Sue Monk Kidd, author of the well-received novel, THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES (2002) was in New York City in 2007 to view Judy Chicago’s “The Dinner Party.” Kidd says that while there, she was thinking about a new novel about two sisters. Reading the names of women Judy Chicago wished to celebrate, Kidd saw the names Sarah and Angelina Grimke’, sisters from Charleston South Carolina. Being from Charleston, Kidd was amazed that she had not heard of them. Back home, she began researching the women’s lives, only to discover that she’d been driving by the Grimke’ sisters unmarked home for over ten years. Subsequent research revealed that both were feminist thinkers and the first female abolitionists whose pamphlets were published by William Lloyd Garrison.
Women’s History Erased
Kidd writes: “My ignorance of them felt like both a personal failing and a confirmation of Judy Chicago’s view that women’s achievements had been repeatedly erased through history.” Kidd stated that Sarah and Angelina’s pamphlet, AMERICAN SLAVERY AS IT IS, was written 15 years before Harriet Beecher Stowe’s UNCLE TOM’S CABIN, and that the Grimke’ sisters were out crusading for the immediate emancipation of slaves and for racial equality, an idea that was radical even among abolitionists. Their desire for freedom also extended to women’s rights, ten years before the Seneca Falls Convention.
Those Scapular Bones
What followed from her research was Kidd’s fictionalized story of the history of the Grimke’ sisters in her current novel, THE INVENTION OF WINGS, a New York Times bestseller. I smiled at the title, remembering that one of my short stories, “Back Problems” had a scene in which the protagonist, Kate, has overcome back pain which was both physical and related to her life choices. The final scene read: As Kate runs, she thinks about her physical therapist, remembers that he told her that she had large scapular bones, larger than most people’s. “You know about evolution,” he had said, “well the scapular bones are you wings and you’d just be able to fly farther than the others.”
At the very beginning of Kidd’s book, we meet Hetty, whose Mauma calls her Handful. Mauma explains to Handful that in Africa her grandmother flew over trees and clouds, flew like a blackbird. But she says: “When we came here, we left that magic behind.” When Handful is skeptical Mauma says: “You don’t believe me? Where you think these shoulder blades of your come from, girl?…This is all what left of your wings. They nothing but these flat bones now, but one day you gon get ‘em back.”
Hetty Is Sarah’s Birthday Gift
And so begins the story of Hetty who is an amazing Handful, because she learns to fight, knowing that she deserves her freedom, that she deserves to get her wings back. If there is a shred of good fortune in Hetty’s life, it’s that though she is a slave, she lives in Sarah Grimke’s house. Sarah begins to abhor slavery and everything connected to it, starting with her 11th birthday when Hetty is given to her as a gift.
Sarah Grimke’s writings relate that she was eager to teach her personal slave to read when the girl showed an interest. She was also eager to set up a Sunday school program for other slave children to teach them the Bible. But she met resistance, her parents disallowing literacy for their slaves, probably fearing a natural movement toward dissatisfaction and rebellion. Their approach: Mental exertion would make the slaves unable to perform their physical labors. A law initiated in South Carolina in 1740 supported such a decision as it forbid the teaching of slaves. Sarah’s father threatened to whip her slave when he heard Sarah was teaching the girl to read.
Sarah herself had to struggle to be educated. Though her brothers were sent to Yale, being female, she was not. It is recorded that her father remarked that if Sarah had been a boy, “she would have made the greatest jurist in the country.” These words stayed with Sarah and she taught herself elements of the law from the books she could find and by questioning her brothers when they were home from university. But the inequality she lived with in the slave-oriented culture of the South, fed her desire for change—change for women, change for slaves.
The Power of Sue Monk Kidd’s Insight
Though Kidd’s book is fiction, she stays loyal to the history of the Grimke’ sisters and their efforts in both the abolitionist and feminist movements. But it is Kidd’s writing power that shines when her fiction gets into the mind of a woman she has only read about and imagines what thoughts might have affected her heart and mind so that she dedicated her life to change. Kidd writes these thoughts of Sarah: “I saw then what I hadn’t seen before, that I was very good at despising slavery in the abstract, in the removed and anonymous masses, but in the concrete, intimate flesh of the girl beside me (Hetty) I’d lost the ability to be repulsed by it. I’d grown comfortable with the particulars of evil. There’s a frightful muteness that dwells at the center of all unspeakable things, and I had found my way into it.”
This is not only the essence of Kidd’s book, it is the essence of the eternal dance of racism, the tricks of thought that we use now and again to excuse ourselves, that allows us to allow things that should not be allowed.
Gone with the Wind–Sugar Anyone?
My mother loved the book and the film GONE WITH THE WIND, but that story does exactly what Kidd is talking about–it allows the reader and the viewer to grow comfortable with the particulars of evil. Not even Prissy’s admission:”I don’t know nothin’ ’bout birthin’ babies!” isn’t really humorous. She’s a slave–and slaves were uneducated and treated like a potted plant if they were house slaves, treated like much worse if they worked on the plantation under the whip of the overseer. GONE WITH THE WIND is fiction and so is Kidd’s book, but she’s done her homework–there is no sugar-coating here.
Slave Quilts “Hidden in Plain View”
The novel includes the fascinating art of quilting which served slaves in more ways than one. Hetty’s mama, Charlotte, is the house seamstress–her job is to make clothing for the Grimke’ family and for all the slaves. Even in that position, things don’t go well for Charlotte because she fights daily for her freedom and part of that fight is the quilt squares that she makes late into the night. They depict her life–her mother’s slave ship, Hetty’s birth and separation from her father, the grandmother’s death. Slaves quilted not only to cover their children and themselves in their unheated cabins, but also to tell stories and to provide secret codes that helped slaves know when and how to safely escape. Blackbirds were a frequent symbol of flight. Quilt squares “hidden in plain view” revealed pathways for fugitives to follow on the underground railroad.
Thus Kidd’s book teaches history that is fascinating and important and allows the reader to ponder the hard choices of that life and time. If you’ve read THE INVENTION OF WINGS, please share your thoughts. Freedom and wings for everyone.
Thanks to Google Images