Celebrating Black History Month

On 1 February 2017, Vice President Mike Pence posted a tweet lauding Black History Month by celebrating Abraham Lincoln’s accomplishment of supporting the Thirteenth Amendment. While Lincoln was a true champion of the freedom and rights of black people, Pence’s tweet was roundly criticized (see here, for example).

Abraham Lincoln remains a personal hero of mine. But, with all due respect to Vice President Pence, I thought I would write a post about Black History Month that let black people speak for themselves. With that in mind, below is a short list of my favorite quotations that I have curated (including sometimes combining paragraphs or lines of poems for visual reasons). These are in chronological order and I think speak for themselves.


“If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.”

Frederick Douglass**, “West India Emancipation” (1857)


“We the darker ones come even now not altogether empty-handed: there are to-day no truer exponents of the pure human spirit of the Declaration of Independence than the American Negroes; there is no true American music but the wild sweet melodies of the Negro slave; the American fairy tales and folk-lore are Indian and African; and, all in all, we black men seem the sole oasis of simple faith and reverence in a dusty desert of dollars and smartness.”

W.E.B DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903), chapter 1.


"Although she feeds me bread of bitterness, And sinks into my throat her tiger's tooth, Stealing my breath of life, I will confess, I love this cultured hell that tests my youth!"

Claude McKay, "America" in Harlem Shadows (1922)


“I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail Cell” (1963)


Until the killing of black mothers' sons is as important as the killing of white mothers' sons, we must keep on.” 

Ella Baker, speech before the 1964 Mississippi Democratic Party state convention


“Pretty women wonder where my secret lies. I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size But when I start to tell them, They think I’m telling lies. I say, It’s in the reach of my arms, The span of my hips, The stride of my step, The curl of my lips. I’m a woman Phenomenally. Phenomenal woman, That’s me.”

Maya Angelou, “Phenomenal Woman” from And Still I Rise (1978)


“There is nothing uniquely evil in these destroyers [of black bodies] or even in this moment. The destroyers are merely men enforcing the whims of our country, correctly interpreting its heritage and legacy. It is hard to face this. But all our phrasing […] serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the chards, the regressions all land, with great violent, upon the body.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (2015), chapter 1


“I realized that our time in the White House would form the foundation for who [our daughters] would become and how well we managed this experience could truly make or break them. That is what Barack and I think about every day as we try to guide and protect our girls through the challenges of this unusual life in the spotlight, how we urge them to ignore those who question their father's citizenship or faith. How we insist that the hateful language they hear from public figures on TV does not represent the true spirit of this country. How we explain that when someone is cruel or acts like a bully, you don't stoop to their level. No, our motto is, when they go low, we go high.’

Michelle Obama, speech before the 2016 Democratic National Convention


**Douglass is somebody who's done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more.