The Invention of Wings

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The Evils of Slavery and the Necessity of Resistance Theme Analysis

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LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Invention of Wings, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
The Evils of Slavery and the Necessity of Resistance Theme Icon

The Invention of Wings spends significant attention on the true horrors of the everyday life of a slave, exploring the ways that slavery harmed black people, as well as the lesser known (and less extreme) injuries that the institution of slavery caused to white people in the American South. Through a focus on the experience of urban Southern slaves, Kidd gives attention to the unconscionable pain that slaves faced beyond the evils of plantation slavery (the kind usually depicted in historical fiction). Handful and her family undergo intense physical and emotional pain at the hands of their white masters, scenes of trauma that force harsh examination of these injuries as the first step towards acknowledging the historical pain of slavery and giving an opportunity to begin healing these wounds. Even those who benefit economically from slavery, such as the slave-owning Grimké family, suffer the psychological damage of slavery, as the practice sows distrust, apathy, bitterness, and weakness of mind and body in the members of the Grimké family.

With all of the evils of slavery on display, Kidd turns to the numerous ways that slaves resisted their treatment, from civil disobedience to active violence. Slaves such as Handful, Charlotte, or Rosetta feign unintelligence or disability to avoid certain labor, reclaiming their time and their personhood away from their masters. Most slaves even have an alternate name that denotes their true identity rather than the identity that the masters give them. Apart from this everyday resistance, Handful also feels called to join the violent rebellion planned by Denmark Vesey, a movement that gave many slaves hope of freedom despite the deplorable circumstances of their lives. White people too, of course, must resist slavery not just because they are the ones responsible but also as a way to keep their own principles and self-worth intact, as shown by Sarah’s depression when faced with the injustice of every slave’s life before she begins to actively protest slavery. Kidd brings to light not just the terrible effects of slavery on everyone involved, but also the importance of resisting and overcoming slavery in order for all people to achieve and maintain self-respect.

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The Evils of Slavery and the Necessity of Resistance ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of The Evils of Slavery and the Necessity of Resistance appears in each Part of The Invention of Wings. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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The Evils of Slavery and the Necessity of Resistance Quotes in The Invention of Wings

Below you will find the important quotes in The Invention of Wings related to the theme of The Evils of Slavery and the Necessity of Resistance.
Part 1 Quotes

I was shrewd like mauma. Even at ten I knew this story about people flying was pure malarkey. We weren’t some special people who lost our magic. We were slave people, and we weren't going anywhere. It was later I saw what she meant. We could fly all right, but it wasn't any magic to it.

Related Characters: Hetty Handful Grimké (speaker), Charlotte Grimké (Mauma)
Page Number: 3
Explanation and Analysis:

Charlotte tells Handful a legend about their ancestors who had wings in Africa, but lost those wings when they came to America. Handful always knew that this story wasn’t strictly true, but she did not fully understand the metaphorical meaning behind this story until she was an adult. Kidd uses flight as a symbol for freedom, the ability to make one’s own choices for his or her life. Handful’s ancestors had this ability, but lost their autonomy when they were forced into slavery in the United States. It seems as though Handful and her family’s lives are hopeless, with no chance of ever getting their freedom back or even leaving the house where they are slaves. Yet as Handful grows, she sees the ways that she and her mother can still resist their treatment. Handful knows that she and her family can still fly, by choosing never to let go of their own self-worth in the face of oppression. Calling back to the title, Handful needs to “invent” her wings—that is, find ways to take back her freedom by asserting herself and her personhood to the world.

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Don't let her fall anymore. That's the prayer I said. Missus told us God listened to everybody, even a slave got a piece of God's ear. I carried a picture of God in my head, a white man, bearing a stick like missus or going round dodging slaves the way master Grimké did, acting like he'd sired a world where they don’t exist. I couldn’t see him lifting a finger to help.

