Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Book Review: Having Our Say

This was our book club selection for March.  In Having Our Say: The Delaney Sisters' First 100 Years, Amy Hill Hearth weaves the stories of two African American sisters whose lives have spanned numerous changes for black people in America.  Bessie, otherwise known as "Queen Bess," doesn't like the term "African America," or "black," since she herself is brown, not black.  She declares herself to be an American who happens to be a negro.  Her feisty nature shines through.  Her sister, Sarah or "Sadie," tends to be quieter, but just as determined.

Sadie and Bessie Delaney grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina, the children of the nation's first elected black Episcopal bishop.  They, along with their eight siblings, valued education and hard work and rose to prominence in their professional careers, Sadie as a school teacher and Bessie as a dentist.  Their family's foundation was built upon their faith and quiet fortitude against the societal pressures mounted against black people.  They believed the best way to rise above prejudice was just to out-perform any low expectations.  They excelled at excelling!

I didn't glean many messages explaining their longevity (attributed primarily to a genetic disposition for longevity and proper diet and exercise), but the stories were interesting and full of color (no pun intended).  This outstanding oral history pairs the vivid stories these women remember alongside explanations of the historical context.  I think Amy Hill Hearth has done a fine job of drawing out the stories and placing them into a readable context.  Having written an oral history myself (I wrote a history of The Salvation Army in Champaign, Illinois, while I was in graduate school, and interviewed a fine elderly woman named Fern Bialeski, who provided endless fodder for consideration in the telling of that story), I know how difficult it is to organize and retain the most pertinent facts of a person's history.  The listening and compiling must have been such fun for Hearth.

I think these were my favorite lines: from Bessie - "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.'" And also from Bessie - "It took me a hundred years to figure out I can't change the world.  I can only change Bessie.  And, honey, that ain't easy, either." And from Sadie - "Life is short, and it's up to you to make it sweet."  Even at over 100, they count their lives short and have done all they can to make them sweet.

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