African American Quotations

By Richard Newman | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

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

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