Every Black woman in America lives her life somewhere along a wide curve of ancient and unexpressed anger.
Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider, 1974
I always knew that fury was my natural enemy. It clotted my blood and clogged my pores. It literally blinded me so that I lost my peripheral vision.
Maya Angelou, All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes, 1986
Art is of great value to any people as a preserver of manners and customs--religious, political, and social. It is a record of growth and development from generation to generation. No one will do this for us: we must ourselves develop the men and women who faithfully portray the inmost thought and feelings with all the fire and romance which lie dormant in our history.
Pauline Hopkins, c. 1900
If it hadn't been for theatre, I would've been a memory or a bitch with a bad attitude."
Rhodessa Jones, interview with Hilary Mac Austin
It's a tremendous responsibility─responsibility and honor─to be a writer, an artist, a cultural worker . . . whatever you call this vocation. One's got to see what the factory worker sees, what the prisoner sees, what the welfare children see, what the scholar sees, got to see what the ruling-class mythmakers see as well, in order to tell the truth and not get trapped.
Toni Cade Bambara, 1983 interview with the critic/scholar Claudia Tate.
Painting is the ultimate magic act.
Faith Ringgold, We Flew Over the Bridge
For me, art is the documentation of the human spirit. . . . It's very difficult to see ourselves in relation to time. We usually get caught up in the logistics of day-to-day living. But we have to get to the point where we know we have to matter. We have to be larger than the moment. We have to be larger than ourselves.
Most black people who are artists have the same problem. Even if you want to adopt a culture that isn't yours, you can't. The only way you can make works of art in another person's style is to copy, but then you have to keep on copying and going back for reference to things someone did in the past. It hampers your own development. It's making art from art instead of from life.
I listened many a day to everything they said. But in my mind I was going to do different. More than them. I didn't know when and sure enough how . . . but I knew I would not work over thirty years and end up like them. That's the truth as I live. Imagine me with such a mind. I had it all my life, too.
"Beulah Nelson," quoted in Living In, Living Out, by Elizabeth Clark-Lewis
At home you better not try to do no better. It wasn't for colored people to be much of nothing. But up here, I knew different. You had chances to do so much more. Every time I put on uniforms I knew in myself it wouldn't be for always. And it wasn't just me. All us came here to do better. Living-in wasn't better--you saw that every time you put that uniform on.
"Pernella Ross," quoted in Living In, Living Out, by Elizabeth Clark-Lewis
My freedom bag was always from a good store--'cause that's where it [the clothing] come from. Even if it was second hand. Who knows? You might have got it there [laughter]. Plus, good places had strong bags. They wouldn't tear on a street car. Mostly I guess I wanted to show I didn't wear a uniform. I wasn't a servant.
"Sadie Jones," quoted in Living In, Living Out, by Elizabeth Clark-Lewis
I am alive because of the blood of proud people who never scraped or begged or apologized for what they were. They lived asking only one thing of this world, to be allowed to be. And I learned through the blood of these people that Black isn't beautiful and it isn't ugly, Black is. It's not kinky hair and it's not straight hair--it just is.
Gloria Naylor, The Women of Brewster Place, 1988
While it's great to be Black and beautiful . . . it's even better to be Black and beautiful and prepared.
I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.
Zora Neale Hurston
When you sing gospel you have a feeling there is a cure for what's wrong. But when you are through with the blues, you've got nothing to rest on.
I'm not living the blues, I'm just singing for the women who think they can't speak out. Can't a man alive mistreat me, `cause I know who I am.
Alberta Hunter, c. 1985
Call Me By My Name
We may no longer issue scarlet letters, but from the way we talk we might as well: W for welfare, S for Single, B for black, CC for children having children, WT for white trash.
Patricia J. Williams
You was named a so-and-so first; whose child you was came after that. If you was bad they'd spank you and then tell your people. Any of your people they'd find. And it was like they'd told your mama, dad, or grandparents. Anyone would be on you 'cause you'd been a shame to the family--not just the peoples raising you up or just your mama and dad. Everybody in Rainbow Springs had it just the same.
"Ora Fisher," quoted in Living In, Living Out, by Elizabeth Clark-Lewis
The respect that the slaves had for their owners might have been from fear, but the real character of a slave was brought out by the respect that they had for each other. Most of the time there was no force back of the respect the slaves had for each other, and yet, they were for the most part truthful, loving and respectful to one another.
