Study Guide

Bessie in Having Our Say

By Sarah and A. Elizabeth Delany with Amy Hill Hearth

Bessie

For some crazy reason, Bessie Delany doesn't think she's getting into heaven. Puh-leaze. In fact, we'd argue that her thinking that she's a bad person is exactly why she's such a good one.

To be honest, we can see where Bessie is coming from. She's a bit gruffer, a bit rougher, and a bit more outspoken than her sister Sadie. Since they're both quite elegant ladies—raised in a strict household—you can understand why she'd think that this makes her a bad person. But honey (as Bessie would say), she doesn't know how wrong she is.

Doing the Math

Let's break down the reasons why Bessie thinks she's not getting into heaven:

  • She's more outspoken than her sister, especially when it comes to racism.
  • She flaunts laws that she disagrees with, like when she "took the dipper from the white" fountain "and drank from it" when "nobody was looking." (4.10.8)
  • She's criticizes people who she believes don't support the community, making a point to "walk through Harlem and scold any N**** eating a Hershey bar" because Hershey didn't hire black employees. (5.17.7)

Stop right there. From our modern eyes, it's clear that Bessie was brave and—more important—just in every action she took. To say she was wrong would be like saying that Gandhi was a bad person because his nonviolent protests broke the law.

So let's flip this thing on its head and look at the reasons why Queen Bess will end up in heaven, or Valhalla, or the Palace of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or whatever it is you kids are into these days:

  • She "would take any patient, no matter how sick" during a time when hygiene practices were less foolproof than they are today. (5.19.10)
  • She's generous to her needy patients, often going without so they can have.
  • She sacrifices her career—which she has worked for her entire life—to take care of her mother.

Sounds like a shoo-in to us.

Playing the Part

In fact, we'd argue—and by golly we're gonna—-that Bessie's harsh self-criticism is evidence why she's a better person than most. See, the Delanys are a super-conservative family at heart: they are "good citizens" who "loved [their] country even though it didn't love [them] back" (3.8.25) Despite her feisty attitude (inherited, no doubt, from James Miliam and Martha Logan), Bessie is a conservative lady too.

The truth is that Bessie isn't quite as tough as she wants us to believe. Think about the day that she almost gets lynched; she doesn't refuse to move because she's unafraid, but because she "realized that [her] best chance was to act like nothing was happening (4.14.37). We see this again at Columbia when she dissects her first cadaver, using her skills as a "great actress" to convince her classmates that she was "born to do it" despite being a "wreck" inside (5.17.18,20).

So trust us Bessie—you're going to get in just fine.