Oprah's Favorite Passages from The Invention of Wings
Part OneNovember 1803–February 1805
There was a time in Africa the people could fly. Mauma told me this one night when I was ten years old. She said "Handful, your granny-mauma saw it for herself. She say they flew over trees and clouds. She say they flew like blackbirds. When we came here, we left that magic behind."
I just love an opening sentence that grabs your attention. This one did. "The people could fly."
I was shrewd like mauma. Even at ten I knew this story about people flying was pure malarkey. We weren't some special people who lost our magic. We were slave people, and we weren't going anywhere. It was later I saw what she meant. We could fly all right, but it wasn't any magic to it.
That passage gave me an immediate sense of Hetty's likability. Even though I didn't yet know anything about her, I was already intrigued, drawn in.
The day life turned into nothing this world could fix, I was in the work yard boiling slave bedding, stoking fire under the wash pot, my eyes burning from specks of lye soap catching on the wind. The morning was a cold one—the sun looked like a little white button stitched tight to the sky. For summers we wore homespun cotton dresses over our drawers, but when the Charleston winter showed up like some lazy girl in November or January, we got into our sacks—these thickset coats made of heavy yarns. Just an old sack with sleeves. Mine was a cast-off and trailed to my ankles. I couldn't say how many unwashed bodies had worn it before me, but they had all kindly left their scents on it.
I know this makes me appear ancient, but this paragraph reminds me of my early life with my grandmother. Watching her boil clothes in a big iron pot, making lye soap, feeling the sting of it burning my own eyes catching on the wind.
We had a wooden patch box for keeping our scraps, a pouch for our needles and threads, and a true brass thimble. Mauma said the thimble would be mine one day. When she wasn't using it, I wore it on my fingertip like a jewel. We filled our quilts up with raw cotton and wool thrums. The best filling was feathers, still is, and mauma and I never passed one on the ground without picking it up. Some days, mauma would come in with a pocketful of goose feathers she'd plucked from mattress holes in the house. When we got desperate to fill a quilt, we'd strip the long moss from the oak in the work yard and sew it between the lining and the quilt top, chiggers and all.
I love the idea of a thimble being a treasure, and how the author paired thimble with the word ‘jewel'—that struck me, as did the sense of pride a young slave girl took in her mother's work. You had to use what you had to make yourself feel special. I love that entire paragraph!
Noise was on her list of slave sins, which we knew by heart. Number one: stealing. Number two: disobedience. Number three: laziness. Number four: noise. A slave was supposed to be like the Holy Ghost—don't see it, don't hear it, but it's always hovering round on ready.
This reminded me of a line in the movie The Butler: "The room should feel empty when you're in it," and of how devaluing it is to be asked to disappear.
Her name was Mary, and there ends any resemblance to the mother of our Lord. She was descended from the first families of Charleston, that little company of Lords that King Charles had sent over to establish the city. She worked this into conversations so tirelessly we no longer made the time or effort to roll our eyes. Besides governing the house, a host of children, and fourteen slaves, she kept up a round of social and religious duties that would've worn out the queens and saints of Europe. When I was being forgiving, I said that my mother was simply exhausted. I suspected, though, that she was simply mean.
This perfectly sets the tone for what lies ahead: a mean and privileged southern belle running a house of slaves.
Next: The line that made Oprah consider her younger self
I read that and think of my 10-year-old self and what it would feel like to be someone's present. This helps me imagine that, and reminds me that I was born at the right time.
At the age of eleven, I owned a slave I couldn't free.
Both the power and the powerlessness of this struck me. To know at age eleven that slavery is wrong, and yet be able to do nothing about it.
What came next was a fast, bitter wind.
Monday, after we got done with devotions, Aunt-Sister took mauma aside. She said Missus had a friend who didn't like floggings and had come up with the one-legged punishment. Aunt-Sister went to a lot of trouble to draw us a picture of it. She said they wind a leather tie round the slave's ankle, then pull that foot up behind him and hitch the tie round his neck. If he lets his ankle drop, the tie chokes his throat.
We knew what she was telling us. Mauma sat down on the kitchen house steps and laid her head flat against her knees.
