Study Guide

Having Our Say Quotes

  • Old Age

    We've buried so many people we've loved; that is the hard part of living this long. Most everyone we know has turned to dust. (1.1.6)

    Yep, we're starting things off with a bummer. On one hand, it's great to live a long time; on the other, it must be an awfully lonely experience at times. Luckily, the sisters still have each other.

    When people ask me how we've lived past one hundred, I say, "Honey, we never married. We never had husbands to worry us to death!" (1.4.2)

    Although Bessie plays this off like a joke, there's truth to what she says—there's no telling how much extra stress a man would bring to her life. Plus, the sisters don't need husbands as long as they have each other.

    We avoid hospitals because, honey, they'll kill you there. They overtreat you [...] Most of the time they don't even treat you like a person, just an object (1.4.9)

    The sisters prefer their own down-home remedies to the dehumanization of the modern medical system. Hey—can't argue with the results.

    Funny thing is, some days I feel like a young girl and other days I'm feeling the grave. (1.4.12)

    Some days are good and some are bad. But that's a heck of a lot better than feeling like an old lady all of the time, so we're going to consider this one a win.

    Papa said, "I don't think any of us will be here to see Halley's Comet the next time it comes around." Well [...] Bessie and I saw it again and it wasn't as good the second time. (3.8.19)

    Again, we see how the loss of loved ones can make life less pleasant. This must be especially hard for the sisters, as they were once so close with their family. That being said, this passage puts just how long the sisters have lived into perspective.

    Mama also kept losing her pension check. She started hiding it, and then she couldn't find it. And she wouldn't like to admit that she had lost it. (6.27.21)

    The sisters get their first glimpse into their future when their mom moves in with them. To be honest, we could totally see Bessie doing this exact same thing—pride is one powerful emotion.

    When you get real old, honey, you realize there are certain things that just don't matter anymore. [...] There's a saying: Only little children and old folks tell the truth. (6.28.12)

    Isn't that the truth? Once you're old enough, you've earned your right to speak your mind without fear. Kids, on the other hand, simply haven't developed the mind-to-mouth filter that society demands of adults.

    Bessie says that for the first time in my life, I seemed to come into my own, as an individual person. I was sixty-seven years old. (6.29.4)

    Don't think that Sadie is done growing just because she's old—in many ways, she doesn't truly become herself until her mother's death. Talk about a late bloomer.

    Truth is, we forget we're old. This happens all the time. (7.31.3)

    The sisters are wild for their age, singing, dancing, and laughing 'til the break of dawn. But even they can't go on forever.

    You know, when you are this old, you don't know if you're going to wake up in the morning. But I don't worry about dying, and neither does Bessie. We are at peace (7.31.24)

    Sadie and Bessie have made peace with death. Maybe it's because they've experienced so much death in their personal lives—maybe it's simply because they know that it's inevitable. Frankly, they just seem grateful that they've been around for so long!

  • Race

    Sometimes I am angry at all white people, until I stop and think of the nice white people I have known in my life [...] And my own mother is part white, and I can't hate my own flesh and blood! (1.2.7)

    Despite what the powers-that-be want us to believe, race is a pretty complicated thing. As we'll soon see, the Delanys aren't the only ones of mixed racial descent—they're just willing to acknowledge it.

    Why, colored folks built this country, and that is the truth. We were the laborers, honey! And even after we were freed, we were the backbone of this country (1.2.10)

    No matter where you fall on racial politics, no one can deny that America was built on slave labor. Isn't it crazy that a country would oppress the same people who helped make it great?

    It's been harder for me, partly because I'm darker than she is, and the darker you are, honey, the harder it is. (1.2.12)

    Throughout the book, we see countless instances of skin tone affecting the perception of racial identity. As we'll see later, this dynamic can be seen in both the black and white communities.

    Oppressed people have a good sense of humor. Think of the Jews. They know how to laugh, and to laugh at themselves! Well, we colored folks are the same way. We colored folk are survivors. (1.4.5)

    There's no doubt that the Delanys have been shaped by the racism they experienced—it has made them stronger, more determined, and more humble. Bessie likens this to the way that the Jewish community adapted to the many struggles it experienced, often channeling their trauma into laughter.

