Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First One Hundred Years is the result of an interview with Sarah and Elizabeth Delany conducted by Amy Hill Hearth on the occasion of Elizabeth’s one-hundredth birthday. Hearth, a writer for The New York Times, published an article about the sisters that received such positive public reaction that editors at the Kodansha America publishing company proposed that they write a book. Though reluctant at first, the two unassuming centurions were persuaded that telling their story would preserve an important part of history for the next generation. They thus collaborated with Hearth to produce a work that is part autobiography and part biography.

Capturing an oral history in the alternating voices of the two sisters, the text, interspersed with cultural and social background, describes an entire era as well as two exemplary lives. The sisters describe their early lives, explaining the importance of their backgrounds and accounting for their longevity. They enjoyed a sheltered upbringing in Raleigh, North Carolina, at the college campus of Saint Augustine’s. Their father, Henry—a former slave who was the first elected African American bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States—served as an Episcopal priest and vice principal of the school. Their mother, Nanny, who was born free of a white father and an African American mother, served as matron of the school while making a home and giving birth to the ten Delany children.

Growing up in this privileged environment, the children all developed the values and pride of their parents, and they were largely protected from the acrimony of southern culture. As the children were growing up, their father—a strong, wise, protective figure—insisted that all of his children be home by dark and that a chaperone accompany his daughters whenever they left the campus. Despite this closely supervised, reclusive setting, all suffered from the Jim Crow laws passed in 1896 that prohibited African Americans from sharing public space with whites. Their educated father strongly urged his children to continue their...

(The entire section is 871 words.)