This exceptional biography is the story of two sisters – Sadie and Bessie Delany – whose lives spanned more than a hundred years. The sisters were born in the late 1800’s to a father who was a former slave, and a mother who was light enough to have passed for caucasian. Eventually the sisters had eight siblings. Despite the struggles that were common to African-Americans, Sadie and Bessie worked hard and had very successful lives. Sadie, the older sister, was a school teacher in New York City, and Bessie became a dentist. Neither one married, instead devoting their lives to their careers and each other.
This is not your usual biography. It’s not a dry, chronological account of where they were and what they did there. Instead of trying to cover every aspect of their lives, they focus on just the things that they felt passionately about – their family history, getting educated, the oppression of Negro citizens, being working women, helping those around them, and the Civil Rights Movement. The books sounds as if they orally recorded their memories, then transcribed it into print. Bessie and Sadie alternated telling their story, with an occasion summary section written by Amy Hearth. By the end of the book, I was wanting to hear more Sadie and Bessie stories, and that is how a great biography should end!
Here are some clips from the book, in their words:
Excerpt from page 117-118 (Sadie speaking):
I got my first teaching job in New York in the fall of 1920. I think I was paid $1,500 for the year. It was at P.S. 119 in Harlem, which was an elementary school, mostly colored. This was a typical assignment for a colored teacher. They most certainly did not want us in schools where the children were white. The parents would object. One way that the principles kept us out was to say they could not hire anyone with a Southern accent because it would be damaging to the children. Well, most of us colored teachers at the time had Southern accents. So it was just a way of keeping us out.
When my Southern accent was considered a problem, I found a way around that. I signed up with a speech coach – a woman in Manhattan. She was a white woman, a lovely woman. I don’t think she had too many colored clients. I remember that when I would go to her apartment for the lessons, the doorman made me take the freight elevator. I didn’t make a fuss because I wanted those speech lessons.
You had to decide: Am I going to change the world, or am I going to change me? Or maybe change the world a little bit, just by changing me? If I can get ahead, doesn’t that help my people?
Excerpt from page 124 (Bessie speaking):
There were so very few women dentists at all, never mind colored women dentists. Why, I was only the second Negro woman licensed to practice in New York. I was also only the second Negro woman to get a dental license in North Caroline. (I got my license there, think I might go back someday.)
It was bad enough to be discriminated against by white people because I was colored. But then, my own people would discriminate against me because I was a woman! Two times I remember that men patients of mine insisted that Hap come and pull their teeth. I remember one man said to me, “Can you pull teeth with those little hands?” and I said, “Do you really want to find out?” It made me mad. I could take those forceps and pull just as hard as any man. That sexism was a nasty thing to deal with. But once a person had been my patient, they’d always come back. The word got out: That colored woman dentist has a gentle touch.