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, Kerri Greenidge presents a parallel narrative, indeed a long-overdue corrective.
An ambitious book, not only because of its large cast of characters, but because it offers so many insights about racial strife in the United States ... She explores the contradictions of American ideas about freedom, highlighting that among white people, racial progress almost never implies Black self-determination or true equality. And she paints an unsparing portrait of the Black elite ... While all these facets are compelling, the book’s most affecting contribution is Greenidge’s treatment of intergenerational racial trauma ... Greenidge provides a consummate cartography of racial trauma, demonstrating, through an adept use of the family’s letters, diaries and other archival materials, how the physical and emotional abuses of slavery traveled through generations long after abolition ... There is plenty of little-known American history in The Grimkes, but no blow-by-blow accounts of the Civil War, Reconstruction and the other major national events that shaped the family’s evolution. Similarly, while Greenidge provides context for the Grimke sisters’ contributions to abolition and the nascent women’s rights movement, she does not make forceful arguments about how the sisters influenced the trajectory of those movements, or what would have been different without them.
Greenidge’s The Grimkes is not a story about heroes. Instead, it is intended as an exploration of trauma and tragedy. Like the studies of the Grimkes that have preceded it, the book reflects the challenges of our own time, but Greenidge...regards these not with optimism about possibilities for racial progress but with something closer to despair ... Greenidge leaves the stature of Sarah, Angelina, Archie, and Frank diminished, but she offers an enriched view of the extended Black Grimke family ... Greenidge embraces this perspective as she connects the injustices of the present with their roots. She finds their origins embedded not just in the strictures of society and law, but in the human psychology formed in the families that racism has so profoundly shaped.
... brilliant ... Greenidge is an especially elegant writer, and an admirably clear one, expertly guiding readers through a century of history and a dauntingly complicated cast of characters. She manages to sketch them all with great sympathy and at the same time utterly clear and unsparing judgment. This book will, I think, make some readers uncomfortable. It’s worth it. The Grimkes is by turns heartbreaking, entertaining, and thought-provoking: a triumph.