Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years
The ground-breaking 1993 oral history of two centenarian sisters, daughters of a man born into slavery in the United States, HAVING OUR SAY was a New York Times Bestseller for 117 weeks. In 1995, the book was adapted to the Broadway stage and, in 1999, for an award-winning CBS Sunday Night Movie. The book was also a USA Today, Publisher's Weekly, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post bestseller. The book remains popular in high school and college classrooms.
Who Were the Delany Sisters?
The Delany Sisters were the daughters of a man born into slavery in the South who, as a pair of centenarians, became known to the world when they shared their unvarnished opinions, experiences, and perspective in a 1991 New York Times story by Amy Hill Hearth, followed in 1993 by a book of oral history by Ms. Hearth and the sisters called Having Our Say.
The Delany Sisters had great stories to tell, and were willing to share them. They had an unusual upbringing: They were raised on the campus of St. Augustine's School (now College) in Raleigh, N.C., where their father was vice-principal and their mother, who could have passed for White but chose not to, was a teacher and administrator. Their father, the Rev. Henry B. Delany, later became the first Black person elected as an Episcopal Bishop USA.
Along with their eight siblings, the Delany Sisters, who were two years apart in age, were raised to set their sights high. Both earned advanced college degrees at a time when this was very rare for women, especially Black women. Both were groundbreaking career women in the 1920s and '30s, Sadie as a teacher and Bessie as a dental surgeon. Neither ever married. They turned down marriage proposals because they enjoyed their freedom. They lived together in Harlem, N.Y. for many years, eventually retiring in Mt. Vernon, N.Y. where they bought a house with a garden on a quiet street. During their Harlem years, they knew many of the iconic writers, political leaders, and entertainers of what is known as the Harlem Renaissance.
Witty, wise, and candid, the sisters were still living independently, and in excellent health, even practicing yoga daily, when Ms. Hearth "discovered" them, as they liked to phrase it. After Having Our Say was published in 1993, it became a New York Times bestseller for 117 weeks. In 1995, the book was adapted for Broadway and, in 1999, for film. The adaptations were written by playwright Emily Mann.
The book remains a favorite in American high schools and colleges because of the oral history format in which readers feel as if the Delany Sisters are speaking directly to them. The sisters' memories, along with their recollections of stories told to them by their older kinfolk, provide tremendous insight into American history and culture reaching back to the early days of our country. Historians who have reviewed the book often point to the sisters' vivid childhood memories of the day Jim Crow laws went into effect as especially rare and historically significant.
Fame and fortune did not change the centenarian Delany Sisters, who, despite their astonishing, very-late-in-life success continued to make their own soap and refused to have a telephone. Bessie died in 1995 at the age of 104, and Sadie in 1999 at age 109, but their words of wisdom live on.
Timeline of Events:
Summer 1991: Amy Hill Hearth, a journalist, hears about the reclusive sisters and arranges to meet them, hoping for an interview. She interviews them for three hours and writes a 1200-word feature story.
September 22, 1991: Her feature on the Delany sisters is published in The New York Times. A book publisher reads her article and asks if she will expand the story into a full-length book.
Fall 1991 - Spring 1993: The Delany Sisters and Ms. Hearth work together to create the book, an oral history which they call Having Our Say.
September 19, 1993: Having Our Say is published by Kodansha America in New York on Sadie Delany's 104th birthday.
Fall 1993: The book becomes a New York Times bestseller for a total of 117 weeks, first in hardcover, then paperback. The book lands on the bestseller lists of other national newspapers as well, including The Washington Post and USA Today. The sisters get a kick out of their late-in-life fame.
April 1995: The Broadway play adaptation, written by playwright Emily Mann, opens at the Booth Theater in New York. Ms. Hearth works as an advisor on the production and takes the sisters to see the play on Mother's Day.
April 1999: The telefilm adaptation of Having Our Say airs on CBS, starring Ruby Dee, Diahann Carroll, and Amy Madigan. The film is directed by Academy Award winner Lynne Littman. Ms. Hearth is an advisor on the production and keeps the sisters informed. The sisters, however, do not live to see the film.
