Fighting the past

Fighting the past

Sue Monk Kidd has taken the entire history of black Americans and produced a wonderful, positive tale by zeroing into the American deep South, which held on to slavery with an inhuman doggedness.

The slaves were so totally the owner’s property that they carried the name of their master.

As Sarah Grimke, who is gifted with a little girl slave of the family, Herry Handful Grimke.

Herry’s autobiographical narrative begins with how people could fly in Africa in ancient days. Her mom told her, didn’t she?

“Handful, your granny mauma saw it for herself. She say they flew over trees and clouds. She say they flew like blackbirds. When we came here, we left that magic behind.”

Blackbirds with clipped wings, shut up in their cages of unrelenting drudgery. And yet, Kidd tells her story (“inspired by real events”) with a gentle breeze of humour at appropriate places.

It is not easy to read it at one go, but then it does not bring on any depression.

Kidd’s adroit management of people and events leaves us wide-eyed.

The white man’s unthinking cruelty to black Americans reveals a clear-cut divide, the oppressor and the oppressed.

But, both believe in the Bible! There is no irony here. This was how it happened. Such is the arena of human tragedy, which is played out in all ages and in all climes, in different colours and costumes.

The detailed “author’s note” reveals how Kidd has practically followed the real-life story of the Grimke sisters, Sarah Moore and Angelina Emily.

At the very heart of human cussedness was the loving light of Sara and Nina glowing in the 19th century.

Rebellion is not easy when the slaves whom they want to save are themselves not quite willing to reach out to the unknown, a life of freedom.

“At the age of 11, I owned a slave I couldn’t free”.

The society would not allow it nor the slave. A deep affection binds Sarah and Handful together, as they struggle with the guilt of helplessness and the misery of being a slave.

The novel is helix-patterned with the voices of Sarah and Handful getting closely woven, not to miss any of the significant tragic points of slavery.

Living as a slave was inferno, but the terror of being sold in auction was beyond human imaginings.

Kidd’s negative capability is astonishing.

The thought processes of the oppressor and the oppressed get caught in conversations with perfect ease.

In another push to the frontiers of the psyche by the novelist, Sarah (followed by Nina) is able to reach out to the world of Handful and is free at last from the barriers created by the mind.

She will now be an activist along with her more vocal sister.

The breaking of the barrier of the ‘Negro pew’ is but a small step, but a big step for the Anti-slavery Movement. As painful as that of the reformists’ wish to abolish untouchability in India.

“Pro-slavery mobs had been on a reign of terror all summer, and not in the South, but here in the North. They’d been tossing abolitionist printing presses into the rivers and burning down free black and abolitionist homes, nearly 50 of them in Philadelphia alone. The violence had been a shock to me and Nina — it seemed geography was no safeguard at all. Being an abolitionist could get you attacked right on the streets — heckled, flogged, stoned, killed.”

A price on the heads of some abolitionists as well. Fortunately, the Grimke sisters pressed on with their commitment to their cause and lived to an advanced age.

Of the slave characters here who are remakes of reality, it is a comfort to watch the “compact defiance” in the face of Handful, which makes Sarah take a decisive step.

The novel breaks off with the very young Sarah leading Handful and Sky to freedom across the sea.

One is grateful to the novelist for concluding the narrative on an optimistic note. The telling of the story could not have been easy for her, as she had gone through a heavily documented tragedy.

As when she came upon a list of the 17 slaves owned by John Grimke, sandwiched between a “Brussels Carpet and 11 yards of cotton-and-flax.”

Yet, Kidd went on with the process of creation, strengthening herself, perhaps, with the concluding words of the Count of Monte Cristo: “All human wisdom is contained in these two words: Wait and hope”.

Hence, even as she struggled to present the emancipation of Black American slaves, The Invention of Wings became a sterling study of women’s emancipation in the west.

Sue Monk Kidd
Headline Publishing Group
2014, pp 373
Rs. 399