Having Our Say: the Delany Sisters’ First Hundred Years


Going on twenty years after its original publication, I don’t know how much attention Having Our Say is still getting. Given that The Help not only got made into a movie, but said movie made it to the Oscars, I thought it might just be time to resurrect this memoir. This book began with the author going, on assignment from The New York Times, to interview two elderly African-American sisters, who at 102 and 100 had seen tumult and change in the status of African Americans; after the article appeared, Kodansha thought there might be a book in it.

Born in Raleigh, North Carolina in 1889 and 1891 respectively, Sadie and Bessie Delany faced an uphill climb based just on their skin color; even at five-eighths white, they were (and still would be) considered black. Even a generation after slavery itself ended, African-Americans were still (euphemistically!) deeply disadvantaged due to a combination of deep-rooted prejudice and lack of education; the sister’s parents were themselves well-educated in a time when few whites went beyond the modern equivalent of high school–their father was vice-principal of St. Augustine’s College in Raleigh–and all ten children went through college and professional training programs, ranging from law to medicine to teaching. Bessie Delany became a dentist in Harlem, and Sadie a teacher in the New York Public School system, when this sort of thing WAS.NOT.DONE. Sadie had to pretend she hadn’t gotten the notice for her pre-employment meeting with the school officials and just showed up on the first day, ready to teach, at which point it was too late for the school district to duck out of the contract on the basis of her race. Bessie’s clientele was largely black, as white dentists refused to treat persons of that race, but dental exams were required of children entering the school system at the time.

Neither sister married, and the two lived together all their lives.

Having lived as long as they have, and being prominent members of Raleigh society, not surprisingly the two sisters met a wide range of significant African Americans of the twentieth century: Booker T Washington, Marcus Garvey, W.E.B. duBois, Walter White and Franklin Frazier, as well as entertainers of the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s. More importantly, to the sisters, they lived through the social transmogrification, both good and bad, of the twentieth century, from Plessy vs. Ferguson and the Jim Crow laws to simple (though it’s never easy!) ingrained racism and prejudice among both whites and blacks to the court cases and social uprisings in the 50s and ’60s that began to revert those setbacks.

…and being as old as they are, Bessie and Sadie Delaney said exactly what they thought about their own lives and those social changes. It’s an interesting memoir, still well worth reading today for much the same reasons that any halfway decent memoir is: we get a first hand description of what life was like before we were born. Additionally, I get the impression that the sisters enjoyed life to the fullest, even knowing what they faced against white society, because that’s how they saw life. This is not an indepth and scholarly analysis of race, race relations and society in the United States, but a quick read of a autobiography of two outspoken firm minded colored ladies (yes, that’s the term they prefer–not people of color); take it for what it is and I would like to think that readers could find something just as useful herein.

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