We’re featuring the artists from the Supper Table project throughout the summer. This is the 9th in our series on Supper Table Artists
The word “honor” comes up so often for me these days as the Supper Table enters its last month of preparation and, in light of the political climate we are living in, it is such a wave of relief, such a respite for the soul, to find myself surrounded by so many honorable women who want to honor others.
Claudia Smith Brinson is a perfect example of the breath-of-fresh-air kind of person I’m talking about. Claudia Smith Brinson was a senior lecturer and program coordinator of the Writing for Print and Digital Media major at Columbia College in Columbia, S.C. She worked as a journalist for 30 years, mostly for Knight Ridder, and was honored with more than three dozen state and regional awards. She was a Pulitzer Prize finalist as a member of the team covering Hurricane Hugo. She also writes short stories and has won an O.Henry. Claudia is at work on a book on the untold stories of civil rights activists in South Carolina.
Claudia was charged with writing a third-person, creative non-fiction essay about the Grimke Sisters—Sarah and Angelina—from Charleston who became abolitionists and human rights activists for most of the 19th century. Claudia writes with painful candor about the world of slavery the sisters bore witness to and their early decision to leave their churches, join with the Quakers in Philadelphia, and eventually, be disappointed with Quakers and organized religion in general.
What must arise in the heart and head that allows you to see all about you are morally and ethically wrong? What does it take to act? And to continue despite condemnation and abuse? What is in you that allows you to think and act hundreds of years ahead of your time? The brilliance of sisters Sarah Moore Grimke and Angelina Emily Grimke force these questions on us, as well as the frustrating realization that we have yet to meet their standards of equality and goodness.
The prisons of gender and color were asphyxiating: Only white men could vote. The enslaved were owned but owned nothing, including their own bodies. Enslaved women were vulnerable to rape; any children born to them, no matter whom the father, were born enslaved and could be sold. Free white women lived under the control of their fathers, and, once married, had no legal identity. Free married women were considered one with the husband; any property, inheritance, income, or ensuing children fell the man under the law of coverture. Poor free women might work as cooks, domestics, seamstresses, and assistants to tradesmen and shopkeepers, but income they made belonged to their husbands. During the sisters’ adulthood, fewer than fifteen percent of women worked outside a household. Not only the law but Christianity confined them: Slaveholders used the Bible to justify white male control of sisters, daughters, wives, and the enslaved.
How does a person, then, gain a sense of her own humanity and her right to have rights? How does a woman find her own self and her life’s meaning when selfhood is denied? And how does she then apply that not only to herself but to others in extremis? The Grimke sisters developed young a repugnance and resistance to cruelty and abuse, to repression and denial while all around them people of their race acclimated. The sisters seem, perhaps through their quests for education and a nondiscriminatory religious community, to have fostered their awareness against odds and opposition into an individuality that knew right from wrong – despite the rules of their times, religion, and country – and also into an individuality that fought for what was right – despite the countering messages of gender, society, and law. To say they were geniuses is exclusionary; they eventually found a like-minded community in women such as Lucretia Mott, Lucy Stone, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. To call them prophets is depressing; much of what they called for has yet to come to pass.
Claudia Smith Brinson’s full essay on the Grimke Sisters will appear in our book, Setting the Supper Table, which launches on Friday, September 6th at Trustus Theatre as part of the premiere of the Supper Table installation, performance, and film premieres, then moves to Harbison theatre at MTC for on Sunday September 8th for a performance and installation. Setting the Supper Table will be available via a limited edition printing for $25, but you can secure your copy now by contributing to the Supper Table Kickstarter campaign — which closes in less than two days—at the $50 and above levels.