Sisters of Another Era
Reviewed by Joanne Grant
Vol. 16, No. 2, 1994, pp. 26-27
Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years, by Sarah and A. Elizabeth Delany; with Amy Hill Hearth (Kodansha, 1994, 210 pages).
Having Our Say is a folksy, feisty tale of growing up black over a hundred years of our tumultuous history of race relations. Told in the voice of two remarkable women, the Delany sisters, now 100 and 102 years old, the book provides easy access to that history and charmingly details their struggle for independence. Because of that facileness it is particularly valuable for giving the young, who, sad to say, know little about the scourge of racism, some insights into the struggle against it.
Though the Delany sisters were sheltered, growing up in a financially secure family and living for many years in the rarefied atmosphere of St. Augustine’s School in Raleigh, North Carolina, where both their parents were employed, they did not completely escape the barbs of racism. Sometimes they succeeded in deflecting them and sometimes they simply went home and cried.
The two women moved to New York to continue their education; both attended Columbia University. Sarah, or Sadie, the elder, earned a master’s degree in 1925 and taught in New York City public schools for over thirty years. Through hard work and grit Sadie became “the first colored teacher in the New York City system to teach
domestic science on the high school level.” A. Elizabeth Delany, or Bessie, became the first black female dentist.
Their achievements did not come without struggle. As Bessie put it: “This race business does get under my skin. I have suffered a lot in my life because of it. If you asked me how I endured it, I would have to say it was because I had a good upbringing. My parents did not encourage me to be bitter.”
The sisters met many leading black figures during their long lives, including Booker T. Washington, Paul Robeson, and the sociologist E. Franklin Frazier. One longs for more details about these relationships, yet the book should entice young readers into further exploration of the contributions made by blacks.
Amy Hill Hearth, who interviewed the sisters and compiled Having Our Say, writes in her introduction: “Their story, as the Delany sisters like to say, is not meant as ‘black’ or ‘women’s’ history, but American history. It belongs to all of us.”
Joanne Grant is the author of Black Protest and director of the documentary film Fundi: The Story of Ella Baker. Her written biography of Ella Baker will be published by John Wiley and Sons.