Can you think of a more straightforward title for a book than Having Our Say?
Bessie expresses surprise that anyone "would be interested in hearing what two old Negro women have to say" (7.32.19). Of course, that's crazy—their family's unique experience makes them witness to some of the most important events in American history. Regardless, Sadie and Bessie seem more than happy to relive their glory days, hard times, and greatest triumphs for our reading pleasure.
Because Having Our Say is structured as a loose memoir rather than a novel, there is no giant climactic event that sews everything up—no crazy action scene or self-revelation or pizza party or anything.
On the surface, it ends the same way it began—with Sadie and Bessie Delany, now old women, living a simple life in the suburbs of Mount Vernon, NY. What a rollicking good time. But this surface-level analysis misses all the good stuff under the surface, as if you ordered a piece of chocolate pie but only ate the crust. Like, are you insane?
You see, the final two chapters show that Sadie and Bessie are becoming a bit more like each other. First we see Sadie stand up to a bunch of gang-affiliated kids who are loitering outside their house, which is usually a task for Bodacious Bessie. Similarly, we see Bessie changing too, softening a tad and bringing her a bit closer to her sister's live-and-let-live mentality.
This reaffirms the fact that each sister is the other's "reason to keep living" (7.32.4). We can talk about the book's take on racism, classism, politics, and American history until the cows come home (and take a little nap, and then hit up Starbucks, and then go back to work, and then…) but the core of the book is the bond between these two maiden ladies. It's only fitting, then, that we close this epic-sized family history with an ode to two sisters who were always there for each other.
Two classy young women move from their sheltered life in North Carolina to the hustle and bustle of New York City—sounds like the plot of a classic fish-out-of-water sitcom. As you might imagine, the dissonance between these two settings help shape Sadie and Bessie into the maiden ladies we come to love.
That's not to say that the sisters had your average Southern upbringing. They grew up on the campus of St. Aug's College, which makes "reading and writing and thinking [...] as natural [...] as sleeping and eating" (2.7.7). This was a sheltered life in many respects, especially given their parents' strictness. Similarly, the girls remained isolated from the most malicious forms of racism in liberal Raleigh—at least until the passing of the Jim Crow law.
Jim Crow, in case you don't know, was a series of racial segregation laws first enacted in the late 1800s. Although there were plenty of racially discriminatory laws before this time, Jim Crow enforced new, radical forms of institutionalized racism, banning black Americans from using the same restaurants, schools, public spaces, and even water fountains as white Americans. These laws—which are "mighty puzzling" to the sisters—open Sadie and Bessie up to the reality of racism in America (4.11.7)
The other thing that bursts their protective bubble is their time teaching throughout the South. Although the girls aren't rich by any means, they never realize how well-off they are until seeing conditions throughout the South. Poverty is rampant, diseases are common, and their community remains woefully uneducated. Now, more than ever, the kids understand why their dad says that they "owe it to [their] nation, [their] race, and [themselves] to go" to college (4.13.4)
The sisters' quest to better themselves leads them to Harlem, NYC, which was in the midst of a cultural movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. This scene was led by writers like Langston Hughes and James Baldwin, political activists like W.E.B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey, and musicians like Billie Holiday. These artistic heavy-hitters strive to create a new cultural identity for black Americans and end up influencing countless artists that follow, from rappers and jazz musicians to poets and filmmakers.
Although the sisters decide to move to Harlem to attend college, there's little doubt that the sheer energy of the place is what makes them fall in love with the neighborhood. Sure, they might have to adjust their small-town ways a bit, but they quickly settle in and make themselves at home.
The sisters experience some tumultuous historical events while living in NYC, like the Great Depression, World War II, and Civil Rights Movement. They see their community through the best of times and the worst of times, always applying that Delany know-how to helping those less-well-off. Although their lives eventually take them to Mount Vernon, a quaint suburb with a gorgeous "view of the New York City skyline," they never forget what it feels like to take a night out on the town in Harlem or watch all its interesting characters go about their business (7.32.7).
As an oral history of sorts, Having Our Say maintains an easy-to-follow, conversational tone. There are plenty of minor family members to keep track of, but this rarely becomes an issue.
Throughout Having Our Say, we are shown two different approaches to dealing with racism. Let's call them "Good Cop, Bad Cop."
The "Good Cops" are those who prefer to beat racism through exceptionalism. This is a humble approach, focusing on education, accumulation of wealth, and community support. You can count Sadie and Henry—along with political figures like Booker T. Washington—as die-hard "Good Cops."
"Bad Cops," on the other hand, are those who aren't willing to put up with injustice. While "Good Cops" might be willing to ignore discrimination in the hopes of moving past it, "Bad Cops" refuse to be the type of person "who would let white people push him around" (5.21.21). We'd label Sadie and Nanny as "Bad Cops"—W.E.B. Du Bois is a great example of a political figure who takes this approach as well.
As we've learned from every Law and Order episode ever, you have to have both a Good Cop and a Bad Cop to make a difference in the world. On one hand, education is quite possibly the most important part of the growth of a community. On the other, you'll never stop being pushed around unless you stand up for yourself every once in a while. To his credit, Henry realizes this, saying, "We need leaders like [Du Bois], he is good for our people. But we can't all be like him" (5.21.20).
Although there's a great deal of tension between these two viewpoints within Having Our Say, both are necessary for the growth of the black community.
Sadie's career teaching domestic science is the perfect representation of her approach to life.
Like her father, Sadie is driven by a desire to help her people. A life enslaved does not prepare one for life in American society, and many of these former slaves (and children of former slaves) don't have the tools they need to succeed. Not everyone was as lucky as Henry Delany, who learned to read and write from a young age. But it's not all about literacy: "oftentimes, learning to read and write for the children was not the top priority" (4.13.13).
Sadie wants to give the people who "weren't raised properly themselves" the tools they need to live good lives, and a good life usually starts in the home (5.22.5). It's not the flashiest way to make a difference, and it certainly won't get you on the cover of Time Magazine, but Sadie isn't interested in that. She's interested in helping her generation—and the generations that follow—attain better lives for themselves.
Like Sadie's career teaching domestic science, Bessie's career as a dentist is the perfect fit for her personality.
Dentistry was a hard career for a person of color to break into, much less a woman. Although Bessie is intimidated from the get-go, she plays the part of a "great actress" and acts like nothing fazes her (5.17.20). That's a classic Bessie move, right there.
Similarly, her approach to the actual practice of dentistry reveals further insight into her character. Although some are skeptical of this female dentist, Bessie proves herself to be full-hearted in her love for her patients and blessed with a "gentle touch" (5.19.9). As with all things involving Bessie, you just have to make it past the tough exterior to get to the warm, fuzzy goodness underneath.