Jane Pyatt, former slave
During the days of slavery, the white minister used as his text: "Slaves, be obedient to them that are your ministers" . . . I promised my maker if I ever learned to read and if freedom ever came, I would not read that part of the Bible.
Grandmother of Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited, 1949
Down North Carolina you'd get there early for church meetings. For us children it was just a place to play and play. Nobody wanted you to do no chores, like at home. And I know it was the only place you could go and not feel somebody was going to make you do something other than sit down and sit still. That was a relief for sure.
"Ora Fisher," quoted in Living In, Living Out, by Elizabeth Clark-Lewis
I can't think of anyone who wasn't trying to be half-decent. That's going to church sometime, anyway. I know many a man come up from Success [Virginia] and just stand around the church--not go in once to a year--but was steady coming up to church anyhow. If you was young you to had come--because somebody wanted you to come. When you courted you came because you wanted somebody. After that, you'd just come to be a somebody to people down there in Rixeyville [Virginia]. And what you got there stayed with you, for sure, every day of your life. I know in my life it's a fact.
"Marie Stone," quoted in Living In, Living Out, by Elizabeth Clark-Lewis
My home church is right where I lived down home--outside of Equality by on the Nixburg side--because of the way people is here. Every song in a book, never an amen or shout. I'm from a church that had life. These got none and none of my money neither. If I only get to church once a year down home, so be it.
"Eula Montgomery," quoted in Living In, Living Out, by Elizabeth Clark-Lewis
A Credit to Her Race
There were always people around reminding me that I was a symbol of certain Negro aspirations. When those reminders were made too often I would try to assert myself and say, in effect: ‘All right, I'm a symbol. But I'm a person, too. You can't push me so hard. I've got a right to my own happiness, too'.
Lena Horne, 1965 Ebony interview.
I shall dance all my life, I was born to dance, just for that. To live is to dance, I would like to die, breathless, spent, at the end of a dance.
Josephine Baker, to a reporter in 1927
One of the slaves, my aunt, she was a royal slave. She could dance all over the place with a tumbler of water on her head, without spilling it. She sure could tote herself. I always loved to see her come to church. She sure could tote herself.
Hannah Crasson, Federal Writers Project interview
Not the boys less, but the girls more.
Anna J. Cooper, 1892
In a single generation [black women] put thirty thousand black teachers in the South; they wiped out the illiteracy of the majority of the black people of the land.
W. E. B. DuBois
The Honor of Women
The painful, patient, and silent toil of mothers to gain a fee simple title to the bodies of their daughters, the depairing fight . . . to keep hallowed their own persons, would furnish material for epics. . . . The majority of our women are not heroines--but I do not know that a majority of any race of women are heroines.
Anna Julia Cooper, World's Congress of Representative Women, 1893
Knowing the Past
I am where I am because of the bridges that I crossed. Sojourner Truth was a bridge. Harriet Tubman was a bridge. Ida B. Wells was a bridge. Madame C. J. Walker was a bridge. Fannie Lou Hamer was a bridge.
Oprah Winfrey, "An Intimate Talk with Oprah," Essence, August, 1987
The true romance of American life and customs is to be found in the history of the Negro upon this continent. Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins, 1901
There were bizarre beginnings in old lands for the making of me.
Margaret Walker "Dark Blood," For My People, 1942
A true history must be the concern of every black writer. It is necessary for black children to have a true knowledge of their past and present, in order that they may develop an informed sense of direction for their future.
To acknowledge our ancestors means we are aware that we did not make ourselves, that the line stretches all the way back, perhaps, to God; or to Gods. We remember them because it is an easy thing to forget: that we are not the first to suffer, rebel, fight, love and die. The grace with which we embrace life, in spite of the pain, the sorrows, is always a measure of what has gone before.
Alice Walker, Revolutionary Petunias, 1970
"Moses, my servant is dead. Therefore arise and go over Jordan." There are no deliverers. They're all dead. We must arise and go over Jordan. We can take the promised land.
