The History We Know is the History We Are Told; Reflections on "The Invention of Wings"

Sue Monk Kidd

I just finished Sue Monk Kidd’s book, The Invention of Wings.  I found it an entertaining read, and – spoiler alert – found it even more interesting when I got to Kidd’s Afterword.  The afterword revealed that the book was inspired by the lives of real people.  Up to that point I assumed that they were fictional and that the author had thrown in the names of known historical characters of the period to make the story more interesting.

Ms. Kidd relates that she was thinking of writing a tale about two sisters.  That thought was washing around at the time that she went to view Judy Chicago’s work, “The Dinner Party”, a piece of art that, if nothing else, overwhelms the viewer.  Inscribed on the work she found 999 names of women who were important historical figures.  On that work Kidd found the names of Sarah and Angelina Grimke’, sisters from Charleston, South Carolina, who were pivotal figures in the abolition and women’s rights movements.

Kidd was astonished and felt guilty that she was from Charleston and had never heard of these women.  Furthermore, she had driven by their Charleston home for a decade without realizing the house’s significance.

Even more astonishing was the fact that the Grimke’ sisters were from a wealthy, prominent, landed gentry family that owned slaves, and that their father was a well-known jurist who played a part in writing the laws about slavery.

To quote Kidd, “My aim was not to write a thinly fictionalized account of Sarah Grimke’’s history, but a thickly imagined story inspired by her life.”  I would say that she succeeded.  The brilliance of her work is that she chose to make the story, not about Sarah and Angelina as sisters, but Sarah and her personal slave, Hetty, as girls of the same age, growing up in the same house, but under radically different circumstances.  Hetty’s story is based on a real person, but the story is quite different than what little is known of her actual life.  There is evidence that Hetty Handful was treated in a special way that brought the household wrath down on Sarah.  Past that, little is known.

What is amazing is that the Grimke’ sisters preceded Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and other figures that were influenced by the sisters and became much better known figures in abolition and women’s rights.  One has to ask why?  Was it the fact that the girls both became Quakers?  Sarah wanted to be a Quaker minister. There is evidence that they created waves, not only in the South where they directed pamphlets written by them on abolition, but among members of the movements that they struggled in.  Abolitionist men wanted them to stop talking about women’s rights.  Their argument was that it distracted from the more pressing issue of slavery.  It could have been that it threatened their somewhat pious standing as men in the abolitionist movement.  It could have been that women’s rights was not a pressing issue to the abolitionist men.  Perhaps it was just timing.

There is no reason to wonder why the Grimke’ house is not a prominent Charleston landmark; many people there are still rankling over the “War of Northern Aggression.”

Kidd played sort of fast and loose with dates, and she attributed some of Elizabeth’s work to Sarah and vice-versa.  She admits to doing all of that in the interest of speeding up the story (Sarah was a very deliberate person, and it sometimes took her months to years to decide to take an action.)  Together, the Grimke’ sisters were a complete package.  Elizabeth was attractive and a very accomplished orator.  Sarah was plain, had difficulty speaking in front of groups, but was a better theoretician and writer.

The story was of interest to me from the standpoint of some of the spats on Our Salon over the relative importance of various member’s causes.  A man I once worked with used to say that the relative importance of an issue all depended on “whose ox was being gored.”

The Grimke’ sisters travelled in heady circles.  They knew well, or had met, Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, John Greenleaf Whittier, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Theodore Weld who married Elizabeth to name a few.  Sarah turned down offers of marriage in order to pursue a vocation.  The sisters were very determined, zealous, opponents to the elements of society that they saw as inherently wrong.

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Comment by Rodney Roe on March 29, 2017 at 7:03pm

Kosh, culture trumps genetics in most cases.  Unfortunately, with African Americans the dominant physical characteristics substitute for culture.  It's not that other cultural groups don't get marked by physical characteristics (we were asked to a get-together at friends one evening when we were young.  We were the only ones there who wern't Jewish.  We had been having a nice conversation with another couple when the guy suddenly said, "funny, you don't look Jewish.") so our looks gave us away as not the right culture.  On the other hand, while there are Asians who look very Chinese, or very Japanese, or very Korean, there are a lot of individuals that members of one of those groups can't be sure of.  It's really all about culture.

FM, my reading list is all over the place.  Lately, I've been reading a lot of non-fiction for a discussion group that I attend.  This was a respite from that.  And, lest you think everything that i read is refined, I reverted to my childhood and read a spate of western novels a couple of years ago; pure escapism.  Somehow, I find those books very relaxing and when I return to more difficult books I seem to see things clearer.

