Back in 1991 when I was a newspaper reporter and met the then-unknown Delany Sisters, the 100 and 102 year old pair of sisters insisted on being described first and foremost as American.
Yes, they were Black. Yes, they were women. And proud of it.
But “American” came first.
The same held true after my newspaper story was published and we began working on our book, Having Our Say. The sisters often said they hoped the book would be categorized not as Black history or Women’s history, but as American history.
Indeed, while the book (early on, at least) was shelved in the Black History and Women’s Interest sections of many book stores, it gravitated toward the broader, mainstream category of biography/autobiography, helped along when a prominent reviewer wrote that Having Our Say presented “a missing slice of American history.”
It was indeed a missing slice, or missing perspective. Their father, who had been born into slavery in Georgia, eventually became an Episcopal Bishop. Their mother, who could have passed for white but chose not to, was born free in Virginia. The girls and their eight siblings were raised right on the campus of St. Augustine’s School (now College) in Raleigh, North Carolina because their father was vice-principal and their mother, a teacher and administrator.
The sisters went to college (and graduate school!) and launched ground-breaking careers in New York. As part of what was known as the “Black Elite,” they knew everyone from James Weldon Johnson to Paul Robeson.
By the early 1990s, when I met them, the sisters had to be persuaded that what they had to say was important for the sake of history. They’d been made to feel insignificant for so long they couldn’t believe anyone would want to hear what they had to say. (As it turned out, plenty of people did. Our little book was a New York Times bestseller for 113 weeks!)
Readers may find it interesting to learn that the Delany Sisters had mixed feelings about the celebration of Black History Month and Women’s History Month. The sisters recognized that these specially-designated months make an important contribution by providing a context in which some of the historical gaps are filled.
And yet, the Delany sisters and I hoped (as we discussed many times) that over time the points of view, experiences, opinions, and accomplishments of all Americans would be incorporated into the text books – and into our collective history. Perhaps one day, Black History Month and Women’s History Month will no longer be needed.
As Bessie Delany said (and it still stands true today): “We’ve made progress. But we have a long way to go.”