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African-American Quotations

From Muhammad Ali to Andrew Young


Compiled by Ann Marie Imbornoni



I never thought of losing, but now that it's happened, the only thing is to do it right. That's my obligation to all the people who believe in me. We all have to take defeats in life.

Muhammad Ali (1942-)
statement after losing his first fight to Ken Norton, March 31, 1973
I am America. I am the part you won't recognize. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me.

Muhammad Ali (1942- )
The Greatest (1975)

Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

Maya Angelou (1928-)
"Still I rise," And Still I Rise (1978)

Man, if you gotta ask you'll never know.

Louis (Satchmo) Armstrong (1900-1971)
reply when asked what jazz is

Racism is not an excuse to not do the best you can.

Arthur Ashe (1943-1993)
quoted in Sports Illustrated, July 1991
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.

James Baldwin (1924-1987)
Nobody Knows My Name (1961)

If we accept and acquiesce in the face of discrimination, we accept the responsibility ourselves and allow those responsible to salve their conscience by believing that they have our acceptance and concurrence. We should, therefore, protest openly everything . . . that smacks of discrimination or slander.

Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955)
"Certain Unalienable Rights," What the Negro Wants, edited by Rayford W. Logan (1944)

The workings of the human heart are the profoundest mystery of the universe. One moment they make us despair of our kind, and the next we see in them the reflection of the divine image.

Charles W. Chesnutt (1858-1932)
The Marrow of Tradition (1901)

You're either part of the solution or part of the problem.
(Leroy) Eldridge Cleaver (1935-1998)
speech given in San Francisco in 1968

children
when they ask you
why your mama so funny
say
she is a poet
she don't have no sense
Lucille Clifton (1936-)
"Admonitions," Good Times (1969)
Life is short, and it's up to you to make it sweet.

Sadie Delany (1889-1999)
Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years, written with sister Bessie Delany (1993)

You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man.

Frederick Douglass (1818?-1895)
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845)

It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others. . . . One ever feels his twoness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warrings ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963)
The Souls of Black Folk (1903)

I used to want the words "She tried" on my tombstone. Now I want "She did it."

Katherine Dunham (1910-2006)
quoted in Black Pearls by Eric V. Copage (1993)

The question is not whether we can afford to invest in every child; it is whether we can afford not to.

Marian Wright Edelman ((1939-)
The Measure of Our Success (1992)

There will always be men struggling to change, and there will always be those who are controlled by the past.

Ernest J. Gaines (1933-)
interview with John O'Brien in African American Writers (1991)

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?

Langston Hughes (1902-1967)
"Harlem" (1951)

I am not tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes. . . . Even in the helter-skelter skirmish that is my life, I have seen that the world is to the strong regardless of a little pigmentation more or less. No, I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.

Zora Neale Hurston (1901?-1960)
"How It Feels to Be Colored Me" (1928)
Our nation is a rainbow—red, yellow, brown, black, and white—and we're all precious in God's sight.

Jesse Jackson (1941)
speech given at the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco on July 17, 1984

We have come over a way that with tears has
    been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the
    blood of the slaughtered.

James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) Lift Every Voice and Sing, stanza 2 (1900)

When I read great literature, great drama, speeches, or sermons, I feel that the human mind has not achieved anything greater than the ability to share feelings and thoughts through language.

James Earl Jones (1931-)
Voices and Silences (1993)

"We, the people." It is a very eloquent beginning. But when that document [the Preamble to the US Constitution] was completed on the seventeenth of September in 1787 I was not included in that "We, the people." I felt somehow for many years that 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 C. Jordan (1936-1996)
statement made before the House Committee on the Judiciary, July 25, 1974

I can accept failure. Everyone fails at something. But I can't accept not trying.

Michael Jordan (1963-)
I Can't Accept Not Trying (1994)
Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.

Martin Luther King (1929-1968)
Strength to Love, 1963
Read more quotes from Martin Luther King.
Anger, used, does not destroy. Hatred does.

Audre Lorde (1934-1992)
"Eye to Eye," Sister Outsider (1984)

What's shaking, chiefy baby?

