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.

Views: 289

Comment by Rob Neukirch on March 30, 2017 at 7:52am

I should have said I'm "trying" not to be pessimistic...but I'm in that "cautiously pessimistic" boat too.

Comment by Jonathan Wolfman on March 30, 2017 at 9:17am

learned much here   ty!

Comment by mary gravitt on March 30, 2017 at 10:06am

I can't seem to post.  This is my third try.  Your post is excellent.  The Grimkes figure prominently in African American history because of their African American family branch in Philadelphia.

Comment by Rodney Roe on March 30, 2017 at 1:40pm

mary, I knew that the Grimke' sisters helped free a number of the family slaves. Are the African American Grimke' branch descendants of those freed slaves? This is all so fascinating.

Comment by mary gravitt on March 31, 2017 at 11:33am

Yes, the Philadelphia Grimkes were directly related to the sisters.  I am not sure if any of them are still alive in Philly today.  But there were several books written about and by Agelina Grimke, one I think was by Henry Louis Gates in his Black Women Writers Series some years back.

Comment by Maui Surfer on April 1, 2017 at 10:56am

Very interesting to note the intersection of abolition and suffrage and then suffrage itself's link to temperance. Until these stories are told with truth the USA stays in darkness, not so blissfully unaware of how Southerners held large sway in the Ivy League and successfully promoted the Dunning School lies still recorded as if factual throughout the fabric of the nation.

Comment by Maui Surfer on April 1, 2017 at 11:12am
Comment by nanatehay on April 2, 2017 at 2:45pm

Very cool, and especially cool to be as old as I am yet still finding, in this case courtesy of yourself, that there is no shortage of stuff left for me to learn. I am reading a book right now, titled simply The Slave trade, which I highly recommend to anyone who hasn't yet read it. The author, Hugh Thomas, knows his topic like the back of his hand so the book is packed full of information, but he's also a great writer who manages to bring to life all these incredible heroes and villains (mainly villains actually, though few would have described themselves as such) from centuries worth of history about a topic most of us know a lot less about than we think we do.

Comment by Rodney Roe on April 2, 2017 at 2:53pm

Maui Surfer and nanatehay, thanks for the suggested reads.  

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