    All these white folks who thought they were above Negroes, well, many of them were not pure white! Some knew it, some didn't. But colored people could always pick them out. (4.12.4)

    It was once common for non-white people with light skin to "pass" as white, although no one in the Delany family would ever stoop to such lows. To be honest, there were plenty of other people passing as white without even knowing it.

    In New York, there were Irish people, German people, Jewish people, Italian people, and so on. So many different white people! (5.15.4)

    In the South, there were clear racial lines: there were Natives, white people, and black people. Things were more complicated up North, but that doesn't necessarily mean they're more equal.

    In Jamaica, there were two official classes of Negroes: white Negroes and black Negroes. The white Negroes were higher class and had more privileges in society (5.25.8)

    Looks like there's plenty of racism within the black community too. If we were to wager a guess why that is, we'd place it on the legacy of the fact that light skin was (and still is) more favored by white society.

    David Duke doesn't think there are Negroes like me and Sadie, colored folks who have never done nothin' except contribute to America. Well, I'm just as good an American as he is—better! (5.25.34)

    In case you don't remember, David Duke was a former KKK member and one-time presidential candidate. Yikes. Could any sane person argue that he's a better person than even the worst Delany?

    They would complain about [...] the way that Negro children would play in the street [...] It was the little things, like that, little cultural differences, that were the source of tension. (7.30.12)

    Most of the time when people talk about race, they're really talking about culture and class and blowing those things way out of proportion. It's these small and ultimately meaningless differences that drive people apart.

    Truth is, I never thought I'd see the day when people would be interested in hearing what two old Negro women have to say. Life still surprises me. (7.31.19)

    Bessie is more than willing to call out the racial problems of the modern era, but it's at least encouraging that she can speak out in the pages of this book. That's something that was never afforded to her ancestors, and she's not going to let this opportunity slip out of her fingers.

  • Principles

    My father would usually call my mother [...] Mrs. Delany in front of everyone [...] But the reason they did this is that colored people were always called by their first names in that era. It was a way of treating them with less dignity (1.1.8)

    Henry is smart enough to see the subtle ways that white people degrade black people and strong-willed enough to fight them. That's a great combo, because it allows him to raise his children free of the more invisible (and insidious) forms of prejudice of the time.

    The world is a puzzling place today. All these banks sending us credit cards, with our names on them. Well, we didn't order any credit cards! We don't spend what we don't have. (1.3.7)

    You can bet your iPhone that the extravagances of the modern world don't make any sense to our principled sisters. Even at 100+ years of age, they still live by their father's code of thrift, discipline, and self-sufficiency.

    We were good citizens, good Americans! We loved our country, even though it didn't love us back. (3.8.25)

    The key to the Delanys' code of ethics is that they are good people, end of story. Can anyone really argue with that?

    Papa really had that good old American spirit. He believed in individuality, but at the same time, he was dedicated to the community. (4.10.12)

    It's both sad and beautiful that a man who was born into slavery has such a strong sense of the American Dream. In the end, it is this full-hearted belief that keeps him and his family on the right path.

    Mama and Papa tried to protect us, but the real world was out there, and they couldn't shelter us forever. (4.12.12)

    Of course, there have to be downsides to the strict Delany code, a sheltered upbringing ranking high among them. But that's a small price to pay for the benefits, if you ask us.

    But as my Papa used to say, "Don't ever give up. Remember, they can segregate you, but they can't control your mind. Your mind's still yours." (5.17.22)

    Henry is strict but not controlling. This prevents Sadie and Bessie from ever rebelling against his principles because he proves, time and time again, that he only has their best interests at heart.

    The way to succeed was simple: You had to be better at what you did than any of your white competition. That was the main thing. (5.18.2)

    Sadie learned this lesson from her father and it served her well. In all truth, it's a good principle for all of us to keep, whether we're white, black, brown, or even a pretty shade of teal.

    Am I going to change the world, or am I going to change me? Or maybe change the world a little bit, by changing me? (5.18.9)

    As time goes on, Sadie and Bessie build on their parents' principles with their own life experience. This quote is so good it should be printed in Bartlett's.

