Sarah and Angelina Grimké: On Slavery and Abolitionism

25483095I am thankful to live in a part of the world where free speech is a constitutional right. It saddens me that this privilege is so often abused, and I am often baffled by how easily some people publicly shame and bully others. The loudest people usually get the most attention, and their opinion is often presented as fact. Outrageous statements get much more attention than the ignorance displayed by them. In my current “I’m-fed-up-with-people” mood, it was wonderful to read the essays and letters of the Grimké sisters. They took their right to speak freely seriously and used it well, challenging the notion that women should not speak publicly, especially on such an explosive subject as slavery.

This is probably not a book that automatically appeals to many people, and it is a strange book to be fangirling over, but there are five reasons why I so enjoyed this Penguin Classic* and why you might want to consider reading it as well:

  1. Both Sarah and Angelina could argue incredibly well and incredibly convincing. The arguments they make in their essays and letters are always intelligent and well-thought-out. There is nothing half-hearted in their writing; you can feel their deep conviction in every sentence.
  2. The sisters were both deeply religious, and especially Sarah’s essays and letters very often reference the Bible. Yet even if you are not familiar with the Bible, it is easy to follow their arguments. 180 years later, the sisters’ writing is still accessible, relevant, and convincing.
  3. Sarah and Angelina were well aware that their writing and public appearances outraged many people. Their more outspoken opponents, especially those in the South, ridiculed them and sought to discredit them. Yet in their letters and essays, neither woman ever personally attacks anyone. Their arguments are at times very emotional, but they are always based on logic and always appeal to common sense.
  4. Sarah and Angelina alienated many of their contemporaries with their opinions and behavior. They were the first women to speak before mixed audiences, which at times led to such violent opposition that they had to stop appearing in public for a while. Yet they never stopped addressing people, especially women, firmly believing that women had the power to bring about change.
  5. They never once wavered in their convictions. There were times when they felt overwhelmed and hesitant, but they never stopped or retreated. “If persecution is the means which God has ordained for the accomplishment of this great end, EMANCIPATION, I feel as if I could say, LET IT COME; for it is my deep, solemn, deliberate conviction, that this is a cause worth dying for.” (Angelina Grimké, 1835)

In his foreword to this collection, Mark Perry writes that the Grimké sisters were abolitionists before there even was an abolition movement. I would add that they were feminists as well, before there even was a women’s movement. After reading Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings, which is about Sarah Grimké, it was a pleasure to revisit her and learn more about her and her sister through their writing.

*I received a free copy of the book from Penguin Classics.

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