From Du Bois to Dr. Dre: A New Bartlett’s Celebrates Black Quotations

Eight years in the making, 'Bartlett's Familiar Black Quotations' goes on sale Nov. 19

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Photo of editor Retha Powers by Paul Morejón Studio; book cover courtesy of Little, Brown and Company

When John Bartlett published his first book of “familiar quotations,” the Civil War hadn’t yet begun. Since 1855, the project of a bookstore owner has evolved into an American library staple, packed with choice sayings, from Wilde’s witticisms to pithy psalms. This month, the venerable reference volume published by Little, Brown and Company is getting a historic new spinoff: Bartlett’s Familiar Black Quotations.

The 764-page book is meant to tell a narrative of black experience, primarily through an American lens, from abolitionists to Jay-Z. TIME spoke with editor Retha Powers about which quotes made the cut, which famous people aren’t so quotable and why Bartlett’s is separating wisdom by racial group. 

TIME: When was the notion for a book of black quotations conceived?

Retha PowersIt was conceived about seven or eight years ago by Little Brown.

Why separate quotations by a demographic group? And why start with this group?

What we call “Big Bartlett’s” originated here in the United States, and one of the dominant narratives in American history is certainly the history of slavery, the presence of the people of African descent in America, the impact that legacy of slavery has had on black people. It’s inseparable from the story of how this country was built. There’s constant debate and discussion about those kinds of things, and it makes absolute sense that there would be a book of black quotations … It makes sense that there would be other [editions] that would expand on other groups as well.

In your preface, you note that there weren’t a lot of black voices in Bartlett’s until an edition in the 1960s. Do you see previous editions of Bartlett’s as a book of white quotations? 

Certainly these kinds of identification and what has permanence, et cetera, has evolved. John Bartlett would not have said, ‘This is my book of white quotations,” but I make the point in the introduction that he did not include Frederick Douglass — and he had to know very well who Frederick Douglass was. In the 1960s there was a broadening of the definition of what familiar is, as there was in the culture … Doing other books is an opportunity for people to understand not what the popular culture or dominant culture might perceive as being significant but also what is important to the lives of people who come from those particular communities.

How did you choose the quotes that made the cut?

I wanted there to be a representation of the whole experience. Obviously, there are a lot of quotes that relate directly to slavery or apartheid or colonialism. At the same time, I wanted it to be clear that as black people are dealing with these challenges, there is culture being created, plays that are being developed, poetry that’s being written.

What qualities was it most important for quotes to have?

The first thing that guided me was the speaker. There are people, like abolitionists whose names might not roll off everyone’s tongue, who were important in their time. I was also looking for things that were timeless, that might be hilarious or clever or about the human condition or poetic in some way. Humor definitely got a lot of points, and pithiness.

How do you balance choosing quotations from people you want in the book versus just looking at the language itself?

That was definitely a challenge. Because this is a book of familiar black quotations, I knew there were certain figures that people would expect to be there. And there were some people I struggled with, because their life in action was the more important thing.

Can you give an example or two?

It’s mostly more contemporary people. Somebody like Whitney Houston, really beloved singer, tragedy in her death, people continue to love her—she wasn’t a songwriter necessarily. And someone like Michael Jackson. We have his lyrics to draw from, but it wasn’t like he was making speeches.

Music is a big recurring theme. How did you go about deciding which rappers you were going to include?

I focused on the golden era, the Sugar Hill Gang, Kool Moe Dee and Kurtis Blow. Then I went into some of the protest hip hop, things like “F*** Tha Police.” I did not include things like “Baby Got Back.” I included things that I thought were more enduring and representative of what was happening … In this book, there’s high and low culture for sure.

What was your editorial philosophy toward including quotes from the Bible, that aren’t explicitly black or white or any color?

The holy books are so influential. Footnotes refer back to Bible verses from Martin Luther King, Jr., and President Obama and other speakers. It was a really important tool of resistance in America. The Koran is obviously really important in many African countries. And it’s the Bartlett’s tradition to include those … All the other speakers in the book are absolutely black speakers.

When you look back at seven years of sifting through all these quotations, what was hardest?

Making sure that I was as inclusive as possible. I didn’t want this to be a book where there were a lot of speakers who were missing. I almost needed a time machine. I didn’t just want to include people who we remember most strongly but also show the steps of how we got where we are today. Representing that was sometimes difficult. But it was really, really fun.

When you were making these decisions, was there a certain audience you had in mind?

I definitely thought about young people who might come to this book if they’re doing a research project. There are a lot of ways these quotations are micro-histories or an expansion on a name they might have heard. Then black adults, who may have some understanding of history and are using it for toasts or to write a greeting card or graduation message. I wanted it to be really multi-functional … I wanted to paint this picture for everyone.

How do you feel now that it’s done?

It was an incredible privilege to work on this book but also an incredible responsibility to make sure I captured all of these voices. I’m going to quote Eartha Kitt: “I am learning all the time. The tombstone will be my diploma.” It’s how I feel about this book, in a way.