Nannie Burroughs, "Unload Your Toms," Louisiana Weekly, December 23, 1933
License to Strut
Toni Morrison, describing her emotions in Stockholm, Sweden, when she accepted the Nobel Prize for Literature:
I felt I represented a whole world of women who either were silenced or who had never received the imprimatur of the established literary world. I felt the way I used to feel at commencements when I'd get an honorary degree: that it was very important for young black people to see a black person do that . . . Seeing me up there might encourage them to write one of those books I'm desperate to read. And that made me happy. It gave me license to strut.
New York Times interview
“What took you so long?”
Shirley Owens Alston of The Shirelles upon being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in a ceremony on January 17, 1996 and after thanking the Hall for the award.
My mammy stay on with the same marster till I was grown, that is fifteen, and Thad got to looking at me, meek as a sheep and dumb as a calf. . . . I glance at him one day at the pigpen when I was slopping the hogs. I say, "Mr. Guntharpe, you follows me night and morning to this pigpen; do you happen to be in love with one of these pigs? If so, I'd like to know which one 'tis. Then sometime I come down here by myselft and tell that pig about your affections."
Thad didn't say nothing but just grin. Him took the slop bucket out of my hand and look at it, all round it, put it upside down on the ground, and set me down on it. Then, he fall down there on the grass by me and blubber out and warm my fingers in his hands.
I just took pity on him and told him mighty plain that he must limber up his tongue and ask something, say what he mean, wanting to visit them pigs so often.
Us carry on foolishness about the little boar shoat pig and the little sow pig, then I squeal in laughter. The slop bucket tipple over and I lost my seat. That ever remain the happiest minute of my eight-two years.
Violet Guntharpe, Federal Writers Project interview
More Than Flesh and Blood
The bottom line is we are human and divine. Life is a sweet struggle if you know that you are more than you seem, more than flesh and blood.
Susan L. Taylor
Anything that is as old as racism is in the blood of the nation. It's not any superficial thing--that attitude is in the blood and we have to educate it out.
Nannie Burroughs, "Unload Your Toms," Louisiana Weekly, December 23, 1933
I have overcome the problems of food, clothing, and shelter, but I have not overcome my old nemesis, prejudice. Life is easier, being black is not.
Self-reliance Is the Fine Road to Independence.
Mary Ann Shadd Cary
I got myself a start by giving myself a start.
Madam C. J. Walker
We cannot direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails.
If Jimmy Carter wants to see me, he knows where I am. He can come here.
Artist Clementine Hunter
Slavery and Freedom
Slavery was a bad thing, and freedom, of the kind we got, with nothing to live on, was bad. Two snakes full of poison. One lying with his head pointing north, the other with his head pointing south. Their names was slavery and freedom.
Patsy Mitchner, Federal Writers Project interview
So Much To Prove
[Women playing jazz are] like Jackie Robinson. You've got so much to prove before you get a chance. It shouldn't be like that. You go in there just like anybody else, and if you can't make it, then you get put out. But don't keep you out until you become a Charlie Parker or something. That's not fair!
The Struggle for Freedom
When you want to get to the suites, start in the streets.
As I see it, blacks must become the active conscience of America, but conscience is a drowsy thing. It stirs, turns over, takes another nap and falls into a deep, dead sleep. `Leave me alone,' conscience cries. `Let me sleep, let me sleep,' conscience cries. `Let time take care of it--time, time is the answer. Maybe ten years or maybe another hundred years.' Oh, no, America, your conscience, like old Pharaoh's of old, will not rest or sleep until we can eat here at John A. Brown's. We will arouse your conscience and will not let you rest until we can eat.
There wasn't nothing to do but get into the struggle.
"Queen Mother" Audley Moore
We live in a town where a man might be killed tomorrow, where civil war might break out next week. It cannot get better while the white people fail to understand the mood of the Negro community and to realize that unless they grant the means of progress, their houses and ours may fly apart.
Gloria Richardson, Cambridge, Maryland
Uh huh, but how do it free us? Sonia Sanchez
It is no evidence of Christianity to have people mock you and spit on you and defeat the future of your children. It is a mark of cowardice.
Lugenia Burns Hope
If you have lived through the black experience in this country, you feel that every day you're assaulted by the system. You are either acquiescent, which I think is wrong, or else you just rebel, and you kick against it. I wanted to constantly, constantly, constantly hammer away, raise the questions that needed to be raised.
