Study Guide for Having Our Say
How did the author, Amy Hill Hearth, come to write the book Having Our
Describe the first meeting between the author and the Delany sisters. What
were Ms. Hearth’s impressions of the sisters that day?
Describe the public’s reaction to the story that appeared in The New
At first, the sisters doubted that their stories were interesting enough
to become a book. How did they eventually come to view the writing of
Describe the structure of the book. For example, who are the narrators? What is
the sequence of the story?
Sweet Sadie, Queen Bess
What do we learn about the two sisters simply by reading the title of Part
Who wrote this first section Sweet Sadie, Queen Bess?
What are some of the facts we learn about the Delany family in pages 1 –
Sadie notes that their mother and father never called each other by their
first names. Why? (p. 9)
Sadie spends some time discussing the relative color, or “shade” of
the various family members. Why do you think she does this?
(See also p. 80 and p.106)
At the end of chapter 1, Sadie says she and Bessie “kind of balance each
other out.” What does she mean?
Based on what you have read so far, compare and contrast Sadie and Bessie.
Start a list like the one below. Write it in a separate section of your
notebook. Add to the list as you continue reading the book.
AND CONTRASTING SADIE AND BESSIE
Sadie describes herself: “I was a mama’s child and followed my Mama around like a shadow.” (p.11)
Bessie says, “Sometimes I think it’s my meanness that keeps me going.” (p. 17)
Bessie believed she was “a little psychic”: even Sadie admitted “Bessie is a little, well, intuitive.” (p. 19)
Which does Bessie say was a bigger problem for her: sexism or racism? (p. 14)
Who were the “rebby boys”? (p.
Why don’t the sisters have a phone? How do they cope with not having
The sisters emphasize the importance of having a sense of humor. Find a
few examples where humor helped them through a bad time.
“I Am Free!”
The sisters’ father, “Papa,” was born into slavery. Sadie and Bessie
recall asking him about being a slave and about becoming free. Discuss
some of his recollections of:
a - when news of the “Surrender” came
- the situation of Papa’s family contrasted with that of most ex-slaves
- the name Delany
- learning to read and write
- Papa’s accomplishments.
Describe the sisters’ parents and grandparents, James Miliam and Martha
React to Sadie and Bessie’s statement on page 43: “One thing’s for
sure: Those four girls were all only one-quarter Negro, but in the eyes of
the world they were colored. It took only one drop of blood for a person to
be considered “colored.”
PART III SAINT AUG'S
What do we learn in the preface to Part III about the importance of
education to black Americans?
Why were “black colleges … the crucial stepping-stone to
According to Sadie and Bessie, what was the situation of many former
slaves? How did the sisters’ parents treat former slaves who were
“down on their luck?”
On page 86 Bessie says, “We lived a clean life, but, Lord, we had a good
time.” What kinds of things did the Delanys do for a “good time?”
React to Bessie’s comment at the end of page 87: “We were good
citizens, good Americans. We loved our country, even though it didn’t
love us back.”
1. What do we learn in the preface about Jim Crow laws? Click here to see a collection of Jim Crow laws.
2. a. According to Sadie and Bessie, what was the reason Jim Crow laws were passed? (p. 93)
b. Describe the “pecking order.”
Describe the sisters’ first encounter with Jim Crow.
How did Papa “put his money where his mouth was”? (p. 97; See also p.
Sadie says on page 103, “I never let prejudice stop me from what I
wanted to do in this life.” Retell her anecdote about the shoe store
that illustrates her point.
6. Contrast Bessie and Sadie’s reactions to racism. How did each cope with it? (p. 105) Add this to the list you began in Part I question #7.
Bessie mentions “the worst news imaginable” – lynching. Are these
stories of lynching a surprise to you? What did you know about the subject
before reading this book? To learn more about this topic go to http://crf-usa.org/bria/bria10_3.html
On pages 112 – 3, Sadie tells us her father insisted she go to college,
but NOT take a scholarship. Why does he insist she not take a scholarship?
Do you think he was right?
9. On p. 114 – 115, Sadie mentions Booker T. Washington, reminding us that the Delanys knew many of the most influential black leaders, artists and thinkers of the time. Learn more about Booker T. Washington by clicking here. List three facts about Washington that you think are important.
Sadie describes her courtship by one of her
”gentleman friends.” Describe her “dates.” Interview an older person in your family or neighborhood. Ask them to describe a typical courtship when they were young. Was it more similar to Sadie’s experience or to today’s customs?
What do Sadie and Bessie say about the fact they never married?
12. Bessie recalls hearing about the sinking of the Titanic. Describe her reaction to the news. (p. 127)
In 1913 Bessie came close to being lynched. Describe what happened.
What is Sadie’s reaction to Bessie’s behavior?
Part V HARLEM-TOWN
In the preface we are introduced to the Harlem Renaissance and to the
people and places that made Harlem the spiritual and cultural center of
black America in the 1920s and 30s. Read
a bit about one of the famous people mentioned. Share what you learn with
Sadie and Bessie describe their first trip to New York City in 1915. How
did they react to the sight of the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor
– that vision that has thrilled immigrants for more than a hundred
Sadie and Bessie contrast the demographics of North Carolina with what
they encountered in New York City. How were the two cities different? What
do you think Sadie and Bessie would say if they came to New York City for
the first time today? (p. 139 – 40)
Sadie and Bessie mention that their brother Harry was working as a Pullman
porter at the time. Click here to learn more about the important American,
A. Phillip Randolph, who organized the Pullman sleeping car porters. This
union became the first powerful black labor union.
