Reviews of The Grimkes by Kerri Greenidge

The Grimkes

The Legacy of Slavery in an American Family

by Kerri K. Greenidge

The Grimkes by Kerri K. Greenidge X
The Grimkes by Kerri K. Greenidge
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  • Published:
    Nov 2022, 432 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Peggy Kurkowski
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Book Summary

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.

12 black-and-white illustrations

INTRODUCTION
The Two Nanas

As a terrible heat wave spread across New England in July 1911, a federal express train snaked its way up the Atlantic coast on the New York, New Haven, and Hartford line. It left Union Station in Washington, DC, bound for Boston, where the heat was so oppressive that wilted citizens slept in the city's Common between Tremont and Beacon Streets and anxious mothers stayed up all night walking their infants up and down tenement sidewalks strewn with mattresses and pillows: they were afraid their babies would fall asleep, overheat, and not wake up with the sunrise.1 Temperatures in Hartford, Connecticut, were so high—in the nineties after midnight—that one man, driven mad by the sweat and unrelenting mugginess, scaled a utility pole until authorities prodded him down with brooms and sticks. 2

With the train barrelling toward Connecticut, over one hour behind schedule, Angelina Weld Grimke tried anything she could to keep cool in the Pullman car. ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Historian Kerri K. Greenidge uses meticulous research to reveal a complex picture of one famous American family and their often-fraught relationships with each other. The Grimkes is a magnificent work of scholarship but equally an indelible human portrait of a family shaped by the same racist, violent world they sought to reshape into something better...continued

Full Review Members Only (795 words).

(Reviewed by Peggy Kurkowski).

Media Reviews

Booklist (starred review)
As historian Greenidge makes abundantly clear, the Grimkes remained mired in racism and classism, and their dedication to eradicating slavery had more to do with gratifying their own Christian views than with actually helping Black people...A sobering and timely look at how self-centered 'benevolence' can become complicity.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Award-winning historian Greenidge offers an absorbing investigation of two branches of the notable Grimke family: sisters Sarah and Angelina Grimke, who became famous for their views on abolition and women's suffrage; and the descendants of their brother Henry Grimke, a 'notoriously violent and sadistic' slave owner who fathered three sons with a Black woman he owned... The author's discoveries reveal both 'white reformers' disavowal of their complicity in America's racial project' and 'the limits of interracial alliances.' A sweeping, insightful, richly detailed family and American history.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Tufts University historian Greenidge delivers a revelatory study of the Grimke family and their complicated involvement in the fight for 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.

Author Blurb Kellie Carter Jackson, author of Force and Freedom
The Grimkes is family history at its finest. Kerri Greenidge's rich historical text and deeply researched genealogy reads like a novel. For the first time, readers will gain both a wide and deep portrait of this complicated family in black and white... In many ways, the Grimkes represent the story of America: the good, the bad, and the forgotten.

Author Blurb LaKisha Michelle Simmons, author of Crescent City Girls
In The Grimkes, Kerri Greenidge asks, what do we inherit from those who came before us? This book is a story of the inspiration, burden, as well as trauma that can be passed, generation to generation, through a family name and its legacy. Beautifully written and narrated, The Grimkes moves from the legacy of one interracial family to what we all inherit as citizens of this complicated nation.

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Beyond the Book

W. E. B. Du Bois and the Talented Tenth

Morehouse College Glee Club, ca. 1911 Throughout The Grimkes: The Legacy of Slavery in an American Family, historian Kerri K. Greenidge repeatedly refers to the postbellum "colored elite" to which the Black Grimke family members belonged, using the term "the Talented Tenth." Made famous by the American sociologist and writer W. E. B. Du Bois in his 1903 essay, "The Talented Tenth," the phrase was actually coined by white philanthropist Henry Lyman Morehouse (founder of Morehouse College) in an 1896 essay: "In the discussion concerning Negro education we should not forget the talented tenth man."

Du Bois expanded on the meaning of the Talented Tenth concept and its applicability to raising good leaders in his essay, which was part of ...

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