Book 30 of 52: Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years

I don’t know what I could say about Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years that hasn’t already been said. This oral history of Sarah L. Delany and A. Elizabeth Delany, which was published in 1993, has been a sensation. Not only was it a New York Times bestseller (where it stayed for 28 weeks), but it was turned into a TV movie and play.

I can see why. The book is wonderful, and the oral history format is perfect for it. Amy Hill Hearth, who wrote the narrative, captured the wit and humor of the 100 year+ old Delany sisters, and their story says a lot about racism in America.

Their father was born a slave, and their mother was the daughter of a white man and black woman who couldn’t marry because it was illegal in Virginia (though they considered themselves married). Together, they had 10 children, and all of them went to college. A. Elizabeth “Bessie” was the second black female dentist to be licensed in New York, and Sarah “Sadie” was the first black person to teach high school domestic science in a New York public school. Together, they give first person accounts of what it was like to live through everything from Jim Crow to Depression-era Harlem to moving into a white suburbs.

A few passages stuck out to me, who read the book 15 years after it was first published. One was on moving into that white suburb. Bessie says, “Back when Negroes were started to move into Mount Vernon, some of the white folks were mighty ornery. They would complain about such petty things, like the way that Negro children would play in the street…it was little things like that, little cultural differences, that were the source of tension.”

It reminded me of a recent post on about a movement to keep African Americans out of the Fishtown part of Philadelphia. I wasn’t so shocked that Sadie and Bessie got the cold shoulder, but that, 50 years later, this attitude still exists? And people actually post it on telephone poles? Unbelievable.

Then, given the close race between Hilary and Obama, this was really interesting — Bessie says, “See, I think while people would rather die than vote for a Negro president. I predict there will be a white woman president before there is a Negro president. And if a Negro is elected president? That person will be a Negro woman.” Will Bessie be right? We’ll see.

I’m interviewing Amy Hill Hearth on Monday. Her next book, “Strong Medicine” Speaks: A Native American Elder Has Her Say, comes out in March. It’s another oral history, and I can’t wait to start reading it. I’ll write more about my interesting connection to Hearth in the next review…so stay tuned!

But I’ll leave you with my favorite line in the book, again from Bessie: “When Negroes are average, they fail, unless they are very, very lucky. Now, if you’re average and white, honey, you can go far. Just look at Dan Quayle. If that boy was colored he’d be washing dishes somewhere.”


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Jen Miller

Jen Miller

Jen A. Miller is a an author and freelance writer. Her memoir, Running a Love Story, was a Philadelphia Inquirer best book of the year. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, SELF, Buzzfeed and the Guardian, among others.

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