Thurgood Marshall (1908-1993)
customary greeting to Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, quoted by Michael D. Davis and Hunter R. Clark in Thurgood Marshall: Warrior at the Bar, Rebel on the Bench (1992)

American means white, and Africanist people struggle to make the term applicable to themselves with ethnicity and hyphen after hyphen after hyphen.

Toni Morrison (1931-)
Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992)

Defining myself, as opposed to being defined by others, is one of the most difficult challenges I face.

Carol Moseley-Braun (1947-)
interview in The New Republic, November 15, 1993

If you send up a weather vane or put your thumb up in the air every time you want to do something different, to find out what people are going to think about it, you're going to limit yourself. That's a very strange way to live.

Jessye Norman (1945-)
interview in the New York Times, 1987
The battles that count aren't the ones for gold medals. The struggles within yourself—the invisible, inevitable battles inside all of us—that's where it's at.

Jesse Owens (1913-1980)
Blackthink (1970)

Avoid fried meats which angry up the blood. If your stomach disputes you, lie down and pacify it with cool thoughts. Keep the juices flowing by jangling around gently as you move. Go very light on the vices, such as carrying on in society. The social ramble ain't restful. Avoid running at all times. Don't look back. Something might be gaining on you.

Satchel Paige (1906?-1982)
"How to Stay Young" (1953)

Freedom is never given; it is won.

A. Philip Randolph (1889-1979)
keynote speech given at the Second National Negro Congress in 1937
My father was a slave and my people died to build this country, and I'm going to stay right here and have a part of it, just like you. And no fascist-minded people like you will drive me from it. Is that clear?

Paul Robeson (1898-1976)
testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, June 12, 1956

With hair, heels, and attitude, honey, I am through the roof.

RuPaul (1960?-)
quoted in the New York Times, July 11, 1993

No time to marry, no time to settle down; I'm a young woman, and I ain't done runnin' around.

Bessie Smith (1894-1937) Young Woman's Blues (1927)

That . . . man . . . says women can't have as much rights as man, cause Christ wasn't a woman. Where did your Christ come from? . . . From God and a woman. Man had nothing to do with him.

Sojourner Truth (1797?-1883)
speech at the Woman's Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, 1851

When I found I had crossed that line, [on her first escape from slavery, 1845] I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything.

Harriet Tubman (1820?-1913)
to her biographer, Sarah H. Bradford, c. 1868

Sometimes you've got to let everything go—purge yourself . . . If you are unhappy with anything . . . whatever is bringing you down, get rid of it. Because you'll find that when you're free, your true creativity, your true self comes out.

Tina Turner (1939-)
I, Tina (1986)

Success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome while trying to succeed.

Booker T. Washington (1856-1915)
Up From Slavery (1901)

I could depend a lot on my shaking, though I never shimmied vulgarly and only to express myself.

Ethel Waters (1896-1977)
His Eye Is on the Sparrow (1951)

I felt that one had better die fighting against injustice than to die like a dog or rat in a trap. I had already determined to sell my life as dearly as possible if attacked. I felt if I could take one lyncher with me, this would even up the score a little bit.

Ida B. Wells (1862-1931)
Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells (published posthumously, 1970)

Black people have always been America's wilderness in search of a promised land.

Cornel West (1953-)
"Nihilism in America," Race Matters (1993)
The world is a severe schoolmaster, for its frowns are less dangerous than its smiles and flatteries, and it is a difficult task to keep in the path of wisdom.

Phillis Wheatley (1753?-1784)
letter to John Thornton, October 30, 1774

As long as the colored man look to white folks to put the crown on what he say . . . as long as he looks to white folks for approval . . . then he ain't never gonna find out who he is and what he's about.

August Wilson, Jr. (1945- )
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, act 1 (1984)

I still have my feet on the ground, I just wear better shoes.

Oprah Winfrey (1954-)
Oprah!: Up Close and Down Home by Nellie Bly (1993)
We should emphasize not Negro History, but the Negro in history. What we need is not a history of selected races or nations, but the history of the world void of national bias, race hate, and religious prejudice.

Carter Woodson (1875-1950)
on founding Negro History Week, 1926

My hope for my children must be that they respond to the still, small voice of God in their own hearts.

Andrew Young (1932-)
A Way Out of No Way (1994)


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Thomas Jennings is the first known African American to hold a patent.

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