Related Characters: Hetty Handful Grimké (speaker), Charlotte Grimké (Mauma), Mary Grimké (Mother / Missus), John Grimké (Father)
Page Number: 44
Explanation and Analysis:

After Charlotte is caught with a piece of stolen green silk, she is forced to spend an hour with her leg tied up in such a way that if Charlotte drops her leg, a rope will choke her. This cruel punishment takes place in the yard, in full view of all the other slaves – including Charlotte’s daughter Handful. Handful watches her mother in horror and winces when Charlotte falls, as Kidd once again zeroes in on the true pain of life as a slave. Yet Handful seems to have accepted this pain to some extent, seeking only to minimize her mother’s distress instead of wishing it away completely. Rather than praying to God that Charlotte’s punishment would be ended early, or that the white masters would have compassion, Handful simply prays that Charlotte will not fall again.

Aside from increasing the pathos of Charlotte’s punishment, Handful’s prayer also points to the ways that the white slave holders use religion to uphold their way of life. Handful recognizes that the white masters care very little for the slaves’ welfare, and she assumes that their white God cares just as little. White ministers often use the Bible to admonish the slaves to be obedient, ignoring any injustice that the slaves might suffer in the process. Handful knows that white people will never admit that she exists as a person, much less offer her compassion or mercy. Any help that Handful needs, she will have to demand for herself.

Part 2 Quotes

Night after night, I endured these grand affairs alone, revolted by what objets d’art we were and contemptuous of how hollow society had turned out to be, and yet inexplicably, I was filled with a yearning to be one of them.
The slaves moved among us... without being seen, and I thought how odd it was that no one ever spoke of them, how the word slavery was not suitable in polite company, but referred to as the peculiar institution.

Related Characters: Sarah Grimké (speaker)
Page Number: 92
Explanation and Analysis:

Once Sarah comes of age to join society, she is forced to go to dances and balls at the houses of all the elite families of Charleston. Sarah compares the other women to objets d’art, French for art objects, pointing out how no one expects these women to do anything more with their lives than look beautiful. Sarah feels out of place at the party, marked by her ambition to be more than an empty-headed pretty face. Yet critical as Sarah is of the limits on women’s lives, she still has a twisted desire to be one of these effortlessly beautiful women. Sarah can see how much easier her life would be if she were content to find a husband and live out her days as a committed wife and mother.

Sarah is also marked out by her insistence on speaking about the injustices she sees in society. The role of women is one thing that society in Charleston refuses to talk about, but the bigger issue couched in silence is that of slavery. Sarah describes how “polite” society can’t even say the word “slavery,” even though all of their wealth and privilege is due to the slaves that work their land. Calling slavery “the peculiar institution” makes it into a curiosity that all Southerners happen to live with, rather than a monstrous practice that is essentially the foundation of their privilege. The taboo against talking about slavery also gives slavery more power, making it harder to imagine any other way to live in the South. It’s easier for the white planter to ignore the injustice they live with every day when nobody speaks of it. Yet Sarah cannot ignore injustice, and therefore cannot live comfortably in Southern society.

Goods and chattel… We were like the gold leaf mirror and the horse saddle. Not full-fledge people. I didn’t believe this, never had believed it a day of my life, but if you listen to white folks long enough, some sad, beat-down part of you starts to wonder. 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.
… When mauma saw my raw eyes, she said, “Ain’t nobody can write down in a book what you worth."

Related Characters: Hetty Handful Grimké (speaker), Charlotte Grimké (Mauma) (speaker)
Page Number: 112
Explanation and Analysis:

Handful sneaks into Master Grimké’s library to find out the price to buy freedom for herself and her mother. Though she is initially pleased that their prices are relatively high, Handful later realizes that any monetary price at all far underestimates the worth of a human soul. Handful’s shame and embarrassment at knowing her price is another example of the evils of slavery. The Grimkés’ slaves are even listed after the Grimkés’ other possession, as if the humans that they own are not even the most important objects in the Grimkés’ eyes. Though Handful rejects the idea that slaves are not as human as white people, it is hard for her to live surrounded by those ideas without feeling some of their effects. This psychological damage is yet another injury that slaves must bear, one that is perhaps even more harmful than the physical punishments that constantly threaten them. Handful is saved from falling into despair and depression by her mother’s unshakeable faith in their worth as human beings. Charlotte never forgets the importance of resisting all the ways that slavery marks their lives, and tells Handful that her price can never be written down by anyone.

