Having Our Say – by Sarah and A. Elizabeth Delany with Amy Hill Hearth (1993)

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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.

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Black Like Me – by John Howard Griffin (1961, 1996) part 2

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link to “Black Like Me – part 1”:
https://alwaysreading1.wordpress.com/2015/09/05/black-like-me-by-john-howard-griffin-1961part1/

I have read “Black Like Me” three times now, and am moved each time by John’s 1959 experience as a Negro in the deep South. John had been born in Texas in 1920, when prejudice and segregation ruled, then lived in France, where whites and blacks enjoyed the same rights. Upon returning to the U.S. later, he must have thought to himself: Why would white people hate Negroes so much?

John was one of many people in the 1950’s and ’60s who acted on their beliefs that all men were created equal, and deserved to be treated as such. His book was published two years later, in 1961. John became a much-sought-after speaker about civil rights. Wherever he went, his speeches made people angry. John wrote:

“In my own case, if I stayed more than three days in any large city, I usually tried to change hotels or else move in with some black family. In one city in Louisiana where I lectured, I could not even stay in the city because all the lodging places had been threatened with bombings if they accepted me as a guest.

This kind of thing continued throughout the early and mid-sixties. We led strange, hidden lives. We were advocating only one thing: that this country rid itself of the racism that prevented some citizens from living as fully functioning men and as a result dehumanized all men. We were advocating only that this country live up to its promises to all citizens. But since racism always hides under a respectable guise – usually the guise of patriotism and religion – a great many people loathed us for knocking holes in these respectable guises. It was clear that we would have to live always under threat…”

(from page 167 of the 35th anniversary edition)

Finally, the death threats became too great. John, his parents, his wife, and the four children moved to Mexico for awhile.. Sometimes when you follow your conscience, life does not reward you. Instead, you may find yourself rejected or even harmed. But in the end, you have to live with yourself. Thank God for people who persist in speaking the truth and standing up for what they know is right, even when it costs them dearly.

Go Set A Watchman – by Harper Lee (2015)

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Although you will find this book in the “new book” area of your local bookstore or library, it is actually quite an old book. It was written in the late 1950’s but rejected by the publishers. Ms. Lee then proceeded to write “To Kill A Mockingbird”, using many of the characters she had created for her original novel. In 1960 “To Kill A Mockingbird” was published. The book became an instant success, won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize award, and was made into a movie several years later. It was a wonderful book, loved by millions, but was it really the story Harper Lee wanted to tell? We now have her original novel, more than 55 years later.

Jean Louise (Scout) is the main character in “Go Set A Watchman”. She is now a young woman living in New York City, but is in Maycomb, Alabama for a visit. Her father, Atticus, who she has always looked up to, is old and crippled with arthritis. Aunt Alexandra lives with him and runs the household since they no longer have their black housekeeper, Calpurnia. Henry, a childhood friend who has his heart set on marrying Jean Louise, is a major character in the book as well.

On the surface, everything looks as it did in childhood days. But times are changing, and even Maycomb has been affected. The highest court in the land has ruled that its black citizens have all the rights that its white citizens enjoy. They can vote, hold political office, and go to schools that were previously segregated, among other things. It is against this backdrop that Jean Louise happens to stop in to observe a meeting of the townsfolk, where a fiery segregationist is speaking. She is shocked, and expects people – especially her father and her boyfriend Henry – to stand up and object to the hate-filled speech. That doesn’t happen; in fact, everyone seems in agreement with the guest speaker. What has happened to Maycomb and the people she thought she knew?

The story alternates between the present and the past. The scenes of Jean Louise as a schoolgirl add depth to the story, and a good bit of humor. I especially enjoyed reading the chapter where she goes to a school dance for the first time, the mishap that occurs, and the solution to the situation.

I have read both of Harper Lee’s novels, and enjoyed each immensely (after almost abandoning “Watchman”), but they are very different. “To Kill A Mockingbird” shows a more idealized Atticus with unwavering morals and a dedication to the truth, and Jean Louise as an adoring daughter who believes every word he says. In “Go Set A Watchman” Atticus’ moral and political beliefs are muddled, and he seems to be swayed by the culture, and Jean Louise is a shrill, angry woman. But if you read both books, you get a more complete picture of both Jean Louise and her father.

No human is perfect. We all have inconsistencies in our lives. We say and teach our children one way, but often behave another way ourselves. Sometimes we are strong and stand up for what we know is right, and other times we allow society to push us into conformity. Sometimes we are able to accept the flaws of those we love; other times we turn our backs on them when they don’t live up to the standards we thought they had. All in all, this is a powerful story that is well worth reading.

Excerpts from chapter 13:

…something’s wrong with me, it’s something about me. It has to be because all these people cannot have changed. Why doesn’t their flesh creep? How can they devoutly believe everything they hear in church and then say the things they do and listen to the things they hear without throwing up? I thought I was a Christian but I’m not. I’m something else and I don’t know what. Everything I have ever taken for right and wrong these people have taught me – these same, these very people. So it’s me, it’s not them. Something has happened to me.

You will not believe me, but I will tell you: never in my life until today did I hear the word “n—–” spoken by a member of my family. Never did I learn to think in terms of The N—–. When I grew up, and I did grow up with black people, they were Calpurnia, Zeebo the garbage collector, Tom the yard man, and whatever else their names were. There were hundreds of Negroes surrounding me, they were hands in the fields, who chopped the cotton, who worked the roads, who sawed the lumber to make our houses. They were poor, they were diseased and dirty, some were lazy and shiftless, but never in my life was I given the idea that I should despise one, should fear one, should be discourteous to one, or think that I could mistreat one and get away with it. They as a people did not enter my world, nor did I enter theirs: when I went hunting I did not trespass on a Negro’s land, not because it was a Negro’s, but because I was not supposed to trespass on anybody’s land. I was taught never to take advantage of anyone who was less fortunate than myself, whether he be less fortunate in brains, wealth, or social position; it meant anybody, not just Negroes. I was given to understand that the reverse was to be despised. That is the way I was raised, by a black woman and a white man.