New York Times Book Review • 100 Notable Books of 2022
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A stunning counternarrative of the legendary abolitionist Grimke sisters that finally reclaims the forgotten Black members of their family.
Sarah and Angelina Grimke—the Grimke sisters—are revered figures in American history, famous for rejecting their privileged lives on a plantation in South Carolina to become firebrand activists in the North. Their antislavery pamphlets, among the most influential of the antebellum era, are still read today. Yet retellings of their epic story have long obscured their Black relatives. In The Grimkes, award-winning historian Kerri Greenidge presents a parallel narrative, indeed a long-overdue corrective, shifting the focus from the white abolitionist sisters to the Black Grimkes and deepening our understanding of the long struggle for racial and gender equality.
That the Grimke sisters had Black relatives in the first place was a consequence of slavery’s most horrific reality. Sarah and Angelina’s older brother, Henry, was notoriously violent and sadistic, and one of the women he owned, Nancy Weston, bore him three sons: Archibald, Francis, and John. While Greenidge follows the brothers’ trials and exploits in the North, where Archibald and Francis became prominent members of the post–Civil War Black elite, her narrative centers on the Black women of the family, from Weston to Francis’s wife, the brilliant intellectual and reformer Charlotte Forten, to Archibald’s daughter, Angelina Weld Grimke, who channeled the family’s past into pathbreaking modernist literature during the Harlem Renaissance.
In a grand saga that spans the eighteenth century to the twentieth and stretches from Charleston to Philadelphia, Boston, and beyond, Greenidge reclaims the Black Grimkes as complex, often conflicted individuals shadowed by their origins. Most strikingly, she indicts the white Grimke sisters for their racial paternalism. They could envision the end of slavery, but they could not imagine Black equality: when their Black nephews did not adhere to the image of the kneeling and eternally grateful slave, they were cruel and relentlessly judgmental—an emblem of the limits of progressive white racial politics.
A landmark biography of the most important multiracial American family of the nineteenth century, The Grimkes suggests that just as the Hemingses and Jeffersons personified the racial myths of the founding generation, the Grimkes embodied the legacy—both traumatic and generative—of those myths, which reverberate to this day.
APPLE BOOKS REVIEW
Sisters Sarah and Angelina Grimke famously left their family’s antebellum plantation to preach abolition in the North, but that’s not the whole story—just ask their Black relatives. Historian Kerri K. Greenidge pieces together the story of the Black members of the Grimke family, descendants of the famous abolitionists’ brother and an enslaved woman. Without shying away from the cruelty at the core of that relationship—or the racist attitudes of the supposedly saintly Grimke sisters—Greenidge celebrates the line of lawyers, activists, and creatives who came from it, including NAACP leader Archibald Grimke and his daughter Angelina, writer of the landmark anti-lynching play Rachel. What sets this book apart is the way Greenidge digs into the strict lines of class, colorism, and “respectability” that dictated so much of these Black luminaries’ lives. Greenidge’s eye-opening book will change the way you think about the fight for justice and equity both then and now.
Tufts University historian Greenidge (Black Radical) delivers a revelatory study of the Grimke family and their complicated involvement in the fight for racial equality. Quaker sisters Sarah and Angelina Grimke, suffering from spiritual guilt over slavery—yet willing to receive financial support from their slaveholding relatives—relocated from Charleston, S.C., to Philadelphia in the 1820s and became influential abolitionists and women's rights activists who emphasized the detrimental effects of the "peculiar institution" on white women's souls. After the Civil War, they learned that their brother Henry had fathered three sons by an enslaved woman, and Greenidge incisively details how the sisters' relationships with their nephews, Archibald, Francis, and John Grimke, got tangled up in assumptions of white privilege and assertions of Black freedom. Also spotlighted are Francis Grimke's wife, Charlotte Forten Grimke, a writer and teacher whose paternal grandmother and aunts cofounded one of America's first abolitionist women's organizations and frequently clashed with white women over ideology and tactics, and Archibald's daughter, Harlem Renaissance playwright Angelina Weld Grimke, who promoted the concept of racial uplift, popular among middle- and upper-class Blacks as they distanced themselves from the poor and uneducated in pursuit of racial equality. Greenidge offers no tidy or optimistic conclusions about the long shadow of slavery, but readers will be riveted by how she brings these complex figures and their era to life. This is a brilliant and essential history. Illus.