She'd immersed herself in forbidden privileges, yes, but mostly in the belief she was worthy of those privileges. What she'd done was not a revolt, it was a baptism.
I saw then what I hadn’t seen before, that I was very good at despising slavery in the abstract, in the removed and anonymous masses, but in the concrete, intimate flesh of the girl beside me, I'd lost the ability to be repulsed by it. I'd grown comfortable with the particulars of evil.

Related Characters: Sarah Grimké (speaker), Hetty Handful Grimké
Page Number: 115
Explanation and Analysis:

When the Grimké family returns a day earlier than expected from a month in Belmont, Sarah catches Handful taking a bath in Sarah’s copper tub – a privilege a slave would never be allowed to take in the presence of white people. Sarah is at first angry, but later reflects on the event and calls Handful’s bath a baptism, metaphorically giving Handful a new life where she is no longer a slave unworthy of comfort and riches. Handful is not planning a revolution at this point, a word that connotes punishing the white people for their poor treatment of Handful all her life. This bath is simply a way for Handful to assert her personhood, and her right to have all the things that white people have. Handful is not looking for black people to be superior to white people—she is just attempting to find a world where black people are treated as valuable and fully human.

At first Sarah cannot believe Handful’s audacity at using her beautiful things, surprising even herself with her anger. Sarah had thought that she truly believed in equality between the races, a principle that should translate into Sarah happily allowing Handful to share in all of her own fine things. Yet Sarah has not fully escaped the influence of society, surrounded by people who consistently perpetuate the idea that black slaves are naturally inferior to white people. Kidd recognizes how easily people can fall back on the bad ideologies of their family and childhood, even if – like Sarah – they rationally know that these principles are wrong. Living with slavery every day, it is all too easy for Sarah to simply accept this institution as the way the world is. Sarah has to put in effort day after day to free her mind from the worldview of slavery, so that she can work to free the slaves from their own chains.

Part 4 Quotes

"The Lord has spoken to me," he cried out. "He said, set my people free. When your name is written in the Book, you’re one of us and you’re one of God’s, and we'll take our freedom when God says, Let not your heart be troubled. Neither let it be afraid. You believe in God, believe also in me…” …My name wasn’t in the book, just the men’s, but I would’ve put it in there if I could. I would’ve written it in blood.

Related Characters: Hetty Handful Grimké (speaker), Denmark Vesey (speaker)
Page Number: 224-225
Explanation and Analysis:

As Denmark Vesey’s slave revolt gains more followers, Denmark uses biblical rhetoric to help sway potential converts to their side. He justifies any insecurities that slaves might have about rising up against the “natural order” of black inferiority that is pushed in the Anglican Church. Denmark builds a community of the slaves by having them write their names in a Book, echoing the “Book of Life” that holds the name of all those who are saved in the biblical book of Revelation. The call to action, “You believe in God, believe also in me,” quotes Jesus Christ, comparing Denmark to a savior for this oppressed people. The rebellion and the Book create a place where slaves can come together as people who will receive the same rights as any white person.

Yet while the community of believers promises to free the slaves, it ignores the further oppression of women. Handful is not allowed to sign the book because she is female. Though women like Handful and Denmark’s wife, Susan, contribute just as much to the rebellion efforts – providing food and even stealing arms for the men – their actions are not recognized publically the way the men are. Handful is just as committed to Denmark’s vision of freedom as any of the men are, ready to sign her name in blood or risk her life to obtain a bullet mold. The slave movement is a huge step forward for racial equality, but Kidd does not lose sight of the ways that Denmark’s revolution still needs to address gender equality.

