Words of Love, Pain, Protest and Motown
By Dwight Garner
Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) was probably the first great African-American food writer. She regularly hauled her appetites into her prose.
When you’re too old for sex, Hurston wrote, there is “great comfort in good dinners.” She compared trying to live without friends to “milking a bear to get cream for your morning coffee.” She declared: “I do not weep at the world — I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.” Perhaps most famously, she said: “I have been in Sorrow’s kitchen and licked out all the pots.”
Hurston was eloquent about almost everything, and an observation of hers, from her 1928 essay “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” strikes a chord that lingers over Bartlett’s Familiar Black Quotations, a necessary and preternaturally lively new reference book.
That observation — it appears on Page 179 — is this: “Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company?”
Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, the canonical Western reference book that first appeared in 1855, mostly denied itself the pleasure of black writers’ company until its 14th edition, which appeared in 1968. That was the year that Emily Morrison Beck, its new editor, diligently remade the book, adding such figures as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Derek Walcott and Ralph Ellison. It had been, to borrow Sam Cooke’s words, a long time coming.
The need for a book like Bartlett’s Familiar Black Quotations might not be immediately apparent. For one thing, as the critic and scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. points out in his foreword to this volume, collections of black quotations are nothing new: The first dates to 1898.
For another, we are swimming in books of quotations: legal quotations, sports quotations, movie quotations, squishy quotations for the chicken soup’d soul, probably even stumpy quotations for the mindful lumberjack. James Gleick once surveyed the shelves of these books for The New York Times Book Review and commented, “To compare them is to stroll through a glorious jungle of incestuous mutual plagiarism.”
Bartlett’s Familiar Black Quotations steamrolls any objections. It is not only the most comprehensive book of quotations from black thinkers over some 5,000 years of recorded history, but it also possesses something no other book of quotations quite does: a potent and sweeping narrative arc. It is possible to consume this book avidly from end to end.
The first quotations here are from ancient Egyptian sources, like “The Song of the Harper,” from roughly 2650 B.C. (“Remember: It is not given to man to take his goods with him. No one goes away and then comes back.”) Among the last is one from Kanye West at the time of Hurricane Katrina: “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”
In between are the words of politicians, poets, songwriters, slaves, athletes, novelists and many others. This book’s editor, Retha Powers, has gone out of her way to scour obscure sources: There are quotations from letters written to slave masters, from oral histories, from notes found in houses after slave rebellions, from newspaper editorials.
The former slave, orator and statesman Frederick Douglass is an early commanding presence here. “The destiny of the colored American,” he said in 1862, “is the destiny of America.” As she moves forward, Ms. Powers blends calls for nonviolence with the opposite, to intense effect.
This book does have its repetitious patches. So many important black political figures, like so many white ones, lived estimable lives but rarely uttered memorable things. The collected wisdom of Thurgood Marshall, John Hope Franklin, Desmond Tutu, Barbara Jordan, Kofi Annan, Condoleezza Rice and Cory Booker, to name but a few, is hard-earned and uplifting, but does not exactly leap from the page.
Shirley Chisholm is among the exceptions to this rule. Her 1967 campaign slogan is reprinted here: “Unbought and Unbossed.” So is her response to the question, posed in 1969, “What do you Negroes want now?” She began: “My God, what do we want? What does any human being want?”
You begin to scan Bartlett’s Familiar Black Quotations for stray bits of wit and probity, and you are seldom disappointed for long. Here is the actress Hattie McDaniel: “Why should I complain about making $7,000 a week playing a maid? If I didn’t, I’d be making $7 a week actually being one!”
Here’s Sammy Davis Jr.: “Being a star has made it possible for me to get insulted in places where the average Negro could never hope to go and get insulted.” In the introduction to his 1964 memoir, “Nigger,” the incomparable Dick Gregory wrote: “Dear Momma — Wherever you are, if you ever hear the word ‘nigger’ again, remember they are advertising my book.”
Among the more infamous inclusions here: “Bitch set me up” (Marion Barry Jr.); “If I Did It” (O. J. Simpson’s book title); and “There can be no doubt that Saddam Hussein has biological weapons” (Colin L. Powell).
Bartlett’s Familiar Black Quotations is worth the price of admission for the song lyrics it collects alone. We are reminded that Otis Blackwell wrote the Elvis hits “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Fever,” “All Shook Up” and “Return to Sender,” as well as the Jerry Lee Lewis hit “Great Balls of Fire.”
To give a sense of the rest of the lyrics here, forgive me if I omit composers (space is tight), and let a few snippets stream in your mind:
“Aunt Dinah has blowed de horn”; “Nobody knows you when you’re down and out”; “Oh, C. C. Rider, a see what you done done”; “There’ll be peace in the valley for me someday”; “Is you is or is you ain’t my baby?”; “God bless the child that’s got his own”; “I know a change is gonna come”; “It make me wanna holler”; “Nowhere to run to, baby”; “Well, we’re movin’ on up, to the East Side”; “I shot the sheriff”; “Many rivers to cross.”
By the end, we are up to Tupac Shakur, Jay-Z and 50 Cent. Also P. Diddy, who gave us “It’s all about the Benjamins, Baby.” (Cuba Gooding Jr. crowing, “Show me the money!” isn’t here, the editor explains, because that line was written by the film director Cameron Crowe.)
I can quibble with Bartlett’s Familiar Black Quotations. Stanley Crouch, Anatole Broyard and the cookbook writer Vertamae Grosvenor (to name just three writers whose work happens to be fresh in my mind) have said more interesting things than they are given credit for here. I wish brief details about each speaker or writer were given before each new set of quotations.
This highest praise I can give this book, however, is that it lives up to something the orator Timothy Thomas Fortune said in 1884. You can find it here on Page 131: “The truth shall be told, though it kill.”