Study Guide

Having Our Say Themes

  • Old Age

    Sadie and Bessie Delany are experts in the subject of old age—you would be too if you lived to be over one hundred years old! These two sisters experience a lot of personal and societal upheavals over their long lives, yet they emerge at the end of these hard times unscathed. Just don't call them old maids, because they're maiden ladies, as Bessie would say. Over the course of Having Our Say, we gain insight into how these sisters lived so long (they were doing yoga long before sorority girls were dropping Benjamins on lululemon) and their reaction to the changing landscape of America.

    Questions About Old Age

    1. How do Sadie and Bessie manage to live so long?
    2. Do you think the sisters are happy in their old age? Why or why not?
    3. How do Nanny's adventures in old age influence the sisters?
    4. How do the sisters cope with the harder parts of aging?

    Chew on This

    Having Our Say shows that the simple things—like exercise, a good diet, and herbal treatments—are more important to longevity than modern medicine.

    Through the sisters, Having Our Say argues that being able to have a good time will become an indispensable tool to all of us when we reach old age.

  • Race

    As the daughters of a former slave turned bishop, Sadie and Bessie know a thing or two about the way race works in America. They lived through Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement, along with their own experiences with racism along the way. In Having Our Say, Sadie and Bessie finally get to have their say about these experiences—something they thought society would never be interested in hearing. Although their story isn't a conventional one, it teaches us a lot about the absurdities of racism and the subtle ways it affects everyone's lives.

    Questions About Race

    1. How does the sisters' family history affect their view on race?
    2. How does racism (and views of race in general) differ between the North and South?
    3. What role does skin tone play in the perception of racial identity?
    4. How do the sisters' experiences with racism affect their drive to succeed?

    Chew on This

    Having Our Say argues that race is a social construct: some combination of class, culture, and ethnicity made to seem larger than it really is.

    Having Our Say argues that racial solidarity is an effective way to build up an entire community at the same time.

  • Principles

    The Delanys are one principled family. Led by the one-and-only Henry Delany and his fiery wife Nanny, the Delanys strive to be the best Christians, Americans, and citizens they can be—even if white society refuses to recognize them as such. Undeterred, the Delanys stick to their principles like peanut butter to the roof of your mouth. Yum. Here's the best part, though—it works. Through the sheer force of their determination and ethics, the Delanys go on to become one heck of a family: the kind of family your mom wishes you had, you know? So what we're trying to say is this: keep reading or your mom will be disappointed in you.

    Questions About Principles

    1. Is Henry too strict of a father? Why or why not?
    2. How do Henry and Nanny's family histories help shape their principles?
    3. Do Sadie and Bessie stay true to the Delany family code? Why or why not?
    4. How would you describe the fundamental Delany family values?

    Chew on This

    The Delany family principles are a blend of Christian moralism and American self-reliance.

    Although the Delany family's principles help Sadie and Bessie reach their goals, they also have the less fortunate side effect of making them sheltered and at times naive.

  • Poverty

    Although Sadie and Bessie are too classy to show it, they've gone through their fair share of hard times. In Having Our Say, we're given a glimpse into the harsh realities of poverty in America and the things we can do to help the disadvantaged. Would you feed a hungry stranger who knocked on your door? Nanny Delany would. Would you give up your access to music so someone else could have it? Bessie would—and did. We're not trying to guilt trip you too badly, but stop dilly-dallying and check out these quotes!

    Questions About Poverty

    1. In what ways does Jim Crow contribute to poverty in the black community?
    2. How does the Great Depression affect the citizens of Harlem?
    3. In what ways do the sisters do their part to fight poverty?
    4. How is access to education linked to poverty?

    Chew on This

    In Having Our Say, the cycle of poverty is seen as an issue of education, first and foremost.

    Although slavery ends with the Civil War, Having Our Say reveals to us the many ways that impoverished conditions were used to hold back the newly freed black community.

