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.