Essay Topics and Projects

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Essay Topics

Research Projects

Oral History Project


Essay Topics

1 . Throughout the book the Delany sisters recount how historical events like the Jim Crow Laws, the Harlem Renaissance, the Depression, and World War II had an impact on their lives. Reflecting on your own life and the political events you have lived through, was there one event, in particular, that had a direct influence on your life? This may have been a change in government, a war, or the death or rise to power of a political leader. Describe the event and its effect on you. You may also write about a family member who had this experience instead of yourself.

2.  Sadie and Bessie Delany had to struggle against the formidable obstacles of racial and gender discrimination in order to achieve success.  How were they able to accomplish this? What were their sources of strength?

3.  One of the most  interesting aspects of the book is the striking contrast between the personalities and characters of the two sisters.  Look over the list of comparisons and contrasts you compiled for the Study Guide.  Then write an essay describing the sisters, noting both their similarities and differences.  How do you explain the fact that the two sisters, so close in age, sharing many of the same experiences, are so different? Use specific references to the book to support any generalizations you make.

4.  Which story in the book did you find most memorable? Briefly summarize it and explain its special meaning for you.

5.  Having Our Say was on The New York Times bestseller list for over twenty-eight weeks and inspired not only a successful play but also a widely-viewed television movie. Why do you think the story of the Delany sisters has had such great appeal? Why do people find their story so compelling?

6. The center of the book contains a series of photographs of the Delany sisters and their family. Which photo do you find most meaningful? What does it reveal to you about Bessie, Sadie, or about their family.

7. The Delany sisters never married or had children. Why? Do you think this prevented them from leading completely fulfilling lives? 

8. Every family has “family stories” that have been passed down from generation to generation. Tell a story from your own family that you are certain to pass down to the next generation.

     Research Projects

The following research projects contain links to related websites. Please refer to the Library Resources page for additional reference materials.

1.  America has never been able to undo the mess created by those Jim Crow laws.

                                                            Sadie and Bessie Delany

Reading about a historical event in a textbook or encyclopedia is a very different experience than learning about it through personal narrative.  This assignment asks you to explore some of these differences by focusing on the period of the "Jim Crow" laws.  First  find out more about the  origin and impact of these laws. (See: PBS Jazz Web site ; The Encyclopedia Britannica Guide to Black History ) and then reread Part IV of Having Our Say where the Delany sisters recall what life was like at that time. Compare the two.  What kind of information do you get from the websites that you don’t get from the Delany sisters' personal stories?  How are you affected differently by each?

2. Possibly the most harrowing story in Having Our Say is where Bessie describes almost being lynched after rebuffing a drunken white man in a train station in 1913. By the late 1920’s 95% of all lynchings took place in the South and the vast majority of its victims were African Americans.  Find out more about the history of lynching in the United States at the Constitutional Rights Foundation Website (under subheading entitled  “Lynching in America.”)

Then click here to listen to the famous Billie Holiday song about lynching called “Strange Fruit”. After listening to the song twice without looking at the lyrics, write down eight to ten words that come to mind. Share this list  with your classmates.

Next, read the lyrics to the song as you listen to it again. Write or discuss your response to the song considering the following questions: How do we know from the lyrics that the song is about lynching victims? Why do you think the word “lynching” never appears in the song? Do you think the song is more powerful or less powerful as a protest song because its topic, lynching, is never stated explicitly?

3. Compare Jim Crow legislation and the laws of apartheid in South Africa. In what ways  were they similar? How were they different? (See: Martin Luther King Historic Site; PBS Jazz Website; The Encyclopedia Britannica Guide to Black History ; Encarta Encyclopedia; Annenberg/CPB Exhibits.)

4.  In 1941 Jacob Lawrence, one of the most famous artists of the Harlem Renaissance, completed sixty paintings known as “The Migration” series, depicting the mass exodus of blacks from the rural South to the northern cities in the early decades of the twentieth century.  Read a historical overview of the period at the African-American Mosaic  and  PBS Jazz Web sites.