About not reading a book until you have finished the last: I knew a kid in college - brilliant - who had two sets of clothes.  His drawers (the ones the rest of us kept our whitey tidies in) were filled with books.  I asked Jimmy if he had read all of those books and his response was, I never start a book until I've finished the last one.", despite the fact that he had a  photographic memory and could remember everything that was in any of the books. They had sentimental value to him.  I felt that way in the regard that all of the books that i read were to me, mileposts in my life.

I went to a small college with no particular academic reputation, but there were four people in my class of that intellectual level. They were jerks.  Who knows how i would have been with that kind of brain?  

Comment by koshersalaami on March 29, 2017 at 8:56pm

Or maybe that kind of memory. That's probably the bigger difference.

Comment by Ron Powell on March 29, 2017 at 9:31pm

@Kosh;  "...at this point you'd be hard pressed to separate American Blacks culturally by points of ancestral origin..."

White people made sure that this would be so...

However, that said, there are pockets of African-American populations that have managed to retain some semblance or modicum of their ancestral  origins.

Blacks in certain areas of the Carolinas and Louisiana come to mind, as well as recent (2nd/3rd) generation progeny of immigrants from African Nations and the Caribbean....

As I said, the subconscious or unconscious error that most white people make in this matter is not comfortably admitted or acknowledged....

Comment by Ron Powell on March 29, 2017 at 9:37pm

@RR; I have what might be termed as a 'phonographic' memory.

I can remember or recall everything I hear with sufficient precision to sit and listen to a lecture and take notes from the replay in my memory several hours later.

That's how I got through law school....

It's the foundation of my capacity to play the piano by ear... 

Comment by Rosigami on March 29, 2017 at 11:05pm

Rodney, I am familiar with this author through only two of her many books, The Secret Life of Bees and The Mermaid Chair, both of which I enjoyed immensely. I'll put The Invention of Wings on my "to read" list. 

Comment by Rodney Roe on March 30, 2017 at 1:47am

Ron, my auditory memory is like that girl in Peanuts with the bubble over her head hearing "wah wah, wah wah, ..."  A couple of my medical school classmates had your kind o memory.  Mine was/is all visual.  Horace Marvin, who was head of the Anatomy Department helped set up a Medical School in Nigeria.  He thought that the students had gotten admitted through some privilege, because none of them took notes, until one asked, "I didn't understand what you meant when you said..." and then repeated back to him, verbatim, what he had just said for the last few minutes.  He thought that students had been weeded out through the years by a society that valued an oral tradition of learning.  That kind of memory must have been what Snorri Sturluson, the man who put the Icelandic sagas on paper for the first time, must have had.

Comment by Rodney Roe on March 30, 2017 at 1:58am

Rosi, thanks for coming by. Reading those two books prompted me to look for something new from her.  Her latest book has not gotten very good reviews, but i may read it anyway.  When you write as well as Kidd does the bar of expectation is set very high.

Comment by Rodney Roe on March 30, 2017 at 3:59am

kosh, that kind of memory.  Temple Grandin, the woman with autism spectrum that has become famous as a "livestock whisperer", said that she does not have general memories.  When she thinks of a cathedral she has no generic cathedral image that comes up, she sees a slide show of all the cathedrals that she has seen.  One of my college friends with an idetic memory said that although he did very well at math he wasn't really a mathematician.  When he needed a formula a slide show of formulas played until he found the one he needed.  Real mathematicians derive their own.  

I always felt like the individuals that I knew with that kind of memory viewed the rest of us like Koko, the gorilla who spoke in sign language did gorillas who could not sign, as "bugs".

Comment by Rob Neukirch on March 30, 2017 at 7:03am

Dear Rodney,

Thanks for the enlightenment, as always.  In this weird era we now live in, it's as it always has been...women and minorities marginalized.  When we turn this around, we will turn civilization around.  I'm not being pessimistic, I do think the ship is turning but oh-so-slowly.  It's like yanking on the Lusitania with a tow rope, you know?  Hope you're well.

Comment by Rodney Roe on March 30, 2017 at 7:13am

Rob, so good to hear from you.  I hope You are playing some.  It's said that it has powers to "soothe the savage soul."  I thought the ship was turning before this last election.  Show's how out of touch I was.  There seems to be a world-wide movement toward choosing strong man leaders.  Things may not reverse to a gentler era during our grandchildren's time.  I would say that I'm cautiously pessimistic.

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