I was torn between two issues—colored, and women’s rights. But it seemed to me that no matter how much I had to put up with as a woman, the bigger problem was being colored. People looked at me and the first thing they saw was Negro, not woman.
This quotation, which appears in Part V, “Harlem-Town,’ Chapter 2, is one of Bessie’s reflections. As a professional woman, Bessie frequently faces discrimination. She cannot attend New York University’s dental school because she is a woman, and many patients refuse to see a female dentist. The civil rights movement breeds its own form of sexism, a frustrating irony for an activist such as Bessie. When she graduates from Columbia’s dental school, none of her classmates want to walk beside a black woman during the graduation ceremony—they feel it would be embarrassing. Though the day women gain the right to vote is one of the happiest days of Bessie’s life, she judges that racism has been the greater obstacle to overcome. Though women and blacks face many of the same problems, such as struggling for the right to vote and to follow career paths of their own choosing, not all women have to face the routine degradations of the Jim Crow laws. These laws control everything from the restaurants where black people may eat to the textbooks they may read. Bessie attends many protests to gain rights for blacks, and her career and her life in general advance the causes of both black and women’s rights.
Those were hard times, after slavery days. Much of the South was scarred by the Civil War and there wasn’t much food or supplies among the whites, let alone the Negroes. Most of the slaves, when they were freed, wandered about the countryside like shell-shocked soldiers.
In Part II, “I Am Free!” midway through Chapter 5, Bessie and Sadie reflect on the lives of former slaves. This quotation provides important context for their father’s struggle to improve his situation and that of his family. Like veterans of a war scarred by the horrors of battle, black Americans have a similar experience under slavery. During slavery, as in war, the basic laws governing human society, including the humane and respectful treatment of others, are removed. Many people are permanently damaged from this dehumanizing experience and have difficulty finding a place for themselves in the impoverished South. Some have never known a home besides their owner’s. Culot, with her inability to throw anything away, and Uncle Jessie, in the dilapidated shack at Saint Aug’s, both exemplify the struggle to cope after slavery. Because Henry Delany is only seven years old when the Civil War ends slavery and because his family is literate, he avoids the “shell shock” experienced by many others. Though Henry emerges from slavery with nothing but his family, the ability to read, and the shirt on his back, he is considered highly privileged, compared with many in his situation.
Jim Crow made it an even bigger stigma to be colored, and any hope of equality between the races came to a grinding halt. Papa used to say that real equality would come as Negroes became more educated and owned their own land. Negroes had to support each other, he used to say.
This quotation appears in Part IV, “Jim Crow Days,” at the end of Chapter 10. Sadie and Bessie reflect on their earliest encounters with Jim Crow. Though on a certain level, the young girls know they are treated as second-class citizens before they encounter the laws first-hand, the laws offer confirmation. Before the laws become common practice in 1896, the girls are aware that their grandparents on their mother’s side, an interracial couple, are not married. Bessie senses the hostility of racist rebby boys before she encounters institutionalized racism. But when the girls are sent to the back of a trolley car and denied service at their limeade counter, there is no longer any question about blacks gaining respect. Even their parents cannot contest these laws. Their situation moves their father to believe even more strongly in the power of education and self-reliance. He feels that if blacks succeed despite obstacles, they can wear down the laws over time. In a few decades, others, including his daughter Bessie, will take a more aggressive approach to toppling the Jim Crow laws.
Somebody asked us if we remembered seeing the Statue of Liberty as we pulled into the harbor. Tell you the truth, we didn’t care too much about it. The Statue of Liberty was important to white European immigrants. It was a symbol to them. We knew it wasn’t meant for us.
This quotation, which appears at the beginning of Chapter 15, Part V, “Harlem-Town,” is Sadie and Bessie’s shared thought on pulling into the New York City harbor for the first time, in 1915. The Statue of Liberty is the beacon of hope and possibility for thousands of new Americans from Europe, but the Delany sisters feel she does not represent a welcome to black Americans. The United States is ashamed of slavery, but there is still a strong belief in the inferiority of black citizens. Whites do not want to be reminded of their shameful past, and many are uncomfortable living side by side with blacks. European immigrants are white, poor, and eager for whatever the United States has to offer. Black Southerners, however, know the United States well already and are mistrustful of the Statue of Liberty’s welcome. Though racism is more veiled in the North, the Delany sisters are rightfully wary of its symbols of opportunity. Though the sisters love America, they are well aware that America has not always loved them back.
The whites resented the Negroes taking over Harlem, but eventually all of them had to serve Negroes—including at those white-owned restaurants—or go out of business, because after a while there was nobody left but Negroes. White folks had run out of Harlem like fleas from a dead dog.
Bessie’s words appear midway through Chapter 21, Part V, “Harlem-Town.” In the 1920s, the “New Negro,” an empowered and educated urban black person, is beginning to emerge. Jim Crow is still in force in the South, but blacks are already staging sit-ins at Harlem lunch counters and making their voices heard. This quotation reveals both the power that blacks are beginning to wield in some cities and also the fear whites have for them. Though Harlem is a popular nightspot for whites, many do not want blacks as their neighbors. Rather than adjusting to newly integrated neighborhoods, whites flee Harlem in the 1920s. Ironically, the black population, with its jazz artists and celebrated verve, is what attracts tourists and businesses to the area, although the white business owners who benefit from increased activity in the area continue to treat blacks like second-class citizens. Steady progress is made, however, and Bessie and others speak out when they perceive injustice. Slowly, discriminatory business practices are exposed, and shops are pressured into changing their policies.