African American Quotations

Richard Newman


In 1985 Gerald L.Davis published a book with an unusual title, I Got the Word in Me and I Can Preach It, You Know, and its equally evocative subtitle, “A Study of the Performed African-American Sermon.” In a literary vein, the great American novelist Toni Morrison writes, “We die, that may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.” African American Quotations is a book of those words and of that language, showing how people of African descent have put words together in unique ways to create insightful ideas, provocative thoughts, and inspirational sentiments.

Africa’s many ethnic groups are highly expressive cultures alive with stories, songs, proverbs, and historical recollections. Prohibited by slavery in this country from learning to read or write, African Americans continued many of these oral traditions in folk songs like the spirituals and folk tales, many using symbolic animal characters as did their African antecedents. Also, speech played a vital part in the slaves’ everyday resistance to bondage. They learned “to wear the mask,” that is, to disguise their true feelings, to dissemble, to say what they knew their masters wanted to hear, and to communicate secretly with each other through supposedly innocuous phrases and songs with double meanings. At the same time, in their own gatherings both religious and secular, verbal skill and oratorical ability became primary characteristics of those who emerged naturally as charismatic leaders.

So there is a long and intimate relationship between African Americans and language, from the rhythmic eloquence of the preacher to the rhymed lyrics of the rap artist. In adolescent word games like the dozens, insults are traded in a stylized ritual that sharpens the wits and teaches self-control. Like black music and dance, black speech has influenced mainstream and middle-class white America and infused the English language with a new vitality and energy. With curious transmogrifications, black speech is even working its way into non-English languages, like Japanese.

I decided to bring together a collection of African American quotations for several reasons. One is that an African American voice is often minimized or even excluded from standard reference works, trade books, and school texts. That exclusion deprives students, researchers, and readers of the wisdom, insight, and special way with words of some remarkable people; this book is meant to correct that shortcoming. In addition, many of the quotations here reflect the unique viewpoints of African Americans, perspectives created by the experiences of slavery, segregation, and racism. Black people are both insiders and outsiders in this country, and their particular vision has produced a singular understanding of American life in all its dimensions. Users of this book will be surprised, as I often was, at the power of words which reflect the light of a different surface of the American prism.

A number of these quotations became particularly meaningful to me, and I repeat them here without commentary. One is the statement of guitarist and singer B.B.King: “To be a black person and sing the blues, you are black twice.” Another is the radically egalitarian questions of one of the spirituals: “Didn’t my Lord deliver Daniel? And why not every man?” Another is the statement of the intrepid Harriet Tubman who, with a price on her head, ventured secretly into the antebellum South to bring out men, women, and children on the Underground Railroad: “I freed thousands of slaves. I could have freed thousands more—if they knew that they were slaves.” A line from James Baldwin summarizes the point of bringing these quotations together: “My memory stammers, but my soul is a witness.”

Collecting quotations I felt were striking enough to be of both reference and general interest, I was struck by how many are the words of James Baldwin and Zora Neale Hurston. Baldwin’s perceptions into the time in which he lived go straight to the heart as well as the head and have a timeless utility. Hurston speaks more from the black folk tradition, but her wisdom is no less profound than Baldwin’s and her understanding of human nature may even run deeper. Researchers and readers will, I know, find their own appropriate and meaningful statements.

I owe debts of thanks to many. At Harvard University, I am privileged to be in the company of a number of people whose teaching, writing, and speaking are quite literally on the cutting edge of contemporary black thinking and expression. There are many quotations in this book, for example, by Cornel West and Henry Louis Gates Jr., but I believe their words are of larger importance than my own appreciation.

I have also been privileged over the years to hear some extraordinary black oratory. I have heard the powerful political speaking of Ronald Dellums, Jesse Jackson, Martin Luther King Jr., and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. The first great black preaching I heard was that of James H. Robinson of the Church of the Master in Harlem, but I have also listened to Peter Gomes, Sweet Daddy Grace, Samuel Proctor, Gardner C.Taylor, and Howard Thurman. I have not heard him in person, but I am impressed by the preaching I have heard on TV and video of Bishop T.D.Jakes.