I drew myself up, glaring at their angry faces. “…What would you have the slaves do?” I cried. “… If we don’t free them, they will free themselves by whatever means.”

Related Characters: Sarah Grimké (speaker)
Page Number: 253-254
Explanation and Analysis:

When Sarah returns to Charleston, her Quaker clothing makes her the target for many white citizens who are nervous about the rumors of slave revolt. As the Quakers are known for being staunch abolitionists, other white Charlestonians accuse Sarah of helping the slaves rise up against their masters. Sarah, for once, does not stay silent in order to protect her place in the status quo of society. Though she still has her stammer, evidenced by the ellipses in her speech, Sarah fights against her speech impediment to speak up for the slaves’ right to be free. She is not in favor of the potential violence that a slave revolt could bring, but she brings up the important question of what other options the slaves have after years of oppression at the hands of white citizens. Sarah’s questions refuse to let the white citizens act like victims; they created the circumstances that now force the slaves to use “whatever means” to achieve freedom.

Sarah outburst also works towards true racial equality. Sarah specifically points out that the slaves can free themselves, recognizing that black people are not helpless without a white savior to come and free them. True equality means more than freeing the slaves; it means allowing black people to assert themselves in their freedom. Sarah’s belief in equality means that she has to recognize black people’s right to free themselves even when she may be uncomfortable with their methods.

The edict from the judges said we couldn't cry, or say his name, or do anything to mark him, but I took a little piece of red thread from my neck pouch and tied it round one of the twigs on a low, dipping branch to mark the spot. Then I cried my tears and said his name.

Related Characters: Hetty Handful Grimké (speaker), Denmark Vesey
Related Symbols: Red Thread
Page Number: 261
Explanation and Analysis:

After Denmark’s slave revolt is crushed, Charleston officials hang Denmark in a secret location and pass an order that prohibits mourning Denmark in any way. Handful ignores these warnings and follows Denmark’s wagon from his holding cell in the Work House to a field, where she is the only one to witness Denmark’s execution. Though she knows the risks, Handful cannot let Denmark’s grave go unmarked. No matter his “crimes,” Denmark is still a person who deserves to have a memorial for his death. Handful effectively breaks the silence that Charleston officials used to ignore and shame the slaves who wanted to revolt. Handful marks the grave site with red thread, which Kidd has used throughout the novel to symbolize Handful’s spirit and desire for freedom. Handful also deserves the chance to mourn this loss of the dream of freedom. Denmark gave hope to so many slaves that their bondage might end soon, and offered them practical ways to resist their treatment. With Denmark gone, resistance against slavery is a much harder prospect. The red thread shows that Handful is still committed to the dream of freedom despite this heavy blow.

Part 5 Quotes

Mauma's back… She has scars and a full head of white hair and looks old as Methusal, but she's the same inside. I nurse her day and night. She brought my sister with her named Sky. I know that's some name. It comes from mauma and her longings. She always said one day we'd fly like blackbirds.

Related Characters: Hetty Handful Grimké (speaker), Charlotte Grimké (Mauma), Sky
Page Number: 274
Explanation and Analysis:

Charlotte returns to the Grimké house after 13 years with a half-sister that Handful has never met. Handful writes a letter to Sarah describing these developments. Charlotte has been wounded in many ways by life on the plantation where she was forced to live. Handful sees all the new physical scars left by the harsh punishments on the plantation, as well as noticing how Charlotte has been prematurely aged by her life as a slave. Kidd again details the hardships that slaves face and the incredible evil of this institution.

Yet though Charlotte has been hurt, she has not given up on the dream of freedom. Sky’s name is the biggest indicator that Charlotte is still resisting her bonds as much as she can. Handful again remembers the legend about blackbirds that Charlotte told her as a little girl. In that legend, black people had wings – a metaphor for their freedom. Charlotte consistently has faith in a future where black people will fly once more, gaining their freedom back.

