Black History Month

66 poignant yet powerful quotes from black American visionaries, poets, and prolific writers about the decolonization of the mind and empowerment of the spirit. Though most of these quotes were penned in the first half of the century, the struggle for equality and truth still stands.

‡ Frantz Fanon


Each generation must discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it, in relative opacity.

 (The Wretched of the Earth)

The oppressed will always believe the worst about themselves.

(The Wretched of the Earth)

To educate the masses politically does not mean, cannot mean, making a political speech. What it means is to try, relentlessly and passionately, to teach the masses that everything depends on them; that if we stagnate it is their responsibility, and that if we go forward it is due to them too, that there is no such thing as a demiurge, that there is no famous man who will take the responsibility for everything, but that the demiurge is the people themselves and the magic hands are finally only the hands of the people.

(The Wretched of the Earth)

For a colonized people the most essential value, because the most concrete, is first and foremost the land: the land which will bring them bread and, above all, dignity.

(The Wretched of the Earth)

Everything can be explained to the people, on the single condition that you want them to understand.

(The Wretched of the Earth)

Imperialism leaves behind germs of rot which we must clinically detect and remove from our land but from our minds as well.

(The Wretched of the Earth)

When we revolt it’s not for a particular culture. We revolt simply because, for many reasons, we can no longer breathe.

(The Wretched of the Earth)

What matters is not to know the world but to change it.

(Black Skin, White Masks)

The Negro enslaved by his inferiority, the white man enslaved by his superiority alike behave in accordance with a neurotic orientation.

(Black Skin, White Masks)

Today I believe in the possibility of love; that is why I endeavor to trace its imperfections, its perversions.

(Black Skin, White Masks)

And it is clear that in the colonial countries the peasants alone are revolutionary, for they have nothing to lose and everything to gain. The starving peasant, outside the class system is the first among the exploited to discover that only violence pays. For him there is no compromise, no possible coming to terms; colonization and decolonization is simply a question of relative strength.

(The Wretched of the Earth)

When people like me, they like me “in spite of my color.” When they dislike me; they point out that it isn’t because of my color. Either way, I am locked in to the infernal circle.

(Black Skin, White Masks)

The unpreparedness of the educated classes, the lack of practical links between them and the mass of the people, their laziness, and, let it be said, their cowardice at the decisive moment of the struggle will give rise to tragic mishaps.

(The Wretched of the Earth)

I, the man of color, want only this: That the tool never possess the man. That the enslavement of man by man cease forever. That is, of one by another. That it be possible for me to discover and to love man, wherever he may be.

(Black Skin, White Masks)

When someone strives & strains to prove to me that black men are as intelligent as white men, I say that intelligence has never saved anyone; and that is true, for, if philosophy and intelligence are invoked to proclaim the equality of men, they have also been employed to justify the extermination of men.

(Black Skin, White Masks)

The colonized is elevated above his jungle status in proportion to his adoption of the mother country’s cultural standards.

(Black Skin, White Masks)



‡ James Baldwin


I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.

(The Fire Next Time)

Love takes off the masks we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.

(Go Tell It On The Mountain)

Freedom is not something that anybody can be given. Freedom is something people take, and people are as free as they want to be.

( Nobody Knows My Name)

Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.

(Giovanni’s Room)

People pay for what they do, and still more for what they have allowed themselves to become. And they pay for it very simply; by the lives they lead.

( Go Tell It On The Mountain)

It is very nearly impossible to become an educated person in a country so distrustful of the independent mind. ¹

 

And if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it. For this is your home, my friend, do not be driven from it; great men have done great things here, and will again, and we can make America what America must become.

( The Fire Next Time)

The details and symbols of your life have been deliberately constructed to make you believe what white people say about you. Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure, does not testify to your inferiority but to their inhumanity and fear.

( The Fire Next Time)

There appears to be a vast amount of confusion on this point, but I do not know many Negroes who are eager to be “accepted” by white people, still less to be loved by them; they, the blacks, simply don’t wish to be beaten over the head by the whites every instant of our brief passage on this planet. White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this — which will not be tomorrow and will not be today and may very well be never — the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.

( The Fire Next Time)

There is no reason for you to try to become like white people and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you. The terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them. And I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love. For these innocent people have no other hope. They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. They have had to believe for many years, and for innumerable reasons, that black men are inferior to white men. Many of them, indeed, know better, but, as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know.

( The Fire Next Time)

The limits of your ambition were, thus, expected to be set forever. You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being. You are not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity.

( The Fire Next Time)

The world is mostly divided between madmen who remember and madmen who forget. Heroes are rare.

( Giovanni’s Room)

The poet or the revolutionary is there to articulate the necessity, but until the people themselves apprehend it, nothing can happen … Perhaps it can’t be done without the poet, but it certainly can’t be done without the people. The poet and the people get on generally very badly, and yet they need each other. The poet knows it sooner than the people do. The people usually know it after the poet is dead; but that’s all right. The point is to get your work done, and your work is to change the world.