During the preparation of this book, two close friends and long-time colleagues died. Both were deeply involved with African American language. James Melvin Washington was professor of church history at Union Theological Seminary and an active Baptist preacher. A wise and deeply human as well as brilliant man, he knew at first hand, and he appreciated, the African American genius for words, a genius reflected in his own teaching, preaching, and writing.

My dear friend Betty Shabazz was a private person who often mentioned to me her reluctance to be a public speaker. As long as she lived, however, she reminded us all not only of her own quiet courage and self-reliance, but of the message of her murdered husband, Malcolm X. Perhaps more than any other person in recent memory, Malcolm told the truth about America, and it is not accidental that many quotations from his speaking and writing are included here. Through her dignified silence and independent integrity, however, Betty Shabazz also spoke. In a June 1993 interview with the newspaper City Sun, she said of her life, “My soul is at peace.” At her death, that statement takes on a new meaning, and I include it in this collection as a word of memorial tribute both for her and for Jim Washington.


Virtually all the quotations collected here are by men and women of color. There are a few intentional exceptions—John Brown, for instance—and there may be some unintentional ones. I have not included quotations by Africans or by people of African descent outside the United States. Again, there are a few exceptions, like Marcus Garvey, whose presence and impact were so vital in this country. Each speaker of a quotation is identified briefly, including birth and death dates— though these dates are notoriously unreliable—and occupation.

African American Quotations includes more than 2,500 quotations in English by more than 500 individuals from the 18th century to this year’s newspapers. Entries are arranged alphabetically by subject, and then by author within each subject. If a speaker has more than one quotation, these quotations are arranged alphabetically by initial words. The speaker is listed by his or her birth name or by the person’s commonly known name within the popular culture (with birth name in parentheses when known). Subject headings have been selected from standard sources and modified as appropriate to the general subject. A table of contents lists all the subject headings. See and See Also references are included.

Three indexes enable readers to locate quotations more easily. The Name Index lists each speaker by name. A Subject Index, including key words, identifies quotations by subject. The Occupations Index categorizes quotations by industry of the speaker.

It was difficult, I must say, to select quotations for this collection. The basic test was that a statement had to be arresting, striking, attention-getting, memorable. Ways of meeting that test varied. It could be a creative use of words. It could be some special discernment derived from the experience of being black in America. It could be that the speaker is a neglected figure in American history who deserves to be better known. While a good many quotations were rejected, there exist, I’m sure, a great many more that I never had the opportunity to see. If you know a quotation that you think should have been included, I invite you to send it to me for a possible revision or supplement. If you know it, please include information on the bibliographic source. My address is: Richard Newman, W.E.B.Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research, Harvard University, 12 Quincy Street, Cambridge, MA 02138.


I am indebted to a great many people for their interest, support, and friendship during the preparationofthisbook. I particularlyappreciate Donna Sanzone, my old compatriot at G.K.Hall & Co., now with Oryx Press; and my friend Julian Bond, who was generous enough to write the foreword. I am also grateful to Donald Altschiller, Willie Bady Jr., Alisa Bierria, Kenneth Carpenter, Diane Cummins, James P.Danky, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Betty Kaplan Gubert, Lee Hancock, Marguerite Harrison, Irene Monroe, Pamela Petro, Warren Platt, and Jill M. Watts.

At Harvard, I thoroughly enjoy the collegiality of the staff of the Department of Afro-American Studies and the W.E.B.Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research: April Yvonne Garrett, Joanne Kendall, Eva Stahl, Lisa Thompson, and Gwen White. It is a great pleasure to work with Patricia Sullivan and the wonderful editors and writers of the encyclopedia project. Elleni Amlak and Cornel West have gone beyond friendship to become family.

And there is always Belynda Bady.

Richard Newman

Boston, Massachusetts

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African American Quotations --


" INTRODUCTION ." African American Quotations. Westport, CT: Oryx Press, 1998. The African American Experience. Greenwood Publishing Group. 8 Oct 2015. <>

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" INTRODUCTION ." In African American Quotations, Westport, CT: Oryx Press, 1998. The African American Experience. Greenwood Publishing Group. (accessed October 8, 2015).