Book Reviews / Opinion Pieces

Can white people write about slavery? – A dicussion of Sue Monk Kidd’s “The Invention of Wings”


I just finished reading “The Invention of Wings” by Sue Monk Kidd. This book was actually suggested by the book club I am in, and so I started to read it without much knowledge of the author or the real story of the Grimké sisters, Sarah and Angelina. To be honest, I was not even sure of the author’s racial background or where the author grew up. All I knew was that Sue Monk Kidd was an American woman. I guess what I am trying to say in this introduction is that I went in blind.

The story is split in two and told from the perspective of Sarah Grimké and a slave girl who worked in the Grimké household, Hetty Handful. This multiple perspective reminds me a lot of Barbara Kingsolver’s “Poisonwood Bible”. The chapters oscillate between Hetty and Sarah and the reader gets a glimpse of slave owner and the enslaved. Before I go further, I just want to point out that some reviews have suggested that Hetty, referred to in the book mainly as Handful, was a fictional slave character created by Monk Kidd, although this is not exactly the case. Hetty was indeed a slave in the Grimké household and Sarah did teach her how to read and write, although she dies soon after and that is sadly where her story stops. In this sense, Handful’s story after learning to read and write is a fiction created by Monk Kidd, although her existence is not. And I think that Sue Monk Kidd did a very brave thing including Hetty’s story, voice, and narrative into “The Invention of Wings”. It is through Monk Kidd’s story that I now know of the existence of Hetty.

So if you’re wondering who Sarah Grimké was, here is a short bio. She grew up inSarah_Moore_Grimke Charleston, South Carolina in the early 1800s. Her family were rich white slave owners and her father was a judge. Her brothers all followed in their father’s footsteps and became lawyers. Sarah, a woman (so basically worth nothing) was trapped in a house and forced to learn what it was to be a woman of society. She detests slavery and in the end becomes a Quaker and then a spokeswoman for the abolition of slavery and for women’s rights in the USA.Angelina_Emily_Grimke

Her sister Angelina, Nina, was much young than Sarah and was considered quite the ‘looker’. I’ll let you decide. The two of them worked together in their efforts against slavery and the promotion of women’s rights. At the time, they were infamous and quite the scandal – women talking in public, sharing opinions, fighting for freedom and all that. Although, over time their story was lost to history.

And now to “The Invention of Wings”…

Even though “The Invention of Wings” is clearly a book about slavery and the early abolition movement, it is also a story of women and sisters. Sarah and Nina realise that it is only when they are together, they can take on slavery and women’s rights. Each sister is one wing and together they can fly. The same can be said about Hetty and her sister Sky. The references to wings and the blackbirds are a strong theme throughout the book and Charlotte, Hetty’s mother, constantly tells Hetty the story of her grandmother and the loss of her wings after leaving Africa.

Another strong theme is water and boats. Charleston, a town located on the water, is both beautiful and evil. The town’s strict laws against slaves and the Work House (a torture house for ‘uncooperative’ slaves) unleashes cries and screams that contrast the sound of the ocean waves and the hope of freedom.

Cross the water, cross the sea
Let them fishes carry me.
If that water take too long,
Carry me on, carry me on.” – Hetty p.39

These themes of water, water, birds, and flying are all chronicled in Charlotte’s story quilt. Hetty’s mother creates a quilt that chronicles her mother’s trip from Africa and Charlotte’s life as a slave. Unable to read and write, the quilt becomes a way to tell Charlotte’s story and a way to explain the inexplicable pain of slavery. The story quilt is completely fiction according to Sue Monk Kidd. But I think that it is a great narrative device for the story. Even though the quilt might seem implausible considering the restrictions of slavery, (How would the slave get that much cloth to sew? How would they have the time? If it were found surely it would destroyed and/or considered some kind of crime?) I think though in the novel, the quilt represents a resistance against forgetting the past, no matter how painful. It is an act of defiance.

The nightmare lasted so long and the distances traversed were so vast that communication was breached between home and diaspora; even memory lapsed, and the two sides lost each other; they forgot who they were, their proper name.” – China Achebe, 56 (The Education of a British Protected Child)

The nightmare of slavery that Achebe talks about here and the lapse in memory is exactly what the story quilt fights against whether it is fictional or not. It is an attempt to bridge two sides – Africa and America, savage and slave (as seen in the eyes of colonialists). The quilt gives Charlotte agency over her past and her memory.

In a New York Times article Kathryn McKee talks about the risks of writing about slavery and race as a white person. She says that when white people write about slavery they run the risk of only telling the white person’s perspective. And this is true. African Americans (or any other race for that matter) do not need another white person telling them how it is/was/or should be. But, I think that times are changing. And what I mean is: with each year, more and more people of colour write novels, articles, stories, and blogs about race, discrimination, slavery, life, love, pain, travel, and change. Their side, their stories were missing for many many years and are still not represented enough.

When we only allow one kind of story to be told, we miss out. Which is why it’s important to have stories from every race, religion, gender, culture, and social demographic. So in answer to my question, Can white people write about slavery?: I say yes. I don’t know if I’m stretching my metaphors here, but I wonder if we could think about this in relation to Monk Kidd’s references to wings and sistership:

Sarah is one wing, her sister Nina the other. Together, and only together can they fly.

Hetty is one wing, and her sister Sky is the other. Together, and only together can they fly.

Sarah is one wing, and Hetty is the other. Together, and only together can they fly.

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