Present-day: The book was translated into seven languages and is still read around the world. It remains a favorite in high schools and college classrooms across the U.S. and beyond.
A Sampling of Reviews of the Book from around the World:
"This book is destined to become a classic! The Delany sisters...leave to us the best of legacies - two sets of dancing footprints for us to follow all our days ahead"
- Clarissa Pinkola Estes, New York Times bestselling author of Women Who Run with the Wolves.
"A proud, vivid oral history" - Newsweek magazine
"A rare and uncensored view of a complex and often adversarial world...The book adds much to the annals of black life in America" - Shrlee Taylor Haizlip
"The Delany Sisters are a national treasure"
- Julian Bond
"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" - The New York Times Book Review
"The sisters recount a century of history better than any academic textbook"
- Ms. magazine
"This engaging, affirmative chronicle will be savored, and shared, by general reader and scholar alike."
- The Washington Post
Sarah L. ("Sadie") Delany, above, in her college graduation photo, Columbia University, 1920. She later earned a Master's in Education, also from Columbia. She was the first black person permitted to teach domestic science on the high school level in the New York City Public Schools. She was 104 years old when Having Our Say was published. Born: Sept. 19, 1889. Died: Jan. 25, 1999. (From the book Having Our Say, copyright 1993 Amy Hill Hearth)
Dr. A. Elizabeth ("Bessie") Delany, above, as she appeared in her 1923 yearbook, Columbia University School of Dental and Oral Surgery. She was the second black woman licensed to practice dentistry in New York State, and practiced in Harlem for many years. She was 102 years old when Having Our Say was published. Date of birth: Sept. 3, 1891. Date of death: Sept. 25, 1995. (From the book Having Our Say. Copyright 1993 Amy Hill Hearth)
There are hundreds of study guides for Having Our Say. One of the best is this one from LaGuardia Community College, Queens, New York City. (Courtesy LaGuardia Community College.)
1. How did the author, Amy Hill Hearth, come to write the book Having Our Say?
2. Describe the first meeting between the author and the Delany sisters. What were Ms. Hearth's impressions of the sisters that day?
3. Describe the public's reaction to the story that appeared in The New York Times.
4. At first, the sisters doubted that their stories were interesting enough to become a book. How did they eventually come to view the writing of their story?
5. Describe the structure of the book. For example, who are the narrators? What is the sequence of the story?
Sweet Sadie, Queen Bess
1. What do we learn about the two sisters simply by reading the title of Part l?
2. Who wrote this first section Sweet Sadie, Queen Bess?
3. What are some of the facts we learn about the Delany family, pages 1 -11?
4. Sadie notes that their mother and father never called each other by their first names. Why? (p. 9)
5. Sadie spends some time discussing the relative color, or "shade" of the various family members. Why do you think she does this? (See also p. 80 and p. 106)
6. At the end of chapter 1, Sadie says she and Bessie "kind of balance each other out." What does she mean?
7. Based on what you have read so far, compare and contrast Sadie and Bessie. Start a list like the one below. Write it in a separate section of your notebook. Add to the list as you continue reading the book.
8. Which does Bessie say was a bigger problem for her, sexism or racism? (p. 14)
9. Who were the "rebby boys"? (p. 15)
10. Why don't the sisters have a phone? How do they cope with not having one?
11. The sisters emphasize the importance of having a sense of humor. Find a few examples where humor helped them through a bad time.
SIDEBAR: COMPARING AND CONTRASTING SADIE AND BESSIE
Make a list of the ways the two sisters differ in personality. For example:
Sadie describes herself: "l was a mama's child and followed my Mama around like a shadow." (p. 11)
Bessie says, "Sometimes I think it's my meanness that keeps me going." (p. 17)
Bessie believed she was "a little psychic": even Sadie admitted
"Bessie is a little, well, intuitive." (p. 19)
(And so on.)
"I Am free!"
