so I had to rely heavily on translations, and that was difficult, because if I had one or two languages, other than the one I speak, I would have felt more confident that the translations I utilized were strong and accurate. Some of what I was able to cull from speakers and writers was limited because the translation problem is really heartbreaking; what’s happening, especially with the more contemporary writers, is that they’re just not widely translated into English. So that was one thing I butted up against as a challenge.
A related challenge was in trying [to make] this as global as possible. This is a book that is published in the United States and in English, so the bedrock is absolutely the African-American experience. That said, I didn’t want it to be perceived as only that experience, or that I was privileging one experience over another. I tried to bring in as many voices as possible to keep a balance, and I hope that’s reflected.
And then there’s the issue of chasing things down, which was interesting. So many quotes were attributed to one speaker or another, and in researching I sometimes discovered that many things didn’t actually belong to a particular speaker, and that was sometimes frustrating.
Guernica: What was the most surprising or rewarding thing about working on this project?
Retha Powers: I think the most rewarding thing was creating, or rather watching the emergence of, certain themes and approaches, especially since the book stretches from ancient times to the present. For example, you get rather different ways of coping with the condition of being oppressed and discriminated against. There are poets and writers who have this idea that if we just follow what we’re supposed to do, just work within the system, it’s all going be okay. Jupiter Hammon, basically saying we should make ourselves the best slaves we can be, that if Christianity is really what rules then at some point our masters will free us. And then you go all the way to the present, and there again are conservative ideas of working within the system.
Having all those voices in one place talking to each other? It’s like throwing a fantastic party.
Guernica: What’s your take on Jupiter Hammon’s philosophy?
Retha Powers: In his Address to the Negroes of the State of New York, delivered in 1787, Hammon said: “It may seem hard for us, if we think our masters wrong in holding us slaves, to obey in all things, but who of us dare dispute with God! He has commanded us to obey, and we ought to do it cheerfully, and freely.” We have to understand Hammon through the lens of history. Being enslaved exacted an enormous psychological bondage we can only begin to imagine. Despite the fact that he was a poet and a writer, he believed in gradual emancipation and said he didn’t wish to be free. Not everyone denied humanity would be able to rebel internally or otherwise. Hammon is an example of the divergent ways black people have viewed their status in society. For him, liberty would be the result of following the plight set by the creator himself. However, in a later quote, Hammon laments, “I hoped that God would open their eyes when they were so much engaged in liberty…”
Dorothy Cotton said of her era’s approach, “If a bucket of water doesn’t put out a burning house, it doesn’t mean that water does not put out fire. It simply means that we need more water.” And so with nonviolence. Fast-forward to the Black Power movement and the Black Panthers, and you have people like Huey Newton saying, “A people who have suffered so much for so long at the hands of a racist society must draw the line somewhere.” Seeing all of this in one place was really gratifying. Often one history erases another. We forget.
But back to the rewards of compiling this book: The very determined insistence on art and expression in spite of everything was really exciting—to go, for example, from Phillis Wheatley to Rita Dove. Having all those voices in one place talking to each other? It’s like throwing a fantastic party.
Guernica: You have all these poets and writers, and so there’s someone like Hughes, whose collected works is almost as big as the book of quotations itself. How did you select from within the body of an author’s work? How did you distill those?
Retha Powers: I should have given this answer when you asked about the challenges because this was a big challenge! The book is representative of a large group of people, but there are quotations books based solely on some of the speakers that are in here, like Martin Luther King Jr. So, to answer your questions, in terms of looking at someone’s body of work, I really tried as much as possible to start with the things that were most obvious. For someone like Langston Hughes, I started with “a dream deferred”—just working with the expectation. Then my question was, “Okay, what was emblematic of this person’s work? What were they about?” And in the little space that I had, I wanted to show what they were trying to achieve, what they were looking for. After that, well, I had fun and got to put in things that were really beautiful or funny or quirky in some way, and allowed myself some indulgences.
Sometimes I had some really hard choices in terms of what to leave out. With Zora Neale Hurston, for example, I could put the entire book Their Eyes Were Watching God in there. And then she wrote ethnographies and her anthropological work. You know, I think a lot about everything that’s not in there. Someone mentioned a quote the other day, something like, “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it,” and I do remember not including that quotation in the book. Of course that’s the one I left out!
The question, “What does posterity mean?” certainly drives this endeavor. Big Bartlett’s is very much about this idea of what is going to be timeless and permanent. It’s about language that is being used and referred to, and including contemporary people was a challenge, because how do you know if it’s going to stick?
Guernica: In some ways, though, aren’t you making it stick? Isn’t that the power of a text like this? When you include it, aren’t you giving it posterity?
Retha Powers: Yes, in the context of the book, that’s true, because it’s fixed there. But then in popular culture, in the way that people communicate with each other, whether something will stay relevant is another question. From the 1855 [edition of] Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations to the one now, there’s been a tremendous amount of shift. So here we are with the first collection of black quotations, and I wonder what that shift will look like.
Guernica: How are you hoping people are going to use this book?
Retha Powers: I’m really hoping that it’s used by students if they’re writing a paper and they need a good quote, and it could be on any subject. I’m hoping that people will browse through it and say, “Oh, I like that quote. Maybe I’ll read that book.” I want it to serve as a starting point for further study or further questions. And of course, for inspiration. I think it can be useful and inspiring, and I want readers to treat it as a go-to in the same way they might use Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.
Guernica: After compiling all of these amazing quotes, do you have any favorites? Are there any that just stayed?
Retha Powers: Absolutely. But it’s kind of like choosing among your children. Not to mention, I will actually have to look them up, because the inside of my head is a big jumble of words now after working with all this language for so long. But definitely Anna Julia Cooper, who says, “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.” And that’s from A Voice from the South . Richard Wright’s line from Black Boy  is another good one, “Men can starve from a lack of self-realization as much as they can from a lack of bread.” Okay, and one more. I think three is fair! James Baldwin wrote, “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,” in “The Devil Finds His Work” . I think those would be some of my favorites.
Guernica: Going back to the idea of microhistories, and that woman’s response that we’re “not a very happy people,” could you sum up in a few words what portrait of blackness you believe emerges from this collection?
Retha Powers: I think what emerges is an incredibly tenacious, hopeful, striving image of black people over the years. As I mentioned earlier, the speakers in here are not from one particular era, and there are huge, huge challenges that make us who we are—whether it’s dealing with abolition or apartheid or reconstruction or Jim Crow—and a lot of other, smaller things happening simultaneously in a person’s life. Culture allows in all these other things—humor and art and music. And so I think the portrait of blackness that emerges in this book is very triumphant, inspiring, human, messy. Ultimately human. Here’s a quote from Terence, who was an enslaved playwright: “I am a man, nothing human is alien to me.” That’s what’s in this book: it’s a portrait of the human experience and all of its changes, specifically through the black experience. That’s what I hope is here.