( Interview 1969, Standley and Pratt)

To be sensual, I think, is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread.

( The Fire Next Time)

Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety. And at such a moment, unable to see and not daring to imagine what the future will now bring forth, one clings to what one knew, or dreamed that one possessed. Yet, it is only when a man is able, without bitterness or self-pity, to surrender a dream he has long possessed that he is set free – he has set himself free – for higher dreams, for greater privileges.

( Nobody Knows My Name)

 People who believe that they are strong-willed and the masters of their destiny can only continue to believe this by becoming specialists in self-deception.

( Giovanni’s Room)

People are continually pointing out to me the wretchedness of white people in order to console me for the wretchedness of blacks. But an itemized account of the American failure does not console me and it should not console anyone else. That hundreds of thousands of white people are living, in effect, no better than the “niggers” is not a fact to be regarded with complacency. The social and moral bankruptcy suggested by this fact is of the bitterest, most terrifying kind.

(Nobody Knows My Name)



‡ Zora Neale Hurston


There are years that ask questions and years that answer.

(Their Eyes Were Watching God)

Love makes your soul crawl out from its hiding place.

(Their Eyes Were Watching God)


 

‡ Kwame Ture

( fmr. Stokely Carmichael)


 Dr. King’s policy was that nonviolence would achieve the gains for black people in the United States. His major assumption was that if you are nonviolent, if you suffer, your opponent will see your suffering and will be moved to change his heart. That’s very good. He only made one fallacious assumption: In order for nonviolence to work, your opponent must have a conscience. The United States has none.

( Black Power: The Politics of Liberation)

Racism is both overt and covert. It takes two, closely related forms: individual whites acting against individual blacks, and acts by the total white community against the black community. We call these individual racism and institutional racism. The first consists of overt acts by individuals, which cause death, injury or the violent destruction of property. This type can be recorded by television cameras; it can frequently be observed in the process of commission.The second type is less overt, far more subtle, less identifiable in terms of specific individuals committing the acts. But it is no less destructive of human life.

The second type originates in the operation of established and respected forces in the society, and thus receives far less public condemnation than the first type. When white terrorists bomb a black church and kill five black children, that is an act of individual racism, widely deplored by most segments of the society. But when in that same city – Birmingham, Alabama – five hundred black babies die each year because of the lack of proper food, shelter and medical facilities, and thousands more are destroyed and maimed physically, emotionally and intellectually because of conditions of poverty and discrimination in the black community, that is a function of institutional racism. When a black family moves into a home in a white neighborhood and is stoned, burned or routed out, they are victims of an overt act of individual racism which many people will condemn – at least in words. But it is institutional racism that keeps black people locked in dilapidated slum tenements, subject to the daily prey of exploitative slumlords, merchants, loan sharks and discriminatory real estate agents. The society either pretends it does not know of this latter situation, or is in fact incapable of doing anything meaningful about it.

(Black Power: The Politics of Liberation)



 

‡ Malcolm X


The only way we’ll get freedom for ourselves is to identify ourselves with every oppressed people in the world. We are blood brothers to the people of Brazil, Venezuela, Haiti, Cuba — yes Cuba too.

(The Autobiography of Malcolm X)

I see America through the eyes of the victim. I don’t see any American dream–I see an American nightmare.

(The Autobiography of Malcolm X)



The greatest mistake of the movement has been trying to organize a sleeping people around specific goals. You have to wake the people up first, then you’ll get action.

(Malcolm X Speaks: Selected Speeches and Statements)

You don’t stick a knife in a man’s back nine inches and then pull it out six inches and say you’re making progress … No matter how much respect, no matter how much recognition, whites show towards me, as far as I am concerned, as long as it is not shown to everyone of our people in this country, it doesn’t exist for me.

(The Autobiography of Malcolm X)

Don’t be in a hurry to condemn because he doesn’t do what you do or think as you think or as fast. There was a time when you didn’t know what you know today.

(The Autobiography of Malcolm X)


 

‡ Cornel West


The country is in deep trouble. We’ve forgotten that a rich life consists fundamentally of serving others, trying to leave the world a little better than you found it. We need the courage to question the powers that be, the courage to be impatient with evil and patient with people, the courage to fight for social justice. In many instances we will be stepping out on nothing, and just hoping to land on something. But that’s the struggle. To live is to wrestle with despair, yet never allow despair to have the last word.

( Race Matters)

Nihilism is a natural consequence of a culture (or civilization) ruled and regulated by categories that mask manipulation, mastery and domination of peoples and nature.

(The Cornel West Reader)

Empathy is not simply a matter of trying to imagine what others are going through, but having the will to muster enough courage to do something about it. In a way, empathy is predicated upon hope.

