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.