Write two important facts you learned about this man and his
Explain why the sisters say that World War I “happened overseas
but…created bloodshed among us here at home.”
In Chapter 16, Sadie describes Harlem (and all New York) as happier places
back then. Interview someone who has lived in Harlem (or anywhere in New
York City) for at least 25 years. Ask them to compare the city then and
now. Share what you learn with the class.
a. Why did Sadie have a hard time at Pratt
React to her comment on p 149: “The problem is, you don’t always know
for sure whether people are being nasty because you’re colored, or for
some other reason.”
Why does Sadie say she had a happier time at Columbia?
Why did Sadie decide to stay in New York after she graduated from
Columbia? (p. 152)
10. Bessie again discusses the challenge of sexism on top of racism. (pp. 153, 178, 202) (See also Part I, question 8) In a separate section of your notebook, begin a list like the one below of some of the incidences of racism the sisters describe. Include examples from earlier in the book and add to the list as you read along.
When Bessie was in dental school, her professor failed one of her
white friend handed in the same assignment. This time the teacher
11. What is Bessie’s opinion of Affirmative Action laws? (p. 156) Do you agree with her? Before you answer, be sure you understand what these laws are; read a bit about them by clicking here: Affirmative Action laws.
What does Bessie say about a woman combining marriage and a career? (pp.
157- 8) Do you think this is still true today? Explain.
a. What conclusion does Bessie draw about what a black person must
do if he or she is “going to make it”?
(p. 161 - see also Sadie p. 167)
Do you think things have changed?
Do you think other minorities suffer equally from these problems?
Sadie made extra money baking and selling cakes and candy, but eventually
gave it up because the Depression had begun. How much do you know about
the Depression? Do some research to find out about the stock market crash
of 1929 and the crippling economic depression that followed. Go to: www.encarta.msn.com and search for "Great
Depression in the United States."
How did Sadie manage to become the first “colored” teacher in New York
City to teach domestic science in a high school?
One of the recurring themes of the book is hard work. How does
Bessie describe her working life in chapter 19?
Why didn’t the sisters support the baseball team that eventually became
An acquaintance of Bessie’s, Albert Robinson, encountered a Columbia
University professor who claimed Negroes were inferior to white people.
How did Bessie react? (p.
Why does Bessie say that sit-ins were not her “style of activism”? (p.
Describe Bessie’s encounter with the Ku Klux Klan. (p. 199)
Bessie tells us there were two extremes in black political activism –
that of W.E.B. DuBois on the one hand and Booker T. Washington on the
other. Compare and contrast the goals and methods of these two leaders. In
addition to the information in Having Our Say, click here to read
about them in the Britannica Guide to Black History.
What does Bessie say was “one of the happiest days” of her life? (p.
As we have seen, the Delanys knew most of the prominent black Americans of
the times. In chapter 23 we learned their brother Hubert knew Fiorello
LaGuardia. Describe the relationship between Hubert Delany and Fiorello
LaGuardia. (p. 213-14)
24. After the sisters’ mother moved to New York, she and Sadie took many trips together. Sadie describes a memorable moment in London when they say Paul Robeson appear in Othello. In addition to the information on page 216, learn more about Robeson by clicking here.
How did Sadie, her mother, sister and brother avoid “trouble” on their
car trip to Los Angeles? (p. 218-19)
Bessie talks about the Depression in Chapter 25. How does she contrast the
situation of white and black people during this difficult time?
THE TIES THAT BIND
In the preface, the author describes the effects of the 1929 stock
market crash and the Great Depression and World War II.
Discuss some of the effects she mentions. (p. 235 – 7)
Despite a lifetime of suffering from racism, the Delany family felt
that nothing could stop them from achieving their goals. It took a family
tragedy for the Delanys to realize “you can’t always get what you want
in life.” What happened? (p. 244)
Describe the experience of racism suffered by the sisters’
brother Manross during World War II.
Eventually the sisters decided one of them would have to quit
working to take care of their mother. How did they decide which one would
quit? (p. 251)
Describe what Bessie calls her mother’s “greatest moment as an
old lady.” (p. 255) Click
here to learn more about Marian Anderson. And to see a portrait
of Marian Anderson by Jacob Lawrence, go to Portrait of Marian Anderson
on the LINKS page.
PART VII OUTLIVING THE REBBY BOYS
Talk a little about the sisters’ life after their mother died.
(Chapters 29 – 31)
What did the sisters do to maintain good health?
It is Bessie who has “the last word” in the book. Explain what
she means in the last sentence. Do you think this is an effective ending
to the story of the Delany sisters?
Share the list you compiled comparing and contrasting the sisters
with your classmates. (Part 1, question 7 of this study guide). Which of the incidents in your list did you find the most
5. Refer to the list of incidences of racism you began in Part 5, question 10. Compare your list with those of your classmates. How do you think the sisters managed to cope so well with such adversity. How do you think YOU would have reacted? How did creating and reading this list make you feel? See also essay question #7 in the Essay Topics and Projects section of this web site.