( The Moral Obligation of Living In a Democratic Society)

In a time in which Communist regimes have been rightfully discredited and yet alternatives to neoliberal capitalist societies are unwisely dismissed, I defend the fundamental claim of Marxist theory: there must be countervailing forces that defend people’s needs against the brutality of profit driven capitalism. 

(The Cornel West Reader)

You must let suffering speak, if you want to hear the truth

( Race Matters)

My aim is not to provide excuses for black behavior or to absolve blacks of personal responsibility. But when the new black conservatives accent black behavior and responsibility in such a way that the cultural realities of black people are ignored, they are playing a deceptive and dangerous intellectual game with the lives and fortunes of disadvantaged people. We indeed must criticize and condemn immoral acts of black people, but we must do so cognizant of the circumstances into which people are born and under which they live. By overlooking these circumstances, the new black conservatives fall into the trap of blaming black poor people for their predicament. It is imperative to steer a course between the Scylla of environmental determinism and the Charybdis of a blaming-the-victims perspective.

(Race Matters)

 

I must feel the fire of my soul so my intellectual blues can set others on fire.

(Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud, A Memoir)

Aesthetics have substantial political consequences. How one views oneself as beautiful or not beautiful or desirable or not desirable has deep consequences in terms of one’s feelings of self-worth and one’s capacity to be a political agent.

(Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life)

In these downbeat times, we need as much hope and courage as we do vision and analysis; we must accent the best of each other even as we point out the vicious effects of our racial divide and pernicious consequences of our maldistribution of wealth and power. We simply cannot enter the twenty-first century at each other’s throats, even as we acknowledge the weighty forces of racism, patriarchy, economic inequality, homophobia, and ecological abuse on our necks. We are at a crucial crossroad in the history of this nation–and we either hang together by combating these forces that divide and degrade us or we hang separately. Do we have the intelligence, humor, imagination, courage, tolerance, love, respect, and will to meet the challenge? Time will tell. None of us alone can save the nation or world. But each of us can make a positive difference if we commit ourselves to do so.

(Race Matters)

When ordinary people wake up, elites begin to tremble in their boots. They can’t get away with their abuse. They can’t get away with subjection. They can’t get away with subjugation. They can’t get away with exploitation. They can’t get away with domination. It takes courage for folk to stand up.

(Hope on a Tightrope: Words and Wisdom)

And every historic effort to forge a democratic project has been undermined by two fundamental realities: poverty and paranoia. The persistence of poverty generates levels of despair that deepen social conflict the escalation of paranoia produces levels of distrust that reinforce cultural division. Rae is the most explosive issue in American life precisely because it forces us to confront the tragic facts of poverty and paranoia despair, and distrust. In short, a candid examination of race matters takes us to the core of the crisis of American democracy .

(Race Matters)

You have to have a habitual vision of greatness … you have to believe in fact that you will refuse to settle for mediocrity. You won’t confuse your financial security with your personal integrity, you won’t confuse your success with your greatness or your prosperity with your magnanimity … believe in fact that living is connected to giving.

( Democracy Matters)


 

‡ Langston Hughes


I have discovered in life that there are ways of getting almost anywhere you want to go, if you really want to go.

( I wonder as I wander)

Hold fast to dreams
for if dreams die
life is a broken-winged bird
that can not fly.

Hold fast to dreams
for when dreams go
life is a barren field
frozen with snow.

(The Collected Poems)

I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

( The Negro Speaks of Rivers)


 

‡ W.E.B. Du Bois


The worker must work for the glory of his handiwork, not simply for pay; the thinker must think for truth, not for fame.

( The Souls of Black Folk)

Either America will destroy ignorance or ignorance will destroy the United States. ¹

 

There is but one coward on earth, and that is the coward that dare not know.

(Dusk of Dawn)

Herein lies the tragedy of the age: not that men are poor, — all men know something of poverty; not that men are wicked, — who is good? not that men are ignorant, — what is Truth? Nay, but that men know so little of men.

 (The Souls of Black Folk)

The cost of liberty is less than the price of repression.

( The Souls of Black Folk)

The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife, — this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost… He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American…

(Souls of Black Folk)

One ever feels his twoness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

(The Souls of Black Folk)

What do nations care about the cost of war, if by spending a few hundred millions in steel and gunpowder they can gain a thousand millions in diamonds and cocoa? ¹

 

Perhaps the most extraordinary characteristic of current America is the attempt to reduce life to buying and selling. Life is not love unless love is sex and bought and sold. Life is not knowledge save knowledge of technique, of science for destruction. Life is not beauty except beauty for sale. Life is not art unless its price is high and it is sold for profit. All life is production for profit, and for what is profit but for buying and selling again?

(The Autobiography of W.E.B. Du Bois: A Soliloquy on Viewing My Life from the Last Decade of Its First Century)


¹ I could not find the original sources

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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