1. The sisters' father, "Papa," was born into slavery. Sadie and Bessie recall asking him about being a slave and about becoming free. Discuss some of his recollections of:
a - when news of the "Surrender' came
b - the situation of Papa's family contrasted with that of most ex-slaves
c - the name Delany
d - learning to read and write
e - Papa's accomplishments
2. Describe the sisters' parents and grandparents, James Miliam and Martha Logan.
3. React to Sadie and Bessie's statement on page 43: "One thing's for sure: Those four girls were all only one-quarter Negro, but in the eyes of the world they were colored. It took only one drop of blood for a person to be considered "colored."
1. What do we learn in the preface to Part Ill about the importance of education to black Americans?
2. Why were "black colleges the crucial stepping-stone to progress..."? (p. 56)
3. According to Sadie and Bessie, what was the situation of many former slaves? How did the sisters' parents treat former slaves who were "down on their luck?"
4. On page 86 Bessie says, "We lived a clean life, but, Lord, we had a good time." What kinds of things did the Delanys do for a "good time?"
5. React to Bessie's comment at the end of page 87: "We were good citizens, good Americans. We loved our country, even though it didn't love us back."
Jim Crow Days
1. What do we learn in the preface about Jim Crow laws?
2. a. According to Sadie and Bessie, what was the reason Jim Crow laws were passed? (p. 93)
b. Describe the "pecking order."
3. Describe the sisters' first encounter with Jim Crow. (p. 95)
4. How did Papa "put his money where his mouth was"? (p. 97; See also p. 102)
5. Sadie says on page 103, "I never let prejudice stop me from what I wanted to do in this life." Retell her anecdote about the shoe store that illustrates her point.
6. Contrast Bessie and Sadie's reactions to racism. How did each cope with it? (p. 105) Add this to the list you began in Part I question #7.
7. Bessie mentions "the worst news imaginable" — lynching. Are these stories of lynching a surprise to you? What did you know about the subject before reading this book?
8. On pages 112 - 3, Sadie tells us her father insisted she go to college, but NOT take a scholarship. Why does he insist she not take a scholarship? Do you think he was right?
9. On p. 114 -115, Sadie mentions Booker T. Washington, reminding us that the Delanys knew many of the most influential black leaders, artists and thinkers of the time. (Read more about Booker T. Washington and list three facts about him that you think are important.
10. Sadie describes her courtship by one of her "gentleman friends." Describe her "dates." Interview an older person in your family or neighborhood. Ask them to describe a typical courtship when they were young. Was it more similar to Sadie's experience or to today's customs?
11. What do Sadie and Bessie say about the fact they never married?
12. Bessie recalls hearing about the sinking of the Titanic. Describe her reaction to the news. (p. 127)
13. In 1913 Bessie came close to being lynched. Describe what happened. What is Sadie's reaction to Bessie's behavior? (p. 130)
1. In the preface we are introduced to the Harlem Renaissance and to the people and places that made Harlem the spiritual and cultural center of black America in the 1920s and 30s. Read a bit about one of the famous people mentioned. Share what you leam with your classmates.
2. Sadie and Bessie describe their first trip to New York City in 1915. How did they react to the sight of the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor — that vision that has thrilled immigrants for more than a hundred years?
3. Sadie and Bessie contrast the demographics of North Carolina with what they encountered in New York City. How were the two cities (Raleigh and New York) different? What do you think Sadie and Bessie would say if they came to New York City for the first time today? (p. 139 - 40)
4. Sadie and Bessie mention that their brother Harry was working as a Pullman porter at the time. Read more about the important American, A. Phillip Randolph, who organized the Pullman sleeping car porters. This union became the first powerful black labor union. Write two important facts you learned about this man and his achievements.
5. Explain why the sisters say that World War I "happened overseas but...created bloodshed among us here at home." (p. 144)
6. In Chapter 16, Sadie describes Harlem (and all New York) as happier places back then. Interview someone who has lived in Harlem (or anywhere in New York City) for at least 25 years. Ask them to compare the city then and now. Share what you learn with the class.
7. a. Why did Sadie have a hard time at Pratt Institute?
b. React to her comment on p. 149: "The problem is, you don't always know for sure whether people are being nasty because you're colored, or for some other reason."
