Kidd explores the power of a person’s voice, and the many ways that people find to speak out in a world that consistently tries to silence them. From the beginning of the novel, one of the horrors of slavery is that nobody speaks of it, using silence as a way to protect white innocence in the face of black suffering. Kidd advises breaking that silence as a way to undermine this oppression, as Sarah learns to express her voice against slavery despite any personal cost to herself. Sarah, though a woman with little power of her own, uses her ability to read and write in order to fight for equality. By teaching Handful to read, Sarah also gives Handful the tools necessary to express her own voice, through letters and written passes that give Handful more freedom though she is a slave. Eventually, Sarah is able to literally speak out against slavery as part of an anti-slavery lecture circuit, though polite society is scandalized by women speaking in public (and Sarah faces another, more personal obstacle in her speech impediment—she has a stutter). Yet every time men try to silence Sarah’s voice, she continues to use writing as a way for her opinions to be heard.
Beyond literacy, Kidd explores other ways that characters can find their voice. Charlotte “writes” her life story into a quilt, witnessing all the pain she has felt as a slave as well as all the joy she has found as a human. This quilt gives Handful strength and inspiration to keep fighting against slavery after her mother is no longer there to encourage Handful with words. Through letters, pamphlets, quilts, and speeches, Kidd’s characters continually let their voices be heard to battle the silence that perpetuates oppression. By using their voices in support of a fairer world for all, Sarah and Handful insist on their own power in a world that would rather they remain silent.
Voice and Silence ThemeTracker
Voice and Silence Quotes in The Invention of Wings
…I remembered the oath I’d made to help Hetty become free, a promise impossible to fulfill and one that continued to cause me no end of guilt, but it suddenly rang clear in me for the first time: Charlotte said I should help Hetty get free any way I could. Turning, I watched her carry the lantern to my dressing table, light swilling about her feet. When she set it down, I said, “Hetty, shall I teach you to read?”
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.
There were ten good-size squares. I spread them out cross the frame. The colors she'd used outdid God and the rainbow. Reds, purples, oranges, pinks, yellows, blacks, and browns. They hit my ears more than my eyes. They sounded like she was laughing and crying in the same breath. It was the finest work ever to come from mauma’s hands.
"Forgive you for what, Sarah? For following your conscience? Do you think I don’t abhor slavery as you do? Do you think I don’t know it was greed that kept me from following my conscience as you have? The plantation, the house, our entire way of life depended on the slaves." His face contorted and he clutched at his side a moment before going on. "Or should I forgive you for wanting to give natural expression to your intellect? You were smarter than even Thomas or John, but you’re female, another cruelty I was helpless to change."
How does one know the voice is God's? I believed the voice bidding me to go north belonged to him, though perhaps what I really heard that day was my own impulse to freedom. Perhaps it was my own voice. Does it matter?
"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.
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.”
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.
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.
"How can you ask us to go back to our parlors?" I said, rising to my feet. "To turn our backs on ourselves and on our own sex? We don't wish the movement to split…but we can do little for the slave as long as we’re under the feet of men. Do what you have to do, censure us, withdraw your support, we 'll press on anyway. Now, sirs, kindly take your feet off our necks."
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.
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.