NEW YORK – For the debut Bartlett’s anthology of Black quotations, editor Retha Powers wanted to capture the personal, the political and the artistic.
“When you think about Black history, you think about touch points like slavery, colonialism, apartheid,” Powers says. “Those are heavy and difficult topics. But there also lives being led and poetry being created and plays being written. I wanted to be able to show all of that, the will to create a culture and a life.”
“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.
Powers says the idea for the new Bartlett’s began about seven years ago. She was executive editor of the Quality Paperback Book Club and was having lunch with Little, Brown and Co. editor Deborah Baker (who has since left the company). They were discussing upcoming books when Baker mentioned that a volume of Black quotations was planned and wondered if Powers had suggestions for who could put it together.
“I wanted to say ‘Me!’ but felt it wasn’t quite appropriate to put myself forward,” Powers explains. “Some days later she called me and said, ‘I know I asked if you knew anyone, but would you want to do it?’ And I jumped at the chance.”
Obama’s section cover 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.”
“I definitely wanted to stay in the Bartlett’s tradition of capturing what has been the most impactful, and sometimes there are those warts everybody has,” Powers says.
Not all of the entries originate with Blacks. The anthology features 40 pages of Biblical passages, which Powers says were important to include because they “were a really important tool toward imagining a life outside of slavery.” The Bartlett’s book also honors the tradition of improvisation, such as lyrics Otis Redding added for his 1966 cover of “Try a Little Tenderness,” written in the 1930s by a trio of British/Tin Pan Alley composers – Jimmy Campbell, Reg Connelly and Harry M. Woods.
“It was a signature song for Redding. He didn’t write it, but we wanted to include his riff on it,” Powers explained, noting that she included the “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” tagline worked in by Aretha Franklin for her cover of Redding’s “Respect.”
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?”).
“It was extremely important to me to capture a range of experiences and emotions,” Powers says. “We look to quotations to distill life as it exists in total and that includes what it was and how it feels.”