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New Book Tries to Capture 'The Black Experience'


Switching gears now. When we think of the words that tell the story of our nation, we may hear the voices of presidents or scholars or leaders of social movements. But what if you had to tell the story of a people over the span of 5,000 years? That's the challenge that Retha Powers took on which she agreed to edit the new book "Bartlett's Familiar Black Quotations: 5,000 Years of Literature, Lyrics, Poems, Passages, Phrases, and Proverbs from Voices Around the World." She compiled and curated quotes from across the African diaspora from ancient Egypt to the present day. The collection includes everybody from slaves to conquerors to renounced scholars and hip-hop artists. And Retha Powers is with us now to tell us more about it. Welcome. Congratulations. Thanks for joining us.

RETHA POWERS: Thank you, and thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Is it sigh of relief time, or is it kind of sad in a way to send this project off into the world? You worked on this for - what - seven years?

POWERS: Yes, I worked on the book for seven years. So it's a combination of both. On the one hand, I'm incredibly happy to have it go out into the world. And on the other hand, I'm a little bit sad that I won't get to immerse myself in these voices the same way that I had for many years.

MARTIN: Five thousand years is a huge span of time to try to represent. How did you even start by thinking about how to start?

POWERS: A smarter person probably would've started from the beginning, but that wasn't me. I started from the middle. I looked at the speakers from the late 19th and early 20th century, figures that continue to resonate today - particular writers from the Harlem Renaissance, such as poet Langston Hughes, and figures like Marcus Garvey and figures like Madam C.J. Walker, who worked her way from the cotton field into being a multimillion dollar businesswoman.

And it was important to me to start with that period because those were the people who represented sort of a real emergence into an identity and a strong sense of moving forward out of the plight of slavery. But then my question became, how did they get there? And so then I started to look back at history to sort of answer that question. And as I say my introduction, working on this book was a process of looking forward and looking back and creating bridges into the present.

MARTIN: Give us a taste of what people can expect to find in the book. And you were nice enough to choose a couple of selections with some interesting back story. So do you want to start? What's the first one you'd like to read for us?

POWERS: Sure. The first one I'll start with is a quote from a woman named Elizabeth Freeman, better known as Mum Bett. And she was born into slavery. She was a slave in the household of Colonel John Ashley of Sheffield, who was a judge in the Berkshire Court. And she overheard conversations, because he was so prominent, about the Declaration of Independence, about the Bill of Rights, the Massachusetts Constitution. And the key phrase that really stuck out for her was the idea that all people were born free and equal. And she knew, as she later said, that she was not a beast. She knew that she was a human being and thought that those particular sentiments should - of law now - should apply to her. One day, her sister was about to receive a beating from Ashley's wife, and it was a particularly severe beating that involved a heavy hot shovel. And Mum Bett stuck her hand in front to receive the blow and was left with a severe burn and a scar that stayed with her for her entire life.

Well, shortly after that incident, she ran away. And she ran away to an attorney named Theodore Sedgwick. And she said to him, again, I've heard these words, born free and equal, and that applies to me. So when Ashley came to retrieve his property - being Mum Bett - he was met with the surprise that she had retained an attorney. Mr. Sedgwick agreed to represent her, and they won a case in court that resulted in her being freed and receiving damages of 30 shillings plus legal fees. And it wasn't an end to slavery in Massachusetts, but it's often referred to as sort of the blow that was right before the tree was about to fall because it ended shortly thereafter.

MARTIN: And the quote is...

POWERS: And the quote is, by keeping still and minding things. And that was her response when, after her court victory, people asked her, how did you know about this? You can't read or write. How could you possibly know about the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence? And she said, by keeping still and minding things. And that's a lesson I think that we can all benefit from.

MARTIN: There are a number of quotes about slavery in the book. And I think it might be a surprise for some to find out what an extensive record there is about people who were familiar with the slave trade from both continents. And I just want to know if you could read another one that speaks to that, that there is actually an extensive historical record of which people may not be aware.

POWERS: Oh, sure. The next one I'll read from is a letter to the king of Portugal from Alfonso I, who was the king of Kongo. We cannot reckon how great the damage is since the merchants daily seize our subjects, sons of the land and sons of our noblemen and vassals and our relatives. They grab them and cause them to be sold, and so great, sir, is their corruption and licentiousness, that our country is being utterly depopulated.

MARTIN: How did you find these records? How did you even know where to look?

POWERS: That's a great question. It was a combination of luck and digging. There were times when I would pick up volumes that related to the slave trade in the hope that I would find just a passing reference. In the case of Alfonso I, I was lucky because there's a large record of letters from him that he wrote to the king of Portugal essentially asking to stop the slave trade. But it was a letter - this one that I read from was read in 1526. That letter was sent too late, and there's no record of any response to his letters, despite his pleas.

MARTIN: Well, anything else that you want - later on, something more contemporary?

POWERS: More contemporary, sure. As you mentioned, I wanted to provide as far a range as possible. And I want to share a quotation from The Notorious B.I.G. - Biggie Smalls, as he's also known. I don't want to live no more. Sometimes I hear death knocking at my front door. And that's from his album "Ready to Die," which was recorded in 1994. And it was prophetic in a lot of ways because he ended up unfortunately dying three short years later.

And it was important to me to include Biggie Smalls and other hip-hop figures because I didn't want it to be just a book of civil rights leaders and people who represent a legacy of slavery, as we discussed earlier. I really wanted it to be the black experience in total. So Biggie Smalls is here next to Martin Luther King Jr. and Phyllis Wheatley and other figures that we might think of more immediately when we think about black history and culture.

MARTIN: How do you hope people will use this work?

POWERS: I hope that the book is used primarily for inspiration and as a starting point for understanding the incredibly expansive global experience that black people have had through history. And I hope they'll also have fun with it as well. There's a lot of humor in the quotations, even though there are the very serious and heavy legacies and periods that are focused on and necessarily are there, absolutely. But I hope that they'll also have fun and see it as a browsing tool to see a capsule of world history and a really interesting lens through which to observe it.

MARTIN: Retha Powers is the editor of "Bartlett's Familiar Black Quotations: 5,000 Years of Literature, Lyrics, Poems, Passages, Phrases, and Proverbs from Voices Around the World." The book is available now, and Retha Powers was kind enough to join us from us our studio in New York. Retha Powers, thank you so much for joining us. And congratulations once again.

POWERS: Thank you, and thank you again for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.