Grim life seen through the eyes of slavery in the South

Michaeline Chance-Reay

By A Contributor

This is the story of early abolitionist and women’s rights advocates, the Grimke sisters of South Carolina. Grim was part of their name, some aspects of their lives, and their look when photographed.

In addition to being the fashion in nineteenth century photos, many of those tight-lipped individuals were hiding bad teeth, not from lack of funds but of available dental services.

Money was plentiful in the Grimke household so fashion was the influence.

Sarah and Angelina were twelve years apart in age and therefore more like mother and daughter so the influence of Sarah’s beliefs was evident. 

Both girls were intelligent, independent thinkers who had suitors but chose not to marry, the goal of ladies of their era since they were barred from most colleges, professions, and voting and thus would have difficulty supporting themselves.

They both converted to Quakerism, one of the earliest religions to find slavery an abomination and work to end it. During her stay with Lucretia Mott, famed female Quaker minister, Sarah mused on her life’s path, “How odd it had turned out, how different than I imagined. The daughter of Judge John Grimke-a Southern patriot, a slaveholder, an aristocrat-living in this austere house in the North, unmarried, a Quaker, an abolitionist.”

What separated the Grimke girls from mainstream Quakers was their belief that women, in addition to slaves, should be granted more freedom. 

Like Frederick Douglas and Susan B. Anthony, they began as allies but were eventually divided by gender issues. 

White men gave the vote to black men thinking they could control them whereas this might not be the case in their own household.

Interference in their wife’s act of voting might result in no dinner, clean clothes, or other “comforts” of marriage.

Sarah Grimke’s life is told through her eyes and that of her personal slave, Hetty/Handful, given to her as a gift on her eleventh birthday. This event caused one of her two noted epiphanies.

First, on her birthday she seemed to know instinctively that one human being should not be given to another as a gift, and delivered to her father a manumission document that she had written.

It was to no avail and marked her as the odd child in the family.

The second awareness came when as an adult she spoke out on her beliefs.

Normally a shy person who sometimes stuttered when nervous, her first and subsequent abolitionist and suffragist presentations were given in a loud, clear, distinctive voice full of the convictions she held.

The chapters alternate between the voices of Sarah and of mixed race, Handful, who was most probably her half sister, the offspring of Judge Grimke and the household seamstress, Charlotte.

The title comes from the African folktales Handful has heard from her mother about a time when slaves from her African tribe could fly.

Although Charlotte could not read nor write she tells her life story, including what she remembers her mother telling her about the people who could fly through pictures sewn on a quilt. Sue Monk-Kidd acknowledges borrowing this imagery from, much to my surprise, an old friend of mine from Ohio, Virginia Hamilton.  Hamilton was a noted children’s author, one of whose works was The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales, which won the Library of Congress Children’s Book of the Year award in 1986.

Monk-Kidd is best known for her Secret Life of Bees, which was made into a movies starring Queen Latefah.

The Invention of Wings may also inspire a Hollywood film version, maybe starring the ever favorite Oprah. Each book explores the life of black and white women in two different eras.

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