    We Delanys are as patriotic as anyone. We were Americans! Our blood and sweat was invested in this land, and we were ready to protect it. (6.27.6)

    There's nothing wrong with some good old-fashioned patriotism. Frankly, it blows our minds that the Delanys are so loyal to a country that mistreated them for so long, but we're grateful for it.

    What those folks didn't understand was that Hap was a Delany, and the harder they tried to push him out, the more he dug in his heels. (7.30.3)

    Delany Rule #1 is to be stubborn. Don't ever take no for an answer. Don't ever let someone crush your dreams. Don't ever stop fighting for what you believe in. If that doesn't work, then start at step one and do it all again.

  • Poverty

    Those were hard times, after slavery days. Much of the South was scarred by the Civil War and there wasn't much food or supplies among the whites, let alone the Negroes. (2.5.12)

    The hardships experienced in the South following the Civil War likely sowed the seeds for the social unrest that would follow. After all, it was wealthy Southerners who had the most to gain out of keeping the slave trade going, yet it is the poor folk (both white and black) that are left to suffer.

    Most of the slaves, when they were freed, wandered about the countryside like shell-shocked soldiers. Papa said everywhere you went, it seemed you saw Negroes asking, begging for something. (2.5.12)

    The people in charge rigged the system so newly freed slaves would have few opportunities to get on their feet. Although the Delany family is able to avoid this for the most part, they still feel the effect of these harsh conditions.

    It always seemed like somebody was knocking on the door, looking for food. Mama never turned anyone away. (3.7.19)

    Although the Delanys don't have a lot, they're always willing to help the less fortunate. Nanny's example will serve her kids well, as Sadie and Bessie continue to help the poor after moving to Harlem.

    This was forty-five years after the Surrender, and most of these Negroes were in bad shape, child. It was like the ghetto is today. (4.13.13)

    Although our country has come a long way since the Civil War, it's important to remember that poverty remains a serious problem to this day. It's also worth remembering that even modern problems have deep-seated historical roots.

    Most of the students at the dental school were self-assured city folk, and their families were paying their tuition. I never had the luxury of focusing completely on my studies. (5.17.5)

    Although Bessie is too strong-willed to give up, you can easily imagine another disadvantaged student being unable to juggle both work and school. How many poor kids were unable to achieve their dreams because they had to overcome twice as many hurdles as their wealthier peers?

    Imagine not knowing that your child's neck is dirty. Well, there are a lot of people who weren't raised properly themselves, how can they teach their children right? (5.22.5)

    Sadie hits the nail on the head. Not only does she rightly observe that poverty is cyclical, but she also identifies education as the best way out. To stop poverty, you have to break the cycle.

    I'll tell you another thing about Jamaica that I learned: It was a poor place, a very poor place. The poor folks were the poorest I'd ever seen, and that includes those backwoods folks in the South (5.25.14)

    There's poverty and then there's poverty—Bessie never really realized the difference until she went on this trip. This helps Bessie appreciate not only the relative ease of her own upbringing, but the well-being of her people back home.

    Us Negroes, well, we knew what it was like to hit bottom, anyway. For my people, hardship was a way of life. The Great Depression was just another crisis. (5.25.22)

    If there's one advantage to living through hard times, it's that it helps you better handle things going down the toilet. That's little consolation for an individual, but there's no doubt that hardship—if overcome—can ultimately strengthen a community.

    A patient of mine said to me once, "Your office isn't a dentist office. It's s social service agency!" Yes, that was true. (5.25.26)

    Like her mother, Bessie makes it a point to help the poor and needy even at the expense of her own well-being. That's a Delany for you.

    You can't just take people who don't have anything, don't know what they're doing, pack them in a bunch of buildings, and expect it's going to all work out somehow. (6.29.11)

    The book emphasizes a single point again and again—that education is the first step up the economic ladder. You're certainly not helping people by treating them like replaceable gears in a giant machine.

  • Education

    The whites fixed it so those Negroes could never get ahead. Wasn't much better than slavery. The whites were able to cheat the Negroes because very few Negroes could read or write or do arithmetic. (2.5.14)

    The slaves might be free but they're still not getting a fair shake. Few of them have received the education needed to navigate the complexities of American society and few are given the access to schooling that they so desperately need.

    Growing up in this atmosphere, among three hundred or so college students, reading and writing and thinking was as natural for us as sleeping and eating (3.7.7).

    The sisters are lucky: a love of learning is in their blood. The only thing that's as natural for us as sleeping and eating is...Actually, we'll have to get back to you on that one.

    I never saw people try harder to improve themselves than these grown men and women wanting to learn to read and write. (3.8.12)

    No one appreciates an education more than someone who knows what it's like to go through life without one. Think about that next time you sleep in and miss your first class.

    Lemuel's hand healed finally, but the accident changed his life. He decided he wanted to be a doctor. (3.9.8)

    This is the power of education: Lemuel sees something that inspires him and attains it, eventually becoming a prominent and respected member of his community. If only it were that easy for everyone.

    Papa said to me, "Daughter you are college material. You owe it to your nation, your race, and yourself to go. And if you don't, then shame on you!" (4.13.4)

    This might a little over-the-top, but can you really blame him? Henry knows that Sadie's skills as a teacher could change a lot of lives and is unwilling to allow her to let those gifts fall by the wayside.

    The colored schools were far inferior to the white school. Oftentimes, "school" was held at church and the children would kneel on the floor and use the pews as desks. (4.13.7)

    It's hard to get a proper education without proper resources. This is another one of the many ways that black communities were denied opportunities to achieve the American dream.

    Radical Negroes looked down on him because they had higher aspirations for the race than he apparently did. But Mr. Washington tried to help his people by getting them educated, getting their feet on the ground. (4.13.11)

    There's truth to both sides of this. On one hand, one should never compromise on basic human rights. It's totally understandable that some people want to see more active steps being taken. On the other, education must be the first step towards empowerment, so Washington was still making positive changes. In the end, the best approach might be some combination between the two.

    Oftentimes, learning to read and write for the children was not the top priority. Teaching people about food preparation—like how to can food—was more important. (4.13.13)

    Although literacy is a huge problem, there are other more pressing concerns—some of them even a matter of life and death. You can't expect a kid to be able to focus on her education if her home life is a mess.

    These poor colored folks thought I was something, which was a big surprise to me. My students loved me so much they [...] all fought to carry my lunch and my books (4.14.8).

    Bessie doesn't realize how special she is until she's around people who have even less opportunity. The fact that she is smart, classy, and beautiful is too much for these kids to handle!

    One of my white girl friends said, Bessie, let me turn in your work as if it was mine, and see what grade he gives it." I'll tell you what happened, honey. She passed with my failed work! (5.17.22)

    C'mon, that's just absurd. Is there any doubt now that the sisters' race makes getting an education harder than it should be? What in Zeus' name was that teacher trying to achieve with that nonsense?

  • Gender

    That was a time when a colored woman wasn't safe in the least. Men could do anything to a colored woman and they wouldn't get in trouble with the law, not one bit. (2.6.12)

    We can imagine that this was a rough time for women period, but black women like Sadie and Bessie had even less recourse than their fair-skinned counterparts. This was a man's world.

    But since we were girls, our every move was chaperoned. All little girls and young women were chaperoned in those days. (2.6.8)

    This might seem like typical parental paranoia to our modern eyes, but we come to learn that these fears are quite justified. In fact, the only time Henry ever physically punishes the girls is when they violate this rule.

    She was really a "working" mother, with a job outside the home, making sure everything ran smoothly at Saint Aug's. (3.8.5)

    Never underestimate the power of a positive role model. After all, Nanny was inspired by her own mother's entrepreneurial spirit and fearlessness. That's what we call paying it forward.

    Well, here I am an old maid. Oops, I shouldn't say "old maid" 'cause it makes Bessie mad. Bessie says we're "maiden ladies." Well, whatever we are, I have no regrets about it. (3.13.25)

    The biggest reason the sisters don't need men is that they have each other. Sure, a husband might be nice at times, but they can get all the companionship they need from each other.

