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: 302

Comment by JMac1949 Today on March 29, 2017 at 7:15am

Usually history has been written by the winners.  R&L

Comment by Rodney Roe on March 29, 2017 at 8:09am

Terry, so true.

JMac 1949, I think in this case history was written by the winner.  The North won.  It is their abolitionists and their suffragettes who went down in history.  And, no one in Charleston was going to go to their defense.  They were considered traitors and could not return to their home after they wrote their pamphlets.  I'm sure there is a powerful minority in Charleston who still see them as traitors.

Comment by Ron Powell on March 29, 2017 at 8:12am

" ...we do have white history month, every day."


Excellent post,  particularly in light of the fact that this is the last week oWomen's History Month.

Comment by Rodney Roe on March 29, 2017 at 8:15am

Ron, thanks for the comment.  I wasn't aware that this is Women's History Month.  Just goes to show.

Comment by koshersalaami on March 29, 2017 at 8:15am

Terry, there's a second answer: Black and White in America aren't even the same kind of category. Black is primarily one ethnic group while White is an umbrella for many comprising the majority of America's population. White History Month would make about as much sense as a charity called the United Gentile Appeal.


Good and informative story. Personally, I try to keep other people's oxen in mind. 

Comment by Rodney Roe on March 29, 2017 at 9:42am

kosh, gore is way overrated.

Comment by Ron Powell on March 29, 2017 at 10:38am

@Kosh; "...Black is primarily one ethnic group while White is an umbrella for many."

This assertion is as wrong as the underlying assumption that it is based on.

Black is as much an "ethnic umbrella" as White.

Although it won't be comfortably acknowledged or admitted you make the same subconscious or unconscious error that most white people make.

However, a close look at these images clearly establishes the fact that the early or original African(slave) population in America  is(was) as multi-ethnic as the White population.

The geographical area covered in Africa during the course of the period during which the slave trade flourished is larger than Europe and contained populations that were(are) significant in both size and diversity.

Black 'ethnicity' was created artificially as the result of two hundred years of white America's open and active trafficking in slaves and the slave trade.

Loading and packing captured African natives, without regard to regional or cultural or linguistic differences, stripped black people of their ethnicity before the slave ships that brought them here set sail. 


Comment by Rodney Roe on March 29, 2017 at 1:38pm

Ron, good point.  I read years ago that there are 5 major genetic groups in Africa, and each of those groups is more genetically diverse than all of the peoples of Europe, Asia, and Polynesia.  And, that doesn't take into account that a great number of black Americans have white ancestry, and a sizable number of white Americans have black ancestry.

Having said all of that, I fell into the same error in thinking that kosh did, because we confuse genetics with culture, and while it is becoming increasingly more diverse, black culture is more homogeneous than "white" culture.

Comment by Rodney Roe on March 29, 2017 at 1:45pm

I mean, consider the difference between a backwoods Louisiana Baptist and an Orthodox Jew or a member of a Chinese family in Chinatown. 

Comment by koshersalaami on March 29, 2017 at 2:37pm

While I was unaware of the variety of slave origins, at this point you'd be hard pressed to separate American Blacks culturally by points of ancestral origin. That has happened to some of the American White population but there are awfully big subgroups that still maintain cultural identity. Culture is what matters in this case, not genetics, except insofar as appearance gives cultural clues. 


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