8. Why does Sadie say she had a happier time at Columbia? (p. 150)
9. Why did Sadie decide to stay in New York after she graduated from Columbia? (p. 152)
10. Bessie again discusses the challenge of sexism on top of racism (pp. 153, 178, 202). Discuss.
11. What is Bessie's opinion of Affirmative Action laws? (p. 156) Do you agree with her? Before you answer, be sure you understand what these laws are; read a bit about them.
12. What does Bessie say about a woman combining marriage and a career? (pp. 157 - 8) Do you think this is still true today? Explain.
13 a. What conclusion does Bessie draw about what a black person must do if he or she is "going to make it'? (p. 161 - see also Sadie p. 167)
b. Do you think things have changed?
c. Do you think other minorities suffer equally from these problems?
14. Sadie made extra money baking and selling cakes and candy, but eventually gave it up because the Depression had begun. How much do you know about the Depression? Do some research to find out about the stock market crash of 1929 and the crippling economic depression that followed.
15. How did Sadie manage to become the first "colored" teacher in New York City to teach domestic science in a high school? (p. 170)
16. One of the recurring themes of the book is hard work. How does Bessie describe her working life in chapter 19? (p. 183)
17. Why didn't the sisters support the baseball team that eventually became the Yankees?
18. An acquaintance of Bessie's, Albert Robinson, encountered a Columbia University professor who claimed Negroes were inferior to white people. How did Bessie react? (p. 197)
19. Why does Bessie say that sit-ins were not her "style of activism"? (197-8)
20. Describe Bessie's encounter with the Ku Klux Klan. (p. 199)
21. Bessie tells us there were two extremes in black political activism — that of W.E.B. DuBois on the one hand and Booker T. Washington on the other. Compare and contrast the goals and methods of these two leaders.
22. What does Bessie say was "one of the happiest days" of her life? (p. 202)
23. As we have seen, the Delanys knew most of the prominent black Americans of the times. In chapter 23 we learned that their brother Hubert knew Fiorello LaGuardia. Describe the relationship between Hubert Delany and Fiorello LaGuardia. (p. 213-14)
24. After the sisters' mother moved to New York, she and Sadie took many trips together. Sadie describes a memorable moment in London when they saw Paul Robeson appear in "Othello." Read more about the life of Paul Robeson and share what you learned with the class.
25. How did Sadie, her mother, sister and brother avoid "trouble" on their car trip to Los Angeles? (p. 218-19)
26. Bessie talks about the Depression in Chapter 25. How does she contrast the situation of white and black people during this difficult time?
SIDEBAR: INCIDENTS OF RACISM CITED IN THE BOOK
In a separate section of your notebook, begin a list of some of the incidents of racism the sisters describe. Include examples from earlier in the book and add to the list as you read along. For example:
1. When Bessie was in dental school, her professor failed one of her assignments.
A white friend handed in the same assignment. This time the teacher passed it. Page ___
Ties That Bind
1. In the preface, the author describes the effects of the 1929 stock market crash and the Great Depression and World War ll. Discuss some of the effects she mentions. (p. 235 - 7)
2. Despite a lifetime of suffering from racism, the Delany family felt that nothing could stop them from achieving their goals. It took a family tragedy for the Delanys to realize "you can't always get what you want in life." What happened? (p. 244)
3. Describe the experience of racism suffered by the sisters' brother Manross during World War ll. (p. 247)
4. Eventually the sisters decided one of them would have to quit working to take care of their mother. How did they decide which one would quit? (p. 251)
5. Describe what Bessie calls her mother's "greatest moment as an old lady." (p. 255) Read more about Marian Anderson.
Outliving the Rebby Boys
1. Talk a little about the sisters' life after their mother died. (Chapters 29 - 31)
2. What did the sisters do to maintain good health? (Chapter 31)
3. It is Bessie who has "the last word" in the book. Explain what she means in the last sentence. Do you think this is an effective ending to the story of the Delany sisters?
4. Share the list you compiled comparing and contrasting the sisters with your classmates. (Part 1, question 7 of this study guide). Which of the incidents in your list did you find the most compelling? Why?
5. Refer to the list of incidences of racism you began in Part 5, question 10. Compare your list with those of your classmates. How do you think the sisters managed to cope so well with such adversity. How do you think YOU would have reacted? How did creating and reading this list make you feel?