Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years

Main Ideas

Key Facts

Main Ideas Key Facts

full title Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years

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

type of work Oral history

genre Nonfiction; dual memoir; American history

language English

time and place written White Plains, New York; 19911993

date of first publication 1993

publisher Kodansha America

narrator Amy Hill Hearth offers a preface and provides contextual information at the opening of each of the book’s seven parts. Sadie and Bessie Delany are sometimes the sole narrators and sometimes the combined narrators of chapters.

point of view

 · In her preface, Amy Hill Hearth speaks in the first person, establishing her relationship with the Delany sisters and her role in the book. In her informational section introductions, she uses the third person.
 · The Delany sisters use the first person singular when they narrate their own chapters. When they are co-narrators of a chapter, they use the first person plural. The sisters’ narratives are valuable for their subjectivity. Sometimes Sadie and Bessie see matters of history in the same light, and at other times they see things quite differently. Hearth’s historical footnotes and section introductions allow readers to read objectively and to appreciate the power of the Delany sisters’ points of view.


 · Amy Hill Hearth is sympathetic to the points of view of the Delany sisters. This is evident in her preface, though not in the strictly objective and journalistic information that she subtly inserts into the sisters’ narratives.
 · The tone of both Sadie and Bessie Delany is conversational and accessible. They both speak with pride about their history, and both have lively senses of humor. Whereas Sadie’s tone is calm and even, Bessie can become angry when discussing past and present injustice.

tense Primarily the past tense. When the sisters discuss current events or their daily routine, they use the present tense.

setting (time) 18891991

setting (place) Hearth conducted the interviews with the Delany sisters at their home in Mount Vernon, New York. Their story takes them from Raleigh, North Carolina, to Harlem in New York City, to Mount Vernon.

protagonist Sarah (Sadie) L. Delany and A. Elizabeth (Bessie) Delany

major conflict The Delany sisters are born into a southern black family at the end of the nineteenth century, a time when racist views are deeply entrenched and dangerous. They must come of age and fulfill their dreams while fighting the mindset and institutions that would deter them.

rising action The Delany parents try to shield their children from racist views, but Sadie and Bessie meet racist whites, whom they call the “rebby boys,” and are aware that their maternal grandparents, a white man and a black woman, cannot marry.

climax Sadie and Bessie encounter the Jim Crow laws on a family picnic to Pullen Park in Raleigh. When the trolley driver tells them to move to the back of the car, the young girls experience institutionalized racism for the first time. This is a climax sustained throughout the narrative, as the women continue to face discrimination in different ways. Their treatment only strengthens their resolve to be successful in their careers.

falling action Sadie and Bessie combat racism in different ways, though both do so persistently and with great determination. Sadie goes quietly and deftly about attaining whatever goal she sets herself, while Bessie speaks up loudly on behalf of herself and others whenever she observes any injustice. By sheer force of will, it seems, the Delany sisters have outlived the rebby boys.

themes The power of naming and name-calling; the pursuit of education; the prevalence of racism and sexism

motifs Shades of black and white; rebby boys; seating arrangements

symbols Home; the painted china doll; Halley’s Comet


 · Bessie encounters the discriminatory Jim Crow laws for the first time at Pullen Park when she is five years old. The spring where she always went for a drink is now divided into a black side and a white side. Bessie dips her cup into the white side, foreshadowing her later reactions to racism. Though Sadie finds Bessie’s overt defiance dangerous, Bessie stands up to racist behavior many times. As an adult, she confronts a drunken white man in a Georgia railway station and is nearly lynched, recalling the incident at the spring in Pullen Park.
 · In Raleigh, Sadie deals with racist law in more subtle ways than Bessie. At a shoe store, she “plays dumb” when the owner tries to direct her to the back of the store. Eventually he lets her sit where she likes. This incident foreshadows how she will attain her position as a high school teacher at a New York City high school. She is an expert at working around the system without causing a stir.