Then, after looking at a number of paintings from the series, choose two or three  and discuss what ideas and feelings you think the artist is expressing through these works.

The Jacob Lawrence Virtual Archive and Education Center (Under "Series", choose "Migration of the Negro". (The Migration Series:Panel 10) (The Migration Series: Panel 57) 
Full Text of the Series (Click Lesson 2 and then the words "click here" under the paintings.)

5. In Chapter 21 of Having Our Say Bessie discusses her participation in political demonstrations against racism, saying that her ideas about how to bring about social change were similar to those of W.E.B. DuBois. She says that her sister Sadie was more like Booker T. Washington, “a smoother of the waters, not a radical.”

Read more about  W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington to find  out how the two leaders differed in their approaches to improving the lives of African Americans and write a paper comparing their ideas. (See: African American Odyssey ;The Encyclopedia Britannica Guide to Black History; Harlem 1900-1940: The Schomburg Exhibit.)

6.  As far as we were concerned, Harlem was as close to heaven as we were going to find on this earth.

Bessie Delany

The Delany sisters moved to Harlem in the first decade of the twentieth century and lived there until the late 1940’s.  They mention meeting and socializing with a number of well-known political figures, writers, and entertainers. Among them were Paul Robeson, W.E.B. DuBois, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Alberta Hunter, Cab Calloway, and James Weldon Johnson. Research one of these people and write a paper that includes biographical information and a discussion of what you feel to be his or her most important work/contribution to American culture. (See: Harlem:1900-1940: The Schomburg Exhibit; The Encyclopedia Britannica Guide to Black History; PBS Jazz ;Harlem Renaissance)

7.  One of the biggest regrets of my life was that Sadie and I didn't go to  Washington for the big march in the summer of 1963. I would have loved to have heard Martin Luther King give his "I Have a Dream" speech.

                                      Sadie Delany

In the last chapter of Having Our Say Bessie discusses the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950's and 1960's and two of its most important leaders, Martin Luther King, Jr.  and Malcolm X. Research these two men and write a paper comparing their ideas. (See: The Encyclopedia Britannica Guide to Black History.)

Oral History Project

I. Preparing for the assignment.
To prepare to do this oral history assignment, reread the 1991 New York Times article about the Delany sisters to see how the reporter developed a series of oral interviews into an article.

Consider the following questions:
1. How does the writer begin the article?  Do you think this is an effective beginning?

2. Which details about where the Delany sisters lived (paragraph 5) does the author include?  What do these details tell you about the sisters?

3. Choose a part of the article where the author uses a direct quotation rather than reporting this information.  Why do you think she chose to use the sister’s exact words at this point?

4. What two or three aspects of the Delany sisters' lives are highlighted in the article? In other words, what are two or three facts you think the author wants you to understand about them after reading the article?

II. Doing the oral interview and writing the essay.

a. Your first step is to interview an older family member, friend, or acquaintance. Choose someone you feel comfortable asking questions of, and who is interested in your project.  You may choose to interview the person about his or her life history or you may focus on a particular event or period in the person's life, such as experiences during a war, a period of political turmoil, the Depression, or as a newly-arrived immigrant.

b. Prepare a series of questions ahead of time, but don’t feel restricted by them. If other questions come up during the interview, don't hesitate to ask them. Take notes or tape the interview. For more specific guidelines about interviewing, see the Schomburg Web Site.

c. Do the interview.  Immediately afterward, review your notes or listen to the tape and jot down some visual details you remember, such as the person's body  language or tone of voice.  You might also include details about where the interview took place, especially if they reveal something important about the person.  Make note of the quotations that are particularly significant.  What do they illustrate about this person? 

d. Now write the essay.  In organizing the essay, think back to what you learned when you reread the Times article about the Delany sisters.  You might begin, for example, with some general information about the person you interviewed, or you might begin with a quotation.  You will also need to make the point or theme of your essay clear. What do you want the reader to understand about this person and about the time period and events you are focusing on? What point do you want to make? Finally, including specific details about the setting of the interview will help make your essay come alive for your reader. 

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