The Invention of Wings


“Do what you have to do, censure us, withdraw your support, we’ll press on anyway.  Now, sirs, kindly take your feet off our necks.” – Sarah Grimke p.334  The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd.

I worked for the Charleston County Public Library for 3 years.  While living there, I would drive across the bridge to the peninsula on my days off.  Then, walk the city.  Admiring the architecture, enjoying the gardens and basking in the sun and relishing the breeze off the water.  I would exit the old topsy-turvy, curvy, narrow Cooper River Bridge in a “rough” part of town.  Often, there were 30 plus “blacks” congregating on the street corner.  The dilapidated houses in this area compared to the antebellum homes further down the peninsula hurt my heart.  I won’t lie.  Depending on how large the group was and if I got caught by the red light; I feared for my safety.  I know I wouldn’t have been as uptight if it had been a group of “whites.”

Now that I am older and wiser, I wonder if it was one of the few open spaces in the area for friends to meet… under a noisy bridge… on a street where the road flooded after a downpour.  Most likely, if they were bold enough to congregate in an area such as White Point Gardens on the Battery, they would have been escorted away.  Slavery was abolished in 1865.  But 135 years later, Charleston was still divided racially.

I spent those 3 years in Charleston selfishly thinking only about myself.  Strolling the city, eating at expensive restaurants, enjoying the beach.  So when I read this book loosely based on Sarah Grimke’s life, I felt ashamed.  Sarah was born into a family of privilege.  Her father was a Judge.  Her mother was a lady of society, concerned with her dresses and protocal.  Sarah’s family owned a plantation but lived in Charleston.  Usually, when one thinks of slavery in America, the image of men, women and children toiling in rice or cotton fields comes to mind.  However, this story focused on a slavery we often forget.  Slaves in urban areas.  Narrated in alternating chapters by Sarah Grimke and the slave she received as her eleventh-birthday present.  Hetty was the name this slave received from her master, but her mother called her Handful.  Not much is known of Sarah and her relationship.  The author did find reference in Sarah’s diary of being punished for teaching Handful to read.  Handful was punished too… more savagely.  Teaching a slave to read was against the law.

So begins this book about standing up for your convictions.  Even though I lived in Charleston those three years, I never heard of Sarah Grimke and her sister.  She left Charleston and moved North to join the fight for abolition of slavery.  In the process, she became one of the first suffragist for women’s rights in America.  Nor, did I learn about the Work House.  A place where slave owners could send their slaves for punishment.  I will never hear the word “treadmill” and immediately think of our present day exercise equipment.  There’s a lot more to this story.  Including her relationship with her younger sister, who was considered the more radical, outspoken of the two.

A quilt sewn by Handful’s mother is an important symbol in this book.  Sue Monk Kidd wove this story with the precision of an expert quilter.  Do not miss a chance to learn about an important woman in history few people know about.  In the years to come, I’ll make certain my daughter and her friends learn about Sarah Grimke.