Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years

Main Ideas

Symbols

Main Ideas Symbols

Home

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

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.