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New Bartlett’s compiles black quotations

November 15, 2013

NEW YORK (AP) — 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.

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.”

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