Ethel L. Payne
We the People
[T]he great problem to be solved by the American people . . . [is] whether or not there is strength enough in democracy, virtue enough in our civilization, and power enough in our religion to have mercy and deal justly with four millions of people but lately translated . . . to the new commonwealth of freedom.
Frances Watkins Harper, centennial of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery
I heard that paper read yesterday, that says, `all men are born equal, and that every man has a right to freedom.' I am not a dumb critter; won't the law give me my freedom?
Elizabeth Freeman, enslaved woman in a Massachusetts court, 1781
The greatness of nations is shown by their strict regard for human rights, rigid enforcement of the law without bias, and just administration of the affairs of life.
Mary Burnett Talbert
`We the people'--it is a very eloquent beginning. But when the Constitution of the United States was completed on the seventeenth of September in 1787, I was not included in that `We the people.' I felt for many years that somehow George Washington and Alexander Hamilton just left me out by mistake. But through the process of amendment, interpretation, and court decision, I have finally been included in `We the People.'
Barbara Jordan, at the impeachment proceedings of Richard M. Nixon, July 25, 1974
The facts of life, birth, and death are more important than the rules of the living, marriage, law, the sanction of the church or man.
Jessie Redmon Fauset
We must do something and we must do it now. We must educate the white people out of their two hundred fifty years of slave history.
Ida B. Wells, Duster, ed. Crusade for Justice, 1928
Our skins may differ, but from thee we claim / A sister's privilege and a sister's name.
Sarah Forten, 1837
Who I Am
I am a woman and I write from that experience. I am a Black woman and I write from that experience. I do not feel inhibited or bound by what I am. That does not mean that I have never had bad scenes relating to being Black and/or a woman, it means that other people's craziness has not managed to make me crazy. At least not in their way because I try very hard not to close my eye to my own craziness nor to my family's, my sex's, nor my race's.
A race can rise no higher than its women.
Fredericka Douglass Sprague Perry
Black women are a prism through which the searing rays of race, class and sex are first focused, then refracted. The creative among us transform these rays into a spectrum of brilliant colors, a rainbow which illuminates the experience of all mankind.
Margaret B. Wilkerson
Five million [black] women in the United States can not be denied their rights without all the women of the United States feeling the effect of that denial. No women are free until all women are free.
Addie Waits Hunton
They [the police and bosses] 'fraid of the women. You can out talk the men. But us women don't take no tea for the fever.
Louise Harris, factory worker and union leader, quoted in the New Republic, 1940
To be a woman of the Negro race in America, and to be able to grasp the deep significance of the possibilities of the crisis, is to have a heritage, it seems to me, unique in the ages.
Anna Julia Cooper, A Voice from the South, 1892
[P]reachers don't know nothing about hell. They ain't worked in a tobacco factory."
They're trying to have Jim Crow unions. They wanted me to join. I told them: I get Jim Crow free. I won't pay for that."
Tobacco stemmer Luanna Cooper, 1943.
Who didn't work? From the time I knew anything about life as such, my grandmama, mama, and aunties worked. Period. I never heard them talking about a break for no time, to before even the end of slave days. Who could have lived without everybody working each day, every day . . . ?
"Darethia Handy," born 1897 in East Texas, quoted in Living In, Living Out, by Elizabeth Clark-Lewis
My people worked for over thirty years in North Carolina growing tobacco and crops. There was never a year they made a dime or a difference.
"Ophilia Simpson," child of tenant farmers, quoted in Living In, Living Out, by Elizabeth Clark-Lewis
Writing the Story
Every story I write adds to me a little, changes me a little, forces me to reexamine an attitude or belief, causes me to research and learn, helps me to understand people and grow. . . . Every story I create creates me. I write to create myself.
When I'm carrying a story around in my head, I feel as if I'm holding my head funny. Sometimes I want to explain to people on the street that I'm just trying to keep the words from spilling out until I get to a quiet place with pen and paper.
Writers . . . are a species of vampires--happily nonlethal, usually harmless, but constantly
acquiring bits and pieces of other people's lives.
I write essentially to complete myself and to give my vision a significance that the world generally seeks to destroy.