Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years
Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
The Power of Naming and Name-Calling
Throughout Having Our Say, naming both degrades and offers respect. Nanny and Henry Delany refer to each other by their last names, even in front of family, because they want to teach their children and others to respect themselves and their race. During slavery, whites use derogatory words to refer to blacks, and blacks are not generally allowed to keep their last names. Rather, they adopt the last name of their owner. The Delany parents know the significance of a name and resist the racist vocabulary of their youth. When Nanny Delany tells a white traveler not to call her “auntie,” her daughters perceive her dignity and learn the importance of naming. Each of the Delany children takes the name of somebody their parents respected, and the advancement of blacks and their sense of identity hinges on their power to name themselves.
The Pursuit of Education
The drive to seek an education shapes Sadie and Bessie’s lives more than any other factor, and they pursue it as part of what they see as their duty to the black race, to family, and to their own talents. Early on, Henry Delany instills in his daughters the notion that education is a necessity. Many people at the turn of the twentieth century view education as the key to the improvement of black life, but because choosing higher education and a professional career is atypical for women at this time, particularly black women, Sadie and Bessie are unique. People do not see marriage and children as being compatible with a career, and the sisters give up these things to become educated and improve the lot of both blacks and women. As black women, they are pioneers at many institutions of higher learning, and their presence and outstanding performance open doors for those who would follow.
The Prevalence of Racism and Sexism
Obstacles block the paths Sadie and Bessie must travel as professional black women. Time and time again, the women meet laws or individuals that stop them from moving forward. The Jim Crow laws debase them from the time they are young girls, and New York University prohibits Bessie from enrolling in the dentistry program because she is a woman. Sadie has to outsmart the New York school system, which does not want black teachers in the classroom with white students. Even as centenarians, the women continue to battle society’s reluctance to give blacks and women a fair chance at reaching their goals. The sisters realize from a young age that these obstacles simply mean that they’ll have to be the best at what they do. They excel persistently, and their struggle to succeed despite the odds is at the heart of Having Our Say.
Shades of Black and White
Every story the Delany sisters tell is interpreted through a color lens. During the Jim Crow days, black and white are literally separated, and this divide is at the forefront of Having Our Say. Sadie and Bessie’s multiracial family makes them highly aware of the significance of shades of color, and some siblings are treated better than others due to their lighter skin tone. American history, with its powerful legacy of racism, makes sense only with careful reference to shades of black and white, and the sisters insert color markers into every story. They are not comfortable describing themselves as “black,” just as they are not comfortable describing themselves as “African Americans.” They believe their Americanness overrules their African heritage and that black does not account for the subtlety of shading that has played such a significant role in their lives. To understand a story, they feel, a solid understanding of people’s blackness and whiteness is necessary.
The rebby boys, a term that encompasses all prejudiced whites, are obstacles Sadie and Bessie must confront again and again in their lives. Rebby boys appear in the narrative for the first time when Bessie is a small child and does not yet know how to retaliate. Some whites make fun of her petticoat, which has slipped down, and though she is very young, Bessie senses that their remarks are racist. The sisters confront racism with greater frequency and confidence as they grow older. Rebby boys come in all forms, and even one of Sadie’s white, female co-workers, who brushes her off in front of other whites, falls into the rebby category. Institutions such as the U.S. army and the New York City school board also exhibit rebby behavior. When rebbies gather outside the Delany sisters’ home in Mount Vernon to sell drugs, Sadie goes outside to confront them directly. Throughout their lives, Sadie and Bessie are strong opponents of the rebby boys, most of whom they outlive.
The physical separation of whites and blacks during the Jim Crow era leaves a deep impression on the Delany sisters, especially because their family is mixed. The first time the sisters encounter the Jim Crow laws is on a trolley car, when they are sent to the back. When Henry Delany gives a sermon as bishop at a white church, his family is relegated to the balcony, which had formerly been quarters reserved for slaves. Inferior seating for blacks, just like demeaning language, sends a strong message that black people are second-class citizens. This message creates discomfort for Nanny Delany especially, who appears white but would rather sit in the Jim Crow car on the train, where she feels comfortable. The seating arrangement of the Delany sisters and Hearth during the interviewing process reflects a positive change in terms of seating arrangements. The women sit across from one another at the Delanys’ kitchen table, remembering and leaving behind a legacy of segregation.
For Sadie and Bessie, home is more than just four walls and a roof. Home represents safety and order, two things often lacking on the other side of their door. Though they never allow fear of a segregated world full of rebby boys to keep them inside, the sisters need to know they have a place that is all their own, no matter where that home may be. In Mount Vernon, the sisters are particular about who they let into their home, and they screen potential visitors by calling out the window. Home also means being together. Though Sadie likes the West Coast, she would never consider moving there without Bessie—home is where her sister is. The Delanys treat their home as an extension of themselves, and they fight stereotypes of black families bringing down neighborhoods by keeping the best home and garden in town. Home is both a haven and a point of pride.
The Painted China Doll
The china dolls the missionaries from New England give Bessie and Sadie represent that era’s status quo, because no black dolls are available for sale at this time. When Bessie paints her doll to reflect her own brown color, she reveals how comfortable she is in her own skin. The painted doll also represents forward movement. Though it will be many years before a commercial doll such as the one Bessie creates hits the market, Bessie’s doll reveals the need for representations of black people in every area of life. Bessie is a child and needs a black doll, but there is also a need for black politicians, doctors, and artists. Painting the doll’s face is Bessie’s attempt to remedy the underrepresentation of blacks in American society.
Halley’s Comet, which the sisters observe for the first time in 1910, represents hope for their young generation. In 1910, Sadie is twenty-one and Bessie is nineteen, and life is before them. Women will not get the vote for another ten years, and the Jim Crow laws are on the rise, but the Delany family is a force to be reckoned with. The comet, bright and beautiful in 1910, represents the drive and possibility of a new generation of blacks who have inherited their parents’ passion for education and commitment to pushing through the barriers of segregation. In a way, their father, an amateur astronomer, gives his children the gift of the future by showing them Halley’s Comet. Though he suspects that none of his children will be alive to witness the comet’s next appearance in 1986, Sadie and Bessie defy his expectations and see it for the second time. The fact that it is less dazzling the second time seems fitting. The sisters are near the ends of their lives, and new generations must find their own symbol of hope and possibility.
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