Retha Powers, the editor of the magnificent and addictive new “Bartlett’s Familiar Black Quotations,” has a handful of all-time favorite sayings, or “micro-histories,” as she calls them. One is from the author of the foreword to her book, Henry Louis Gates, Jr.:
I rebel at the notion that I can’t be part of other groups, that I can’t construct identities through elective affinity, that race must be the most important thing about me. Is that what I want on my gravestone: Here lies an African American? So I’m divided. I want to be black, to know black, to luxuriate in whatever I might be calling blackness at any particular time — but to do so in order to come out the other side, to experience a humanity that is neither colorless nor reducible to color. Bach and James Brown. Sushi and fried catfish.
Powers, a life-long New Yorker, likes sushi better than catfish, but she revels in Gates’ point. She described the thrill when he accepted her invitation to write the foreword, transmitted in an email Gates sent from a plane. The two had not met.
“His work has been tremendously important to me,” Powers said over coffee near her home in Harlem. “I’m not an academic and, in a lot of ways, Dr. Gates mentored me from afar – in his far-reaching, accessible writing and his insistence on embracing Africa. He is not afraid of being an intellectual.”
In an interesting twist, both Powers and Gates are finalists for the NAACP Image prize in nonfiction, Gates for his PBS companion book, “The African-Americans: Many Rivers to Cross.” The Harvard University professor and chair of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards praised Powers, noting that she stands in a proud tradition: the first collection of black quotations published in 1898.
“In following them, Retha Powers both honors their work and reaffirms something essential about black culture: quoting or ‘sampling’ are both versions of the larger African American language practice of signifying,” Gates writes.
And so, “Bartlett’s Familiar Black Quotations” spans 5,000 years and samples politicians and poets, artists and visionaries from the Americas, the Caribbean, Africa, Europe and ancient Egypt. It moves chronologically, and veers from Ma Rainey to Lionel Richie, from Frederick Douglass to Michelle Obama, from Derek Walcott to Kanye West, from Mary McLeod Bethune to Mayor Marion Barry. The text is also rich in Anisfield-Wolf winners.
Writing in the New York Times, critic Dwight Garner praised it as “a necessary and preternaturally lively new reference book,” adding that “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.”
Powers hoped to evoke that response. She wanted these quick bites to excite the palates of readers to seek out a speaker or a period of history, to discover a new book, or thrill to the way Phillis Wheatley – the first African American woman to publish a book of poetry – and Rita Dove are in conversation across the centuries.
“There are a lot of years between Phillis Wheatley and Rita Dove but there are interesting parallels too,” Powers said. “Both are very concerned about an emotional reality, about place and principles. And both are black women writing about things that aren’t domestic.”
One difference, circa 1772, that Gates observes: “Wheatley had to submit to examination by the leading lights of Boston to ascertain that the poems she had written were not mere quotations of others’ work but her own original creations, the creation of a fellow human being.”
Powers includes much from music, and the both the book and the English language are richer for it. Nor does she flinch from the infamous: Colin Powell’s “There can be no doubt that Saddam Hussein has biological weapons,” and Marion Barry’s “Bitch set me up.” Her own taste runs to Zora Neale Hurston and other contributors to the Harlem Renaissance, an affection she strove to discipline with balance and tough editing.
At 44, Powers is quite mindful that the verdicts of history shift. She peppers her own conversation with quotes: “Stanley Crouch said, ‘If there is an intellectual highway, there is also an intellectual subway.’” This book, she said, is meant to be “browse-able, fun, delightful and surprising.” Who doesn’t perk up to learn – or remember — that Shirley Chisholm’s 1967 presidential campaign slogan was “Unbought and Unbossed”?
For an editor whose purse still contains stray scraps of “micro-histories,” Powers is excited that “Bartlett’s Book of Familiar Black Quotations” is being adapted into an app. She is particular fond of a remark by Anna Julia Cooper, born in 1858: “The cause of freedom is not the cause of a race or a sect, a party or a class – it is the cause of humankind, the very birthright of humanity.”
Powers also cottons to James Baldwin’s 1976 observation: “Identify would seem to be the garment with which one covers the nakedness of self; in which case, it is best that the garment be loose.”
As she awaits word on the NAACP Image prize, for which she will travel to Los Angeles, Powers might want to flip her book to a passage from “Beloved,” the novel by Anisfield-Wolf winner Toni Morrison: “Here . . . in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh . . . You got to love it, you! . . . Love your heart. For this is the prize.”