Having Our Say (Delany)

Having Our Say: The First 100 Years of the Delany Sisters
Sarah Louise Delany, A.Elizabeth Delany, 1993
Random House
299 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780385312523

In their 200+ combined years, Sadie and Bessie Delany have seen it all. They saw their father, who was born into slavery, become America's first black Episcopal bishop. They saw their mother—a woman of mixed racial parentage who was born free—give birth to ten children, all of whom would become college-educated, successful professionals in a time when blacks could scarcely expect to receive a high school diploma. They saw the post-Reconstruction South, the Jim Crow laws, Harlem's Golden Age, and the Civil Rights movement—and, in their own feisty, wise, inimitable way, they've got a lot to say about it.

More than a firsthand account of black American history, Having Our Say teaches us about surviving, thriving, and embracing life, no matter what obstacles are in our way. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Dates —Sarah 1889-1999; Elizabeth, 1891-1995
Born—Both in Raleigh, North Carolina, USA
Died —Both in Mt. Vernon, New York,
Education—Sarah, B.A., M.A., Columbia University
   Elizabeth, D.D.S., Columbia University (dentistry)

Dr. Elizabeth Delany and Sarah Delany were born in Raleigh, North Carolina, on the campus of St. Augustine's College. Their father, born into slavery and freed by the Emancipation, was an administrator at the college and America's first elected black Episcopal bishop. Sarah received her bachelor's and master's degrees from Teachers College at Columbia University and was New York City's first appointed black home economics teacher on the high school level. Elizabeth received her degree in dentistry from Columbia University and was the second black woman licensed to practice dentistry in New York City. The sisters retired to Mt. Vernon, New York. Dr. Elizabeth Delany died in September 1995, at the age of 104. Sarah died in 1999 at the age of 109. (From the publisher.)

Sarah Louise "Sadie" Delany (September 19, 1889 - January 25, 1999) and Annie Elizabeth "Bessie" Delany (September 3, 1891- September 25, 1995) were American authors and civil rights pioneers.

Sadie, the older of the two, was the first African American woman ever to be allowed to teach Domestic Science in the state of New York. Her sister Bessie was the second black woman to be granted a dentistry license in New York state. While these two positions awarded the sisters freedom from persecution in the workplace, it wasn't until the early 1990s, when both were over 100 years old, that they gained fame.

In 1992, the two sisters published Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years, (with Amy Hill Hearth), which dealt with the trials and tribulations the sisters had faced during their century of life. The book was highly successful on the best seller charts, and even spawned a Broadway play. In 1999 the movie Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years was released on television. It was directed by Lynne Littman with Diahann Carroll as Sadie and Ruby Dee as Bessie.

In 1994 with The Delany Sisters' Book of Everyday Wisdom was published as a follow up to Having Our Say. After Bessie's death in 1995 at age 104, Sadie wrote another book called On My Own At 107: Reflections on Life Without Bessie, dealing with the loss of her sister. Sadie died at the age of 109 in 1999.

The sisters were included in the Guinness Book of World Records in 1993 as the world's oldest authors.

The sisters were the aunts of science fiction author Samuel R. Delany, the son of their youngest brother Sam (1906-63). Their father Henry Beard Delany (1856-1928) was, in the full description they liked to use, "the first elected Negro bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church. (From Wikipedia.)

Book Reviews 
I felt proud to be an American citizen reading Having Our Say...the two voices, beautifully blended...evoke an epic history...often cruel and brutal, but always deeply humane.
New York Times Book Review

In this remarkable and charming oral history, two lively and perspicacious sisters, aged 101 and 103, reflect on their rich family life and their careers as pioneering African American professionals. Brief chapters capture Sadie's warm voice ("Now, I was a `mama's child' '') and Bessie's fiestiness (``I'm alive out of sheer determination, honey!''). The unmarried sisters, who live together, tell of growing up on the campus of a black college in Raleigh, N.C., where their father was an Episcopal priest, and of being too independent for the men who courted them. With parental influence far stronger than that of Jim Crow, they joined professions—Sadie teaching domestic science, Bessie practicing dentistry. In 1920s Harlem they mixed with black activists and later were among the first to integrate the New York City suburb of Mount Vernon. While their account of the last 40 years is sketchy, their observations about everything from black identity to their yoga exercises make them worthwhile company. Freelancer Hearth, who wrote an initial story on the sisters in the New York Times in 1991, has deftly shaped and contextualized their reflections.
Publishers Weekly

