29 Years


Monday, April 14, 2014
By Robin Shukla

Trust the Americans to have the guts to look back into the past to ensure they do not commit the same errors again. Slavery was once a pre-occupation of this most advanced nation, much after they almost wiped out the native Indians and the American buffalo. The southern states of the USA ran their lives and their economy on the blood, sweat and tears of the African slaves they brought in by the millions. But there was a section of society that saw enslavement as an abomination, and stood up against it. They were reviled, attacked and humiliated, but they ultimately prevailed in abolishing this strange wretchedness of the white American. The book reviewed on this page is a classic account of the triumph of the human spirit.  

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd is already a phenomenal bestseller, and got its strongest recommendation by Oprah’s Book Club. The citation was more than well-deserved for this extremely powerful book on slavery seen through the eyes, minds and hearts of Hetty (Handful), the daughter of a slave and Sarah Grimke, the daughter of one the most powerful men in Charleston, South Carolina.

Fact meets fiction in this book – there was a real life Sarah Grimke in the 1800s, and she and her sister, Angelina (Nina), born into a landed slaveholding family, were, in fact, noted abolitionists who spoke out against slavery, and for women’s rights and empowerment. In 1839, Sarah co-authored an anti-slavery book, American Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses, along with her sister, Angelina and her brother-in-law, Theodore Dwight Weld, which addressed the tragedies heaped upon the hapless slaves, and this is reportedly what drove Harriet Beecher Stowe to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was published 13 years later, in 1852. These two books are considered to be instrumental in influencing a great section of American society against the concept of slavery. Sue Monk Kidd needs to be commended for her painstaking research, poring through many tomes, documents and records of the times, to bring out this seminal piece of work that is almost as powerful as the books referred to above.

We have the story actually beginning with Hetty (Handful) being given as a maid-in-waiting to Sarah, just turned 11, as a birthday gift. Sarah is appalled and sets about trying to do her first noble act in this book by writing a letter of ‘manumission’ to free her slave. Of course, the page is torn to bits by her father, who is a notable Charleston judge. Her mother, Mary, too remonstrates with her. So we have little Handful sleeping on the floor outside Sarah’s door, close at hand to do her bidding and her bedding. There is a bonding as there can only be between two girls from varied circumstances – but there is more of compassion and heart from Sarah, than from Handful, who is constantly aware of her deprived station.

Sarah, when she was just four-years-old, has suffered the trauma of seeing a old slave woman being whipped senseless in her yard, her mother presiding over the savagery. ‘Her dress is cotton, a pale yellow colour. I stare transfixed as the back of it sprouts blood, blooms of red that open like petals.’ Sarah runs out of the house, blindly making for the wharves, across the gangplank of a sailing vessel, ‘stumbling over a turban of rope.’ When she is retrieved, ‘a muss of snot, tears, yard dirt, and harbour filth, she finds that she cannot speak. ‘I remained mute for a week. My words seemed sucked into the cleft between my collar bones. I rescued them by degrees, by praying, bullying and wooing. I came to speak again, but with an odd and mercurial form of stammer. I’d never been a fluid speaker, even my first spoken words had possessed a certain belligerent quality, but now there were ugly, halting gaps between my sentences, endless seconds when the words cowered against my lips and people averted their eyes.’

Hetty’s mother, Charlotte (mauma) is another strong and very rebellious character in this book: My mauma was shrewd. She didn’t get any reading and writing like me. Everything she knew came from living on the scarce side of mercy. “Where you think these shoulder blades of yours come from, girl? This all what left of your wings. They nothing but these flat bones now, but one day you gon get’ em back.”

Charlotte is a seamstress for the Grimke family and is into making the women’s dresses and also patchwork quilts for which, every now and then she manages to pilfer and filch some piece of cloth, or thread. She gets caught for stealing a very fine piece of green silk cloth and is punished with a leather strap being fastened to her leg which is folded up behind her and then wound around her neck. She is then made to stand and balance herself on one leg. It is an excruciating situation where she almost chokes to death. But it only serves to fuel her simmering hatred and her desire to free herself and her daughter, Handful. She intends to buy their own freedom after finding out how much each of them is worth.

Tragic reflection of the times, as the author takes us into the library of the learned judge where a bound leather book contains the inventory of the family. And there, listed after water trough, the wheelbarrow, the claw hammer, and the bushel of flint corn, are the slaves. Handful reports to her mother who has been standing guard at the door, that Charlotte, aged 36 is valued at $550 and Hetty, aged 16, at $500. She is proud to be the valued above all the other slaves, but does a rethink later on: Goods and chattel. The words from the leather book came into my head. We were like goldleaf mirror and the horse saddle. Not full-fledge people...All that pride about what we were worth left me then. For the first time, I felt the hurt and shame of just being who I was. After a while, I went down to the cellar. When mauma saw my raw eyes, she said, “Ain't nobody can write down in a book what you worth.”

The mistress of the Grimke household, Mary, is descended from a family of Lords sent over from England to establish the city, and this is something she stresses every time she can in conversation. After her having meted out punishment to Charlotte, it is the turn of Handful to get a nasty lash across the back for learning the alphabet from Sarah. Handful, who has quickly learned how to read and write, messes things up by writing a sentence in the sand outside the house. Educating slaves is forbidden. Her father, while declaring that his library his henceforth off-limits to her, admonishes Sarah: You think there is no detriment in a slave learning to read? There are sad truths in our world, and one is that slaves who read are a threat. They would be abreast of news that would incite them in ways we could not control. Yes, it's unfair to deprive them, but there's a greater good here that must be protected.

Charlotte has even managed to get a fake badge that entitles her to move about freely, does a lot of jobwork in order to raise and save money, gets involved with a free black, and even carries his child. She is also busy doing her story quilt, which tells the saga of their lives.

But the story centres around the relationship between Sarah and Handful. There is no real bonding though Sarah increasingly tolerates Handful's indifferent attitude, and sometimes open resentment. When she is denied a pass to go to the market, she flares back when Sarah tells her she knows how that feels, saying, “So we just the same, me and you? That's why you the one to shit in the pot and I'm the one to empty it?”

This does not deter Sarah from answering and following the dictates of her conscience, which militate against slavery, while maintaining her imposible friendship with Handful. With a great story and excellent language, this book is nothing short of a masterpiece. 

The Invention of Wings
by Sue Monk Kidd
Hachette India

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