Book of ‘Black Quotations’ Offers New Way to Look Back at History

Consider this new book among your holiday gift ideas.

By Von Diaz Nov 27, 2013

In a long overdue adaptation of the classic Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, Retha Powers offers an epic compendium of quotes by and about black people. Ranging from "Go shorty, it’s your birthday" (50 Cent) to "You dance because you have to," (Katherine Dunham), the book spans more than a century of black thought and writing through poetry, literature, speeches, and song lyrics.

Published in 1855, the original Barlett’s did not include black writers until its 14th edition in 1968. This new version includes an introduction by Henry Louis Gates who describes it as "the finest thought produced by writers throughout the African Diaspora."

Gene Demby at NPR’s Code Switch blog shares his thoughts on how this book might offer a new way to explore the history and evolution of black culture in the U.S.

The middle of the 20th century finds all kinds of people thinking thoughtful and urgent things about The State of Black People. (It’s always good to be reminded that Fannie Lou Hamer was a badass.) And then — boom — Ray Charles is singing about the woman across town that he’s creeping with. The tenor of the quotes changes as the book moves forward in time. So does their form. Scripture gives way to abolitionist entreaties; lyrics from soul music give way to hip-hop’s staccato cadences. It all seems a little random, but there’s serendipity in stumbling onto something juicy in that randomness.

(h/t NPR Code Switch)