(Audio version.) When Sadie and Bessie Delany were 104 and 102 years old, respectively, they told their life stories to journalist Hearth in a remarkable contribution to oral history. As the daughters of a freed slave who became America's first elected black Episcopal bishop, the sisters' careers-in education and dentistry-took them to New York during the Harlem Renaissance. Memoirs like this beg to be told aloud. Narrator Iona Morris does not attempt to characterize the voices; instead, her energetic reading captures the sisters' vigor and sense of humor. An interview with the Delanys and Hearth recorded exclusively for this edition makes a nice bonus. One caveat for libraries, though: the cassette casings are held together with glue rather than screws, making in-house repair difficult. Nonetheless, this belongs in most libraries. —Nann Blaine Hilyard, Fargo P.L., ND
Library Journal

In a memoir that's as much a historical record as a testimony to two extraordinary women, the Delany sisters recall their remarkable lives, spanning more than a century of the African- American experience. Daughters of the nation's first black Episcopal bishop, Sadie and Bessie Delany, born in 1889 and 1891 respectively, are a living record of the seismic changes that have affected black America since Emancipation. Their father was born in slavery; their mother was the daughter of an "issue-free negro" and a white Virginian farmer who, though prohibited by law from marrying his beloved Martha Logan, treated her and his children as his lawful family. Raised in the sheltered environment of St. Augustine's School near Raleigh, where their father was the principal, the two girls were expected, like their eight other siblings, to excel both academically and morally. An idyllic childhood was followed by the introduction of Jim Crow legislation that soon made life in the South intolerable, prompting the sisters to move to Harlem. In New York, Sadie graduated from Pratt and became a high-school teacher, while Bessie, graduating from Columbia, became a dentist. The two were soon prominent in Harlem, befriending the black elite (Booker T. Washington, Cab Calloway, Adam Clayton Powell) and actively fighting racial discrimination. Today, looking back, they continue to reflect the wisdom, humor, and feistiness that enabled them to triumph over racism and sexism—the latter, in their opinion, not as corrosive as the former. The Delanys aren't optimistic about the future of race relations, believing that the momentum of the civil-rights struggle was taken away by the Vietnam War. An uplifting and delightful introduction to two splendid women of remarkable good sense and grace—and a fascinating chapter of history as well.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions 
Use our LitLovers Book Club Resources; they can help with discussions for any book:

How to Discuss a Book (helpful discussion tips)
Generic Discussion Questions—Fiction and Nonfiction
Read-Think-Talk (a guided reading chart)

Also consider these LitLovers talking points to help get a discussion started for Having Our Say:

1. How would you describe the sisters' personalities? How are they similar to one another, and how are they different?

2. What special qualities enabled the two young women to succeed in the academic and professional worlds at a time when it was difficult for any women, let alone women of color, to even consider careers?

3. What early influences shaped the sisters' future paths? Talk about what life was like for them as young girls in the 1890's—their family and life on the campus of St. Augustine's—and how different it was for most African Americans in that time and place.

4. Consider the unusual Delany family background, which included a Virginia slave and his white mistress in 1812, and a free black woman and white farmer forbidden by law to marry but who remained together.  

5. Why did neither sister choose to marry? Talk about the ways marriage would have altered the course of their lives. Do you think the two might they have made different choices today? What kind of husbands would you wish for them?

6. The women prefer the use of "colored" and "Negro" to "black" or "African-American." Why is that? How do those terms sound today?

7. Why did Sadie and Bessie believe racism was a more pernicious form of oppression than sexism? Do you agree or disagree?

8. Talk about the ways in which the Jim Crow laws changed the sisters' idyllic childhood. The two reacted differently to the new laws. Which sister would you have been more like?

9. What do you make of Father Delany's remark to Sadie: "You are college material. You owe it to your nation, your race, and yourself to go. And if you don't, then shame on you!" Why "shame on you"—what did he mean?

10. The two women lived during three remarkable eras in US history: the onset of Jim Crow, the Harlem Renaissance, the Civil Rights movement. They befriended luminaries such as Booker T. Washington, Cab Calloway, Marian Anderson, and Adam Clayton Powell. What most surprised you about those times? What did you learn about Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Movement, or Harlem Renaissance that you were unaware of? In other words, what have you learned about US history from this book?

11. What do you think of Bessie's statement that blacks must be sharp to succeed, but that "if you're average and white, honey, you can go far. Just look at Dan Quayle [US vice president under the first George Bush]. If that boy was colored he'd  be washing dishes somewhere"? Is that an accurate statement of the forces arrayed against African-Americans?

12. Do you have a favorite sister?

13. There is a good deal of humor in the book. What made you laugh?

14. Consider watching the 1999 film (made for TV) and comparing it to the book. How well does the film do in portraying the book and the Delany sisters?

(Questions issued by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks)

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