Some Penguin Classics hinge on a fantastic, cinema-worthy moment in American oratory and history. You can see it in their volume of the Selected Speeches and Letters of John Quincy Adams, which features his stirring, epic 1841 speech before the Supreme Court on behalf of the African slaves of the Amistad – oh wait, no you can’t, because Penguin doesn’t publish the Selected Speeches and Letters of John Quincy Adams. Well, then, you can turn to the Penguin Classic Speeches and Addresses of Robert Ingersoll, in which the great orator’s thundering denunciations of the evils of organized religion are presented in all their glory … oh wait, no you can’t, because Penguin doesn’t publish the Selected Speeches and Addresses of Robert Ingersoll. Well, lacking such options, you can certainly open the Penguin Classics volume That Man May Be Free: The Collected Writings of William Lloyd Garrison and read there the literally death-defying rhetorical performances Garrison wrought in print for the cause of racial equality … oh wait, no, no – hmmmmm.
But now, thanks to Penguin Classics and editