Study Guide

Having Our Say Race

By Sarah and A. Elizabeth Delany with Amy Hill Hearth

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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 N****es, 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 N****es: white N****es and black N****es. The white N****es 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 N****es 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 N**** 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 N**** 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.

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