Handful first steals red thread from Sarah as a young girl, in a small rebellion against the many limits on her life as a slave. From then on, red thread becomes the symbol of the revolutionary spirit of the slaves. Handful continues to steal it, evoking the way that every moment of rebellion must be “stolen” from the white masters who own the slaves. Handful also makes the red thread stand for the literal spirits of the slaves, by wrapping a tree in red thread to make it a “spirit tree” that will keep her soul and her mother’s soul safe no matter what harm comes to their bodies. Thread also allows Charlotte and Handful to sew, working on their quilts as their method of telling their own stories. With the red thread, Charlotte and Handful can control some aspect of their lives in a world that otherwise takes all agency away from slaves. The bright red color hints towards the incredible passion and vibrancy of Handful and Charlotte’s spirits.
By the end of the novel, Handful uses red thread to remind herself that slaves are every bit as human and worthy as white people. She marks Denmark Vesey’s grave with red thread after he is executed for planning a slave revolt. When Sarah comes back for the last time to help Handful and Sky escape North, Handful compares Sarah’s hair to red thread as a way to show that Sarah truly understands the spirit and equality of slaves.
Red Thread Quotes in The Invention of Wings
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.
I watched her fold her few belongings on top of the quilt and thought, This ain't the same Sarah who left here. She had a firm look in her eye and her voice didn’t dither and hesitate like it used to. She'd been boiled down to a good, strong broth.
Her hair was loose, dangling along the sides of her neck like silk vines, like the red threads I used to tie round the spirit tree, and I saw it then, the strange thing between us. Not love, is it? What is it? It was always there, a roundness in my chest, a pin cushion. It pricked and fastened.