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Delany Sisters' First 100 Years" by Sarah and A. Elizabeth Delany with Amy Hill Hearth. Specifically, it will contain a report on the book. The Delany sisters had remarkable lives and lived through some of the most volatile and yet progressive times in America. They saw the remnants of slavery, the Jim Crow laws, and the realization of Civil Rights during their lifetimes, and much more. Their book is a chronicle of what it was like to be black in America, before and after blacks gained their rights. It is also a moving account of strength, character, and style.
The Delany sisters are two remarkable members of a remarkable family by any standards, black or white. Their father was born a slave but rose to be the first black elected Episcopal bishop in the country, and the vice president of a leading Southern college. Both the sisters attended college and obtained their degrees, at a time when even white women were not attending college in great numbers. They saw a great deal of American history and recorded it for posterity. Their story is more than a black narrative; it is a history (sometimes shameful) that applies to all Americans.
Bessie and Sadie Delany grew up in Raleigh, Nouth Carolina, and lived at the school where her father was the vice principal, Saint Augustine's. It was a "Negro" school, and it is where both sisters got their education. The book follows their lives, which were interesting enough, but the book is really a look back in history to a time when people were not equal, and how it affected lives. Bessie and Sadie were actually quite sheltered from many of the prejudices prevalent in the South at the time, but as they grew older, they became more aware of what was happening around them, and more aware of how to change things. As the authors note, "The Civil War had ended in 1865, but white America was not ready to surrender its belief in Negro inferiority, the rationale that had helped create the institution of slavery" (Delany et. al. 22). The Delany sisters were only one generation removed from slavery, and so they had a very unique perspective of their one hundred years in America, and that is one of the things that helps make this book so interesting and readable. People of their age saw the invention of the automobile, the airplane, two world wars, numerous deaths, and a man walk on the moon, all in their lifetime. It is difficult to comprehend such advances in one lifetime, and yet people like the Delany sisters managed to take it in stride.
The book is a mixture of the actual reminisces of the two sisters, and narrative about their family. The mixture helps the flow of the book, and helps the reader get a clearer picture of just what these two sisters lived through in their long lives. The two sisters memories are written pretty much as they remembered them, in a stream of consciousness type of writing, while the narrative is written in a more formal style. This also helps unravel some of the family connections that the sisters understand perfectly, but are a little hazy to the reader, because there are so many members of the family, and they go back so many generations. There memories of family also include some poignant reminisces of the difficulties their relatives faced. For example, their mother's mother and father were never married, because he was white and she was black. They remember, "They weren't legally married but they lived like man and wife for fifty years and didn't part until death" (Delany et. al. 30). Their memories are a look back in history, but they are also a sad reminder of just how difficult it has been to be black in America for many centuries.
It is clear the authors' main purpose in writing this book was to remember history, and to put down these memories on paper before the two Delany sisters died. Their memories still seem clear and sharp, and their stories are interesting, sometimes funny, and sometimes sad. There is another compelling reason for writing this book, however, and that is to chronicle what has not often been told, about life after the Civil War for the freed slaves. The sisters remember how hard it was for their father's family to survive after the war, and how many Blacks were simply begging, or became sharecroppers, little more than freed slaves to the white landowners. Blacks found it difficult to get an education and better themselves, even though they were free. The authors note, "Many white people clung to the belief that black people were incapable of being educated" (Delany et. al. 39). That may seem difficult to understand today, but at the time, it seemed absolutely normal, and that makes it all the more frightening. This is not a dark book by any means, but it could have been, had the authors not been able to laugh at themselves, and at their past. They could have made this an angry and frightening book with their memories of the past, but they chose not to, although Bessie does admit early in the book that she has a hard time forgetting past insults and still holds grudges against some of the whites who treated her badly.
Throughout the book, the sisters speak of their experiences matter of factly, without bitterness or remorse, but some of their memories are hard to read, and to think about. The sisters say, "Hunger was a big problem for the former slaves all year long" (Delany et. al. 46). They do not make a social comment about this; they simply remember it as a fact of life at the time. Sadly, their memories make it seem as if it were far too common, and that most people didn't care if the former slaves starved or not. While the book is about growing up black in a white country, there are also many things in the book that are simply American, and know no color boundaries. Bessie and Sadie grew up in a loving and caring family, and their parents were never too busy for them. Sadie remembers, "Mama and Papa were two of the busiest people I ever knew, but they always had time for us. They made time for us!" (Delany et. al. 48). Families were more close knit then, and the Delany sisters' experience is normal for the time, when families were closer, and parents took more time with their children. Their experiences show that underneath all the racism and hatred, that there is really very little difference between a black family and a white family, it is just how they were treated and the opportunities they had that made them different. It also shows how people, no matter their color, can rise up over adversity, and live good and decent lives.
There are strengths and weaknesses to this book, as with just about any book. One of the biggest strengths of the book is the sisters' own very distinct personalities that come through in their stories. It is easy to see why these women lived so long. They are feisty, funny, and strong, and they have a wonderful outlook on life. In fact, Bessie remembers, "We were good citizens, good Americans! We loved our country, even though it didn't love us back" (Delany et. al. 60). This is another important strength of the book. The sisters never wallow in self-pity. They do not want the reader to feel sorry for them, they want the reader to understand they faced hardships, but so did everyone. They don't feel sorry for themselves, they are proud of themselves, as they should be. The book does not present them as heroes, either, but as real people living real lives. This book could have built them up too much and tried to make them saints, but it kept a good balance, and so the reader gets a more balanced final opinion. As Sadie wryly notes, "I never let prejudice stop me from what I wanted to do in this life" (Delany et. al 72). Thus, the story is about courage as much as it is about history, and how courage can get people through anything.
There are weaknesses, however. Sometimes the sisters' reminisces seem to go on too long, and are too bathed in a rosy glow that many years have created. Bessie seems a bit more bitter than Sadie, and she admits it. However, there is another weakness to the book, and that is that the sisters often drop names of some of the famous people they met as they grew older and moved to New York. This seems to take away from their own experiences somehow, as if they think these other people's experiences and lives were more important than their own, and that takes away from their story. It is clear they admired…[continue]
American History? The technique of oral history, sampling the life of one person or several people to gain a portrait of the era is deployed in a uniquely effective fashion in Having Our Say. Simply by virtue of their longevity, the Delaney sisters had lives that intersected with the most seismic national and international events that shook the 20th century, including the American civil rights movement, the Great Depression, as
Their own father had distinct memories of being freed as a slave. He became an Episcopal Bishop and made his children very cognizant of the value of education, given the advantages his schooling had given him, compared to other freed slaves. At St. Augustine's where the sisters were undergraduates Sadie even met Booker T. Washington, in another brush with history. For a woman to drive a car was extraordinary
(55) This instilled in the Delany sisters a strong sense of family resulting in their lifelong bond as sisters, who lived together and supported one another through their entire lives. As a family the Delany's formed a band, all ten children playing an instrument led by their father who was an accomplished organ player. All of these factors, in addition to the wise and simple pronouncements from their parents
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