Part 6 Quotes

“Course, you’re tired. You worked hard your whole life. That’s all you did was work.”
“Don’t you remember me for that. Don’t you remember I’m a slave and work hard. When you think of me, you say, she never did belong to those people. She never belong to nobody but herself.”

Related Characters: Hetty Handful Grimké (speaker), Charlotte Grimké (Mauma) (speaker)
Page Number: 303-304
Explanation and Analysis:

Charlotte goes out to Handful’s spirit tree to collect her spirit before letting go of the hard life she has led. Handful follows her to say one last goodbye to her mother. In that conversation, Handful acknowledges that Charlotte has every right to be tired after a lifetime of working to the bone for the Grimkés. Charlotte rejects that, however, wanting to be remembered for her rebellious spirit rather than her obedience or how well she held up in a life of drudgery. Charlotte’s spirit always belonged to herself, even when her body was the property of a white man or woman. That spirit is what truly counts, as Charlotte shows Handful how to maintain resistance to slavery despite all consequences. Charlotte’s faith that slaves are fundamentally worthy of freedom inspires Handful to keep working towards her own escape. Charlotte’s legacy is not the legacy of a slave who was bound all her life; it is the legacy of a woman who never gave in to the bonds that others tried to force on her.

We'd set down every argument the South made for slavery and refuted them all. I didn’t stutter on the page. It was an ecstasy to write without hesitation, to write everything hidden inside of me, to write with the sort of audacity I wouldn’t have found in person.

Related Characters: Sarah Grimké (speaker), Angelina (Nina) Grimké
Page Number: 317
Explanation and Analysis:

When Nina and Sarah are forced to leave the Quakers in Philadelphia, they hole up in the attic of two of the black members of the Quaker community. With nothing else to do, Nina suggests that they write a letter to Southern women and clergy defending the cause of abolition. Sarah comes alive with this idea, finally able to fully speak her mind on the evils of slavery. The written word gives Sarah the freedom to say everything that she stutters and stumbles over in person. Whereas her family laughs off Sarah’s ideas about freeing slaves, and the other high-society Charleston elite look at Sarah as a strange failure of a woman because she never married, Sarah can truly come into her own as a writerr. On the page, Sarah’s female identity does not get in the way of her serious intellectual mind. Sarah herself can let go of the judgemnt that she expects from others when she is writing and focus on the truth of what she is fighting for.

Sarah put her hand on my arm and left it there while the city heaved away. It was the last square on the quilt… I thought of mauma then, how her bones would always be here. People say don’t look back, the past is past, but I would always look back… When we left the mouth of the harbor, the wind swelled and the veils round us flapped, and I heard the blackbird wings. We rode onto the shining water onto the far distance.

Related Characters: Hetty Handful Grimké (speaker), Sarah Grimké, Charlotte Grimké (Mauma)
Related Symbols: Charlotte’s Quilt and Black Triangles
Page Number: 359
Explanation and Analysis:

As the boat pulls away from the Charleston harbor and takes Handful and Sky towards freedom in the North, Sarah and Handful stand together at the rail and watch the city fade into the distance. Handful calls this moment “the last square of the quilt,” imagining that her journey out of slavery completes her mother’s story quilt. The last square of the quilt shows Handful and Sarah together, able to interact as equals at last. Throughout Charlotte’s life, Charlotte used her quilt to take back her life story from the white masters who try to silence Charlotte’s voice. Handful finally escapes a life of slavery and achieves Charlotte’s dream of a life where her voice is just as strong as anyone else’s voice. Handful keeps Charlotte’s legacy in mind as she moves into her future, keeping her mother’s memory alive. The book ends with the same image of blackbird wings from the blackbird legend in the first chapter. As Charlotte said in the beginning, the slaves did find their wings once again.