Shades of Black and White
Every story the Delany sisters tell is interpreted through a color lens. During the Jim Crow days, black and white are literally separated, and this divide is at the forefront of Having Our Say. Sadie and Bessie’s multiracial family makes them highly aware of the significance of shades of color, and some siblings are treated better than others due to their lighter skin tone. American history, with its powerful legacy of racism, makes sense only with careful reference to shades of black and white, and the sisters insert color markers into every story. They are not comfortable describing themselves as “black,” just as they are not comfortable describing themselves as “African Americans.” They believe their Americanness overrules their African heritage and that black does not account for the subtlety of shading that has played such a significant role in their lives. To understand a story, they feel, a solid understanding of people’s blackness and whiteness is necessary.
The rebby boys, a term that encompasses all prejudiced whites, are obstacles Sadie and Bessie must confront again and again in their lives. Rebby boys appear in the narrative for the first time when Bessie is a small child and does not yet know how to retaliate. Some whites make fun of her petticoat, which has slipped down, and though she is very young, Bessie senses that their remarks are racist. The sisters confront racism with greater frequency and confidence as they grow older. Rebby boys come in all forms, and even one of Sadie’s white, female co-workers, who brushes her off in front of other whites, falls into the rebby category. Institutions such as the U.S. army and the New York City school board also exhibit rebby behavior. When rebbies gather outside the Delany sisters’ home in Mount Vernon to sell drugs, Sadie goes outside to confront them directly. Throughout their lives, Sadie and Bessie are strong opponents of the rebby boys, most of whom they outlive.
The physical separation of whites and blacks during the Jim Crow era leaves a deep impression on the Delany sisters, especially because their family is mixed. The first time the sisters encounter the Jim Crow laws is on a trolley car, when they are sent to the back. When Henry Delany gives a sermon as bishop at a white church, his family is relegated to the balcony, which had formerly been quarters reserved for slaves. Inferior seating for blacks, just like demeaning language, sends a strong message that black people are second-class citizens. This message creates discomfort for Nanny Delany especially, who appears white but would rather sit in the Jim Crow car on the train, where she feels comfortable. The seating arrangement of the Delany sisters and Hearth during the interviewing process reflects a positive change in terms of seating arrangements. The women sit across from one another at the Delanys’ kitchen table, remembering and leaving behind a legacy of segregation.