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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Lemuel Delany, July 15, 2005. Interview R-0346. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Comments on family's accomplishments and reaction to aunts' book

Delany describes aspects of his family history, particularly in relationship to his reaction to <cite>Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years</cite>, written by his aunts Sarah Louise "Sadie" Delany and Annie Elizabeth "Bessie" Delany. The book commemorated the sisters' lives over the hundred years they had lived so far when the book was published in the 1990s and emphasized the accomplishments of their family. As Delany explains, his family was unique in that all ten of the Delany siblings (of which his father was the oldest) achieved advanced degrees during an era in which many obstacles hindered African American higher education. Despite the positive reaction to the book, Delany expresses his disappointment and belief that the book obscured the accomplishments of the rest of the family. Additionally, Delany offers a negative description of his aunts as "old maids," demonstrating the operation of gender stereotypes for women of high achievement.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Lemuel Delany, July 15, 2005. Interview R-0346. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

KIMBERLY HILL:
We should talk a bit about your family's history with Saint Augustine.
LEMUEL DELANY:
It's basically in the book that you read [Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years by Sadie and Bessie Delany]. It's basically there. There's very little else to tell about that except that the real story to that thing is my grandfather was born a slave. He grew up in Fernandina, Florida. He came to Raleigh to go to this Normal School, which is Saint Augustine's and married and had ten children. All ten of those children got an advanced degree in their chosen profession when it was almost impossible for one child to get an education, a black child to get an education. All ten of those children got an advanced degree in their chosen profession, as doctors and lawyers and schoolteachers and musicians and what else?
ESTHER DELANY:
Dentist.
LEMUEL DELANY:
Hmm? Dentist. And all those things. All of them got advanced degrees. Not one of them fell off the log.
KIMBERLY HILL:
That's—
LEMUEL DELANY:
That's a story. That's a story.
KIMBERLY HILL:
That's rare for anybody, black or white, even now.
LEMUEL DELANY:
That's a story. Unfortunately Sadie and Bessie's book Having Our Say detracts from that story and they now are the story of the Delanys. You see what I'm talking about. They now are the story of the Delanys. In other words I used to be Dr. Delany's son. Now [people ask,] "Are you related to the Delany sisters?" I am no longer Dr. Delany's son. "Are you related to the Delany sisters?" I am no longer Bishop Delany's grandson. "Are you related to the Delany sisters?" The book is deceitful in one respect, one primary respect. That is it paints these two old ladies as sweet, charming, sweet Bessie and sweet Sadie, you see. Well, that wasn't true. That wasn't true. Number one, and I'm going to let you use your imagination.
KIMBERLY HILL:
Okay.
LEMUEL DELANY:
Give me your description of an old maid. Give me a description.
KIMBERLY HILL:
My description of an old maid?
ESTHER DELANY:
Maiden lady.
LEMUEL DELANY:
No, old maid. An old maid. Give me your description of an old maid.
KIMBERLY HILL:
Umm. They have a job they like?
LEMUEL DELANY:
No, you're self-centered. You're self-centered. You're selfish, and you don't give a damn about nobody in the world but yourself. No that's what the old maid is. Now you can glorify it and paint it in any of those pictures you want to. These two old ladies were old maids. They were old maids. Now the book paints them as sweet little Sadie and sweet little Bessie. They were old maids. They didn't give a damn about nobody in the world but themselves.
KIMBERLY HILL:
They seem to spend a lot of time looking after other people.
LEMUEL DELANY:
Who did they look after? Who did they look after? Who did they look after?
ESTHER DELANY:
Cut. Cut. Hush.
KIMBERLY HILL:
Okay, I remember her story about a cousin.
ESTHER DELANY:
Yes she did. That's true.
KIMBERLY HILL:
That they gave medicine to.
ESTHER DELANY:
They did.
LEMUEL DELANY:
Who?
ESTHER DELANY:
Cousin Daisy, that's true.
LEMUEL DELANY:
This is because she was no threat to them. They lived in the damned mountains up there in Virginia somewhere in a log cabin. She was no threat to them.
KIMBERLY HILL:
But you don't think that they helped other people who were closer to them?
LEMUEL DELANY:
Hell no. I know they didn't. When they died with their multi-million dollars, all their nieces and nephews got $5,000, and they gave all the rest of it to Lord knows who else. No, they didn't give a damn about their offsprings. They loved their brothers. They loved their brothers. There was nothing in the world good enough for their brothers. They had six brothers. The book cites one of the, most heartbreaking things that happened to them is when this little nephew, Hubie, died.
KIMBERLY HILL:
Yeah, I remember that.
LEMUEL DELANY:
Well, Hubie was their sister's child. One of their brother's children died before Hubie died. They didn't mention a damned thing about him.
KIMBERLY HILL:
No, they didn't.
LEMUEL DELANY:
Didn't mention a damned thing about him, and he was probably the first one after their daddy that died. Henry was the first one, and they didn't mention a thing about him. When they died, all of their real property they left to their sister's children, not to their brother's children. Not to their brother's children but to their sister's children. In other words, they didn't care what, but there was no woman in the world good enough for their brothers. But their sisters, that was all right.
KIMBERLY HILL:
So that's why they couldn't really get along with their brother's children.
LEMUEL DELANY:
That's right. They got along speaking and all that sort of thing and out of respect for their brothers. Sure I stayed in their apartment when I went to New York, but that was all. That was all.
KIMBERLY HILL:
I can understand that. We were talking about that going on in my own family at a reunion about two weeks ago.
LEMUEL DELANY:
Yeah, but that's the way that goes. But there was nobody in the world good enough for their brothers. They worshipped the ground that their brothers walked on.
KIMBERLY HILL:
How did they treat their brothers when they were living?
LEMUEL DELANY:
My father was the oldest and he was the boss, and anything that Lemuel said you did not question. That came from the fact that when their daddy was living, he was the boss, and anything that Papa said was the gospel, truth and gospel. Once he died, my father took over. Anything that he said was gospel. When he died, then Sadie took over, and she was the next in line as far as age was concerned. She took over. She used Bessie as her mouthpiece because she wouldn't say anything. She'd just sit there and look and give Bessie the eye, and this I meant talk and this meant shut up [motions]. So that's the way they did their thing.