Bessie Delany and Sadie Delany, with Amy Hill Hearth. Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years
Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years, is a remarkable account of the lives/struggles of Bessie and Sadie Delany. It is a female bildungsroman replete with all the growing pains and rites of passages that earmark this literary tradition. After reading the account of their struggle/our struggle to survive in the Americas, I pondered the true significance of this work. The personal history genre which developed from the oral tradition so important in documenting the lives of African Americans in this country took on new meaning for me as I turned the pages reflecting some 200 years of living/loving/laughing by these two sisters. As my mind began absorbing/internalizing their story, I could not help but reflect on the female slave narratives which, in a sense, gave birth to the personal history genre and a resulting voice to so many otherwise unheard African American writers.
Although the Delany sisters did not experience slavery first hand, their account in Having Our Say replicates the structure of the slave narrative juxtaposing the slave's experience in slavery with that of eventual freedom. For the Delany sisters, their story begins with freedom and ends with an understanding of the importance not only of their lives but of all our lives as we struggle to comprehend our raisin d'etre.
The color issue, ever present in this personal history, impacts the lives of the two sisters with a deafening insistence often found in African American literature fiction and non-fiction. To address it here will, hopefully, give it the attention it deserves.
"His crime was his color." This opening statement by Frederick Douglass in one of his impassioned speeches denouncing slavery summarizes the plight of the African American in a reconstructed society. Later, in an article that appeared in the Douglass Paper...the writer comments:
We despise, we almost hate ourselves, and all that favors us. Well may we scoff at black skins and woolly heads, since every mode set before us for admiration has a pallid face and flaxen heath (13)
Another writer in the same journal laments:
The child is taught directly or indirectly that he or she is pretty just in proportion as the features approximate the Anglo Saxon standard. Hence flat noses must be pinched up. Kinky hair must be subjected to a straightening process, and thick lips are puckered up and drawn. (13)
More than one hundred years later, poet Langston Hughes reflected on the prevailing notion of black inferiority and responded in lyrical fashion:
the night is beautiful
so the faces of my people
the stars are beautiful
so the eyes of my people
beautiful also is the sun
beautiful also are the souls of my people. (60)
The opening chapters of Having Our Say provides an introduction to the members of the Delany family complete with a description of their physical attributes including color:
People would look us at Delany children and wonder where in the world this bunch came from. We were very different shades from nearly white to brown sugar. I (Sadie) was one of the lighter children and Bessie was browner. As children, we were aware we were colored but we never gave it a second thought. Papa was dark and Mama was light and so what? It's just the way it was. (10)
Sadie's forthright, philosophical approach to this issue does not, however, reflect the general sentiment of other members of the race. In fact, the acceptance of racial identity is an integral part of the rite of passage of the black female in this society. Her acceptance of racial identity is crucial to her survival in a world which is often hostile to people of color. Once she has accepted this identity, the black female must then learn to navigate through a world permeated by a value structure different from her own and punctuated with a callous disregard for the cultural richness and diversity of its many people. …