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Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years

Sarah Louise Delany and Annie Elizabeth Delany, with Amy Hill Hearth

Analysis of Major Characters

Character List

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Sadie Delany

Sadie, named after her two grandmothers, is an obedient “mama’s child” but takes after her father in terms of personality. She is calm and never judgmental, and because she is lighter-skinned than Bessie, she faces less discrimination. Because of her more easygoing personality, she also takes racial and sexual stereotyping better than Bessie. When a white co-worker snubs her in front of a group of white women, Sadie doesn’t get upset or even end the friendship. Instead, she views the slight as revealing her co-worker’s weak character. She faces old age with the same determined and easy approach. Old age, like racism or sexism, is merely another obstacle to overcome.

Sadie achieves her goals steadily, without coming head-to-head with white authority, and her nonaggressive approach is in some ways similar to that of black leader Booker T. Washington. Sadie acquires her job as the first black woman to teach high school domestic science in New York City by not disclosing her blackness to her prospective employers. When they finally meet Sadie and realize she’s black, it’s too late to turn her away. When her mother dies, Sadie is in her late sixties and finally comes into her own. She has a great ability to focus on the positive aspects of life and keeps a long vision of change. At the end of the century, Sadie faces a group of rebby boys at her home in Mount Vernon and tells them to move off her property. Old age and a lifetime spent with her confrontational sister Bessie make Sadie bolder, and even at 103, she continues to evolve.

Bessie Delany

Named after Dr. Anna J. Cooper, an early advocate of education for black women, Bessie is proud and emotional. Where Sadie is easygoing, Bessie is confrontational. Her narrative is lively and includes songs, eruptive anger and joy, and psychic predictions. In some ways the sisters act as foils to each other, and in some senses they are indeed opposites. Sadie can be critical of Bessie’s fearlessness in certain dangerous situations, and Bessie can be critical of Sadie for keeping the peace when her dignity is in question. But the sisters’ basic values, including duty to their family, race, and country, make the designation of “foil” ring false. Though their approaches are often different, the sisters’ goals are quite similar, and they are both pioneers as black women in their careers.

Bessie begins to confront authority when she is very young. She dips her mug in the “white” side of a segregated spring, paints a white china doll black, sends her friends to protest The Birth of a Nation (a film that expresses racist views), and talks back to aggressive white men. Bessie won’t take anything from anybody. However, she is also much more vulnerable to the abuses of the world than Sadie is. As a child, she comes home weeping after staring down racism so boldly during the day, and later in life, she is timid about leaving home to travel. In the face of old age, Bessie is more susceptible than is Sadie to the blues and to feeling overwhelmed by the side effects of aging, but she feels the possibility of change at the end of her life, just as Sadie does. Bessie never supposed that the world would want to hear the stories of two old black women, and she is happily surprised to learn that it does.

Henry Beard Delany

Sadie and Bessie’s parents are the two most important people in their lives, and Having Our Say is dedicated to them. Their father, Henry, and mother, Nanny, are the driving forces in their lives, and their teachings and way of living are a constant reference point for the younger Delanys. When Sadie and Bessie talk to Hearth, they quote their parents constantly. Henry, born a slave, was a “house slave” before Emancipation. He became a brick mason as a young man in Fernandina Beach, Florida. When the white Episcopal preacher Owen Thackara assisted Henry to go to Saint Augustine’s School in North Carolina, it changed the course of Henry’s life and shaped the lives of his future children.

Henry, whose wife’s father was white and who received help for his education from a white man, could not denounce white people as easily as other blacks could. He was criticized for his “soft” approach on racism, but his daughters appreciate the complexity race issues posed for him. His post as the first elected bishop for the Episcopal Church of the United States was not only a personal achievement but also an achievement for his race. Henry instilled a love of learning and a profound sense of duty in his daughters. Though he is grateful for Thackara’s assistance with his education, he forbids his daughters from ever accepting a scholarship. He wants them to rely on themselves, and his children all work to put themselves through college and graduate school.

Nanny James Logan

The Delanys’ mother is their mentor and, later, their companion. Feisty and determined, Nanny is adored by all her children. When Nanny was growing up, her parents were unable to marry. Virginia state law forbade any person with one-eighth black heritage to marry a white person: her mother was a quarter black. This law, along with Nanny’s pride and sense of identity, led her to a North Carolina school and her marriage to Henry Beard Delany. Nanny herself was only one-eighth black, and she appeared white. If she had children with a white man, even though law would forbid her to marry him, those children would be considered white. Nanny rejected this path, however, and married a dark man whom she loved. Her own parents spent a lifetime devoted to one another, despite the debasing treatment interracial couples received. Nanny was determined to marry—and to marry for love.

Nanny is a feisty woman and does not put up with racist language. Her daughters observe and appreciate her pride. When a man arrives at their house in Raleigh, Nanny will not put up with him addressing her with the derogatory name “auntie.” She encourages her daughters to pursue careers but feels marriage and a career are difficult to balance. Her daughters inherited her passion for cleanliness, a habit that likely grew out of stereotypes about blacks being unclean. Nanny makes sure each of her ten children bathe at night, and her daughters keep an immaculate house and garden, just as they were taught. Each of the Delany children is devoted to Nanny and at her beck and call throughout her long life.

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