  • Education

    Yes, yes, we know that you hate school—we wish you'd stop complaining about it so much. You know, there are tons of people out there who would kill for the educational opportunities you take for granted. Just look at Having Our Say. Throughout the book, we're shown just how important education can be, whether it's helping someone live longer or giving them the tools they need to provide for their family. So next time you don't want to go to school, just visit this page and think about what the Delany sisters would have to say. If you talked that sort of nonsense to Bessie, you'd never hear the end of it.

    Questions About Education

    1. In what ways does the Delanys' literacy help them rise up the social ladder?
    2. How does the sisters' childhood at St. Aug's affect their feelings on education?
    3. Does the sisters' race affect their schooling experience? Why or why not?
    4. Why does Henry place such a strong emphasis on education?

    Chew on This

    Although Having Our Say places an importance on literacy and trade skills, it pegs basic domestic science as one of the most useful tools in a teacher's arsenal.

    The journey of the Delany family shows us that access to a good education is the pathway to greater prosperity.

  • Gender

    Do you realize that women weren't able to vote until 1920? That means that until that point, men were literally deciding everything. Well, Sadie and Bessie Delany remember that day quite well because they lived through it. These sisters faced a great deal of discrimination based on their gender but only worked harder for it. Luckily, they had some amazing female role models in their lives, like their mother Nanny and grandmother Martha, both strong, independent women in their own right. You're going to wanna read this one; it'll give you strongest rush of Girl Power since you first heard the Spice Girls.

    Questions About Gender

    1. How do the women of the Logan family defy typical gender roles?
    2. Why do the sisters choose to never marry?
    3. In what ways do Sadie and Bessie face gender-based discrimination?
    4. How do gender roles in society change over Sadie and Bessie's lives?

    Chew on This

    Although Nanny is a very conservative woman, she defies gender stereotypes in many profound ways.

    As black women, Sadie and Bessie are forced on the double-edged sword of racism and sexism, the latter of which is sometimes directed at them by members of their own race.

  • Family

    Believe us (and Sly Stone) when we tell you that Having Our Say is a family affair. Although the memoir is told through the eyes of sisters Sadie and Bessie, the book follows the multi-generational journey of the well-respected Delany clan. As we follow each generation—the grandparents, parents, siblings, and nieces and nephews—we see just how tight this one-of-a-kind family is. No matter what comes their way—from Jim Crow to WW2—their strong bonds prove to be their saving grace.

    Questions About Family

    1. How do the Delanys maintain such strong familial bonds?
    2. In your eyes, how are Sadie and Bessie able to stay so close for so long?
    3. What does the life of Little Hubie say about the importance of family to the Delanys?
    4. In your opinion, why do the sisters never have families of their own?

    Chew on This

    Although their emphasis on education is important, it is the Delanys' emphasis on family that leads them to success.

    The bond of sisterhood between Sadie and Bessie shows that marriage isn't the only sort of bond that can create a lifetime of happiness.

  • Injustice

    There's racism and then there's institutionalized racism. Here's the difference: regular old racism is like your brother saying that he could beat you at Monopoly any day, while institutionalized racism is like him rigging the game so that he always wins. There's the injustice of Jim Crow, which would have kept Sadie and Bessie Delany from sitting next to their grandfather on the bus. There's the Japanese internment camps created during WW2, which imprisoned American citizens without trial. And there's the countless subtle ways that classism and racism are enforced through backhanded laws and societal stereotypes. As with most things, Sadie and Bessie learn that living well is the best revenge—and boy do they live well.

    Questions About Injustice

    1. Why are Jim Crow laws so strange to Sadie and Bessie as kids?
    2. In what ways is institutionalized racism used to hinder minority communities?
    3. Why are Manross and his fellow black veterans not accepted with open arms by white Americans?
    4. Why does Bessie become so involved in political activism?

    Chew on This

    Having Our Say highlights the irony of Jim Crow: that many white people had little ill will toward their black countrymen until the law said otherwise.

    The greatest injustice faced by African Americans in Having Our Say is that they are not awarded a similar status to European Americans, despite having worked as hard (if not harder) for it.