    You see, a lot of this Jim Crow mess was about sex, about keeping the races separate, so they wouldn't interbreed. (4.10.4)

    This is because interracial relationships have that nasty side effect of teaching people that we're all really the same. Remember: although James Miliam and Martha Logan acted as man-and-wife, the law forbade them from actually getting married.

    Here I was, traveling around the countryside, a grown woman with professional responsibilities. Yet Pap was still in charge of my social life. (4.13.22)

    Again, we see the blatant contradictions between the sisters' responsibilities and their father's control of them. C'mon dad, be cool! But we've learned by now that Henry's conservative streak affects the way that he treats his daughters vs. his sons.

    Don't go thinking because we are maiden ladies that Sadie and I didn't have a lot of beaus. We were popular, good-looking gals, but I think we were too smart, too independent for most men. (4.14.3)

    What would the sisters have gained by getting married? Regardless, we'd guess that they'd be hard pressed to find a guy who lives up to their standards—or, to be frank, a guy who could handle either one of these fierce maiden ladies.

    There were eleven women out of a class of about 170. There were about six colored men. And then there was me. I was the only colored woman! (5.17.3)

    Bessie has to overcome two completely distinct forms of prejudice at Columbia. But we all know that Bessie isn't one to back down from a challenge, and this is no exception to the rule.

    Why would I want to give up my freedom and independence to take care of some man? [...] Honey, I wasn't interested! (5.17.15)

    At the time, women certainly were expected to be their husband's housekeeper. Would the life of a married woman really have suited either one of our sumptuous sisters? Thank goodness times have changed!

    See, I think white people would rather die than vote for a Negro president. I predict there will be a white woman president before there is a Negro president. (7.30.38)

    Although we now know that Bessie's prediction was wrong, it's an interesting moment to look at because it shows us how she views the country's power structure. In her eyes, people of color are still lower on the totem pole than women—white women, that is. Women of color are so mistreated that they don't even make it onto her list.

  • Family

    They could read and write, and they hadn't been abused, and their family was still together. That's a lot more than most former slaves had going for them. (2.5.15)

    It shouldn't be underestimated how much a solid family life can help someone reach their full potential. It was very common for families to be separated during the slavery era, often out of fear of rebellion or insurgency.

    But James Miliam had no white wife, and was entirely devoted to Grandma. They weren't legally married but they lived like man and wife for fifty years and didn't part until death. (2.6.10)

    There were plenty of interracial relationships at the time, but marriage laws turned most of them into clandestine affairs. James and Martha, on the other hand, are man and wife, to heck with what the law says. That's love, people.

    Mama and Papa were the two busiest people I ever knew, but they always had time for us. They made time for us. (3.8.1)

    Nanny and Henry are pros at being parents. They manage to rise up the social ladder and raise a football-team's worth of kids at the same time—impressive.

    When a decision had to be made, Sadie had the last word, but Bessie kept everybody in line. (5.15.15)

    Among the kids, Sadie is the boss and Bessie is the muscle. To put it in superhero terms: Sadie is Cyclops and Bessie is Wolverine.

    We all relied on each other. Throughout the years we lived in Harlem [...] all of the brothers and sisters saw each other at least once a day. (5.20.12)

    The kids keep the family together even after they move to Harlem. This not only keeps their bonds alive, but gives each of them the support they need to succeed in their chosen field.

    People who don't know nothing about my courting days—don't know I lived a clean life—they kind of raise their eyebrows when I talk about my "daughter." But I don't care. (5.25.32)

    Family is deeper than blood. Can't you remember all of Sadie and Bessie's "aunts" and "uncles" at St. Aug's? With that in mind, it's a little less surprising that Bessie would treat a girl with no relation as if she were her flesh-and-blood.

    Children who were damaged were not institutionalized the way they are today. At least, among colored families, that was the way it was. (6.26.2)

    Bessie would never even consider throwing family by the wayside just because it was convenient—that's not what Delanys do. Instead, she and Sadie treat Little Hubie as if he were the greatest thing since sliced bread.

    "You're going to give up your career to take care of your mama!?" And I said, "Honey, let me tell you something. If you had my Mama you wouldn't think twice." (6.28.3)

    Nanny sacrificed a lot for her children, so it's only right that Bessie pays her back. After all, Bessie would never have reached the heights of success that she did if her mother hadn't sacrificed so much for her sake.

    She didn't want brass fixtures that gleamed like gold; she wanted me. She was an old lady and she wanted her child to just sit with her, to be near her. (6.28.5)

    At first, Bessie feels pressure to keep their house looking pristine for her mom's sake, but the reality is much simpler—Mom just wants to spend time with her daughter. Bessie will understand this more once she gets older herself.

    Tell you the truth, I wouldn't be here without sister Sadie. We are companions. (7.32.5)

    Although everyone in the family is tight, there's no one as knotted-up as Sadie and Bessie. It's a knot that lasts over a hundred years, so we hope you understand when we say that sisters rule.

  • Injustice

    The reason they passed those Jim Crow laws is that powerful white people were getting more and more nervous with the way colored people [...] were starting to accumulate some wealth, to vote, to make demands (4.10.2)

    Now that slavery is done, the powers-that-be need a new way to oppress the masses. Step one: limit their educational opportunities and undermine their right to free speech. Step two: reinforce the fact that white people and black people have different cultural backgrounds in the hopes of inciting tension in the masses.

    We may have been little children but, honey, we got the message loud and clear. But when nobody was looking, Bessie took the dipper from the white side and drank from it. (4.10.8)

    Bessie and Sadie were born before Jim Crow, so these new regulations don't make too much sense to them. All we know is that Bessie will always say F.U. ("Forget Underwear!") to anyone who tries to hold her back

    Knowing people like Miss Moseley and out white grandfather, Mr. Miliam, made this Jim Crow mess seem mighty puzzling. (4.11.7)

    The injustice of Jim Crow is downright silly at times. Sadie and Bessie have white family members and friends, yet they wouldn't be able to eat at the same restaurant if they tried.

    Like Manross, all the colored veterans came back just as proud as they could be [...] They thought they would surely come home and be treated like citizens. Manross was very disappointed. (5.15.19)

    Manross has risked life, limb, and injury to protect his country. Shouldn't that earn him the respect of his fellow Americans? He even visits the parents of a white man whose life he saved but is turned away at the door.

    When Negroes are average, they fail, unless they are very, very lucky. Now, if you're average and white, honey, you can go far. (5.17.28)

    This knowledge drives them to work even harder. That being said, you can't expect everybody to work as hard (and as well) as a Delany—eventually, we need to fix the problems at the roots of the system.

    It seems to me that white people were judged as individuals. But if a Negro did something stupid or wrong, it was held against all of us. Negroes were always representing the whole race. (5.19.29)

    This is one of the subtler ways that minorities are pigeonholed by society. A white man doing something wrong is a freak tragedy; a black man doing the same thing somehow reflects on his whole culture. These stereotypes are reinforced by politicians and the media time and time again.

    That incident made me become even more of an activist. Honey, all you had to say was the word "protest" and I was there! (5.21.16)

    Bessie doesn't take injustice lying down. Remember: this is the same girl who drank out of the whites-only water fountain just to stick it to the man—you be darn sure she'll fight for her rights any chance she gets.

    Like when they sent Japanese-Americans to those internment camps; now, that was wrong! That was racial paranoia (6.27.7)

    Black people weren't the only minority group oppressed by the U.S. government. The imprisonment of Japanese-Americans during WW2 ranks among the darker moment in modern American history.

    It seems like the momentum was lost when the Vietnam War happened. It was like all the energy of the young people, and the focus of the country, got shifted away from civil rights. (7.30.28)

    If we were conspiracy theorists (and we're not, for the record), we'd say that there's no such thing as coincidences. Regardless, war has a way of distracting citizens from problems on the home-front.

    We've outlived those old rebby boys!
    That's one way to beat them!
    That's justice! (7.32.15-17)

    How many of those "old rebby boys" reached the heights of success that Sadie and Bessie did? How many of them had best-selling books written about them? Yeah—that's what we thought.