As a student of African-American history, it's always been stunning to me that otherwise seemingly civilized people could concoct such punishments for other human beings, for people they ‘owned.'
I closed my eyes then, but what I saw in the dark was worse as the real thing. I cracked my eyes and watched her trying to keep her leg from dropping down and cutting off her air, fighting to stay upright. She set her eyes on top of the oak tree. Her standing leg quivered. Blood from her head-cut ran down her cheek. It clung to her jaw like rain on the roof eave.
I'm thinking of how a child must have seen this, how the image must have embedded itself in her spirit and colored everything from then on—influenced her entire future.
Mauma's legs would walk again same as ever, but she never was the same inside. After that day, it seemed part of her was always back there waiting for the strap to be loosed. It seemed like that's when she started laying her cold fire of hate.
There it is. "The cold fire of hate." Such a vivid foretelling of the future.
When she set it down, I said, "Hetty, shall I teach you to read?"
Knowing the risk for both of them—for a slave to learn to read was against the law—I thought this was an incredibly powerful statement. For Sarah, it was about doing what she could. If she couldn't free Hetty physically, she could at least empower her mind.
That summer, I turned eleven years, and mauma said the pallet I slept on upstairs wasn't fit for a dog. We were supposed to be working on the next ration of slave clothes. Every year the men got two brown shirts and two white, two pants, two vests. Women got three dresses, four aprons, and a head scarf. Mauma said all that could wait. She showed me how to cut black triangles each one big as the end of my thumb, then we appliqued two hundred or more on red squares, a color mauma called oxblood. We sewed on tiny circles of yellow for sun splatter, then cranked down the quilt frame and pieced everything together. I hemmed on the homespun backing myself, and we filled the inside with all the batting and feathers we had. I cut a plug of my hair and plug of mauma's and put them inside for charms. It took six afternoons.
Do what you can—a small way of honoring and standing up for yourself. This passage also reminds me that I used to go to my grandmother's house and sleep on a pallet. They're like little blankets laid on the floor. Little stuffed pieces of blanket.
Next: The powerful passage that moved Oprah
This passage where Sarah realizes she's never going to be permitted to become a lawyer was striking on many levels. Her mother delivers harsh words gently. It was striking to me how quickly we've forgotten how far we've come as women. Even white women were slaves, they just didn't know it. Women had no rights. You couldn't own property. You were dependent on your father or on your husband for everything. There were so many things you couldn't be—in essence, you were a slave. A slave to society.
Since that day a year past, I'd got myself a friend in Miss Sarah and found out how to read and write, but it'd been a heartless road like mauma said, and I didn't know what would come of us. We might stay here the rest of our lives with the sky slammed shut, but Mauma had found the part of herself that refused to bow and scrape, and once you find that, you got trouble breathing on your neck.
I love this—we as readers get to witness the seeds of rebellion growing inside Hetty. This passage reminded me of Victor Frankel's A Man's Search For Meaning—it means your life has meaning.
Part TwoFebruary 1811-December 1812
I'd entered society two years ago, at sixteen, thrust into the lavish round of balls, teas, musical salons, horseraces, and picnics, which, according to Mother, meant the dazzling doors of Charleston had flung open and female life could begin in earnest. In other words, I could take up the business of procuring a husband. How highborn and moneyed this husband turned out to be would depend entirely on the allure of my face, the delicacy of my physique, the skill of my seamstress, and the charisma of my tête-à-tête. Notwithstanding my seamstress, I arrived at the glittery entrance like a lamb to slaughter.
I love the parallel narrative being built here, of slave life versus southern belle society.
My aspiration to become a jurist had been laid to rest in the Graveyard of Failed Hopes, an all-female establishment.
That is perfectly put. Again, this is a reminder that not that long ago, women couldn't aspire to most of the things they do today. They were slaves to their family's expectations, to society's rules.
Next: The unexpected lesson of seeking joy
I was struck here by the imagery of finding happiness where and when you can, and her passion for quilting—finding joy in it.
Late in the afternoon, after the Grimkés had gone off to their plantation and the few slaves left on the premise were in their quarters, mauma sent me into master Grimké's library to find out what me and her would sell for.
I personally keep slave documents listing the value of slaves framed on my wall in California, and in my office in Chicago. But until I read this, I'd never thought of slaves knowing their own ‘value' and how that would affect them, how it might have made them feel. Goosebumps.
Goods and chattel. The words from the leather book came into my head. We were like the gold leaf mirror and the horse saddle. Not full-fledge people. I didn't believe this, never had believed it a day of my life, but if you listen to white folks long enough, some sad, beat-down part of you starts to wonder.
I found that passage stunning in its effect—just as it's stunning to actually see "that leather book." I remember the first time I looked at slave documents and saw the names of real people, cited as property, listed right next to the horse carriage, number of goats and sheep, and shoes that people owned. As a free woman, I couldn't imagine what being equated with shoes or goats might have done to the spirit of a slave girl. That's why that sentence is so amazing. "Goods and chattel." Because what you think when you first see it is ‘Oh my God, you're listed with the horse and buggy, with the ox, with sheep—with how many dishes there are.' How do you live with that knowledge?
He assumed I'd outgrown my rebellions and become like the rest of them—a guardian of slavery. I couldn't fault him for it. When was the last time any of them had heard me speak out against the peculiar institution? I'd been wandering about in the enchantments of romance, afflicted with the worst female curse on earth, the need to mold myself to expectations.
To me that sentence represents what it meant to be a woman in the nineteenth century and later—until we got the right to vote. "I'd been wandering about in the enchantment of romance, afflicted with the worst female curse on earth, the need to mold myself to expectations." That's powerful. How few women of that era actually got that? That's what's excites me about it. When the entire world is molding itself to expectations, which is its own form of slavery, when do you finally figure out this is ridiculous—when do you realize ‘I should be able to live my own life?'
By law, a slave was two-thirds of a person. It came to me that what I'd just suggested would seem paramount to proclaiming vegetables equal to animals, animals equal to humans, women equal to men, men equal to angels. I was upending the order of creation. Strangest of all, it was the first time thoughts of equality had entered my head, and I could only attribute it to God, with whom I'd lately taken up and was proving to be more insurrectionary than law abiding.
I love the brewing insurrection here. It's great. Such a powerful passage. The thing I love about a book like this is you can, you know, it's just like The Butler. People go to that movie and they're like, ‘Oh my God, it's so amazing, this happened in our country.' Uhhh yea, just did. 30 years ago. You can hear about the history of slavery over and over, but when you read about it in the context of a story like this, it allows you to feel it differently. That's what good fiction will do for you.
Part ThreeOctober 1818-November 1820
Then he read something that made the hairs on my arms raise. "She shall receive any six of my Negroes whom she shall choose, and the rest she will sell or disperse among my children, as she determines." Binah was standing next to me. I heard her whisper, "Lord, no." I looked down the row of slaves. There was just eleven of us now—Rosetta had passed on in her sleep the year before. She shall receive any six...the rest she will sell or disperse. Five of us were leaving.
I imagine this was every slave's greatest fear. As bad as the known is, the unknown is worse.
Part SixJuly 1835-June 1838
"When you think of me, you say, she never did belong to those people. She never belong to nobody but herself."
This sentence communicates what true empowerment means.
I pulled the quilt round her shoulders. High in the limbs, the crows cawed. The doves moaned. The wind bent down to lift her to the sky.
That reminds me of the first line of the book, that "people could fly." Hetty got to see her mama take flight. "I pulled the quilt around her shoulders, high in the limbs, the crows cawed. The doves moaned. The wind bent down to lift her to the sky." She got to see her mama take flight.
As he left, I peered at Sarah Mapps and her mother, the way they grabbed hands and squeezed in relief, and then at Nina, at the small exultation on her face. She was braver than I, she always had been. I cared too much for the opinion of others, she cared not a whit. I was cautious, she was brash. I was a thinker, she was a doer. I kindled fires, she spread them. And right then and ever after, I saw how cunning the Fates had been. Nina was one wing, I was the other.
This is what's meant by the title, The Invention of Wings. The invention of wings occurs in all sizes, can manifest itself differently in different people—it's all about freedom, about taking flight.
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.
This is about finding a voice, about true courage. That is what this book is about. For me, it is the story of coming into your own. About reaching within yourself, no matter your circumstances, and finding your power. That's profound.
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