|"I never thought I'd see the day that the world would want to hear what two old Negro women have to say," says Bessie Delany. But Bessie and her sister, Sadie, born in 1893 and 1891, saw plenty, by eating a low-fat, high-vegetable diet and outliving the "old Rebby [rebel] boys" who once almost lynched Sadie. This remarkable memoir was a long-running bestseller, spawning a Broadway play and adding to their list of seasoned acquaintances (Marian Anderson, Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, Cab Calloway) such spring chickens as Hillary Clinton. Born to a former slave whose owners broke the law by teaching him to read, the sisters got a solid education. North Carolina was paradise--despite the Rebbies--until Jim Crow reared its hideous head. The girls had loved to ride in the front of the trolley because the wind in their hair made them feel free, but one day the conductor sadly ordered them to the back. The family moved to New York, where Bessie became the town's second black woman dentist and Sadie the first black woman home-ec teacher. They befriended everyone who was anyone in the Harlem Renaissance (their brother won the 1925 Congressional primary there), pursued careers instead of husbands, and lived peacefully together, despite their differences. Sadie was more peaceable, like Booker T. Washington, while Bessie was a W.E.B. Du Bois-style militant. |
They're funny: Bessie notes that blacks must be sharp to get ahead, "But if you're average and white, honey, you can go far. Just look at Dan Quayle. If that boy was colored he'd be washing dishes somewhere." And they are wise: Sadie says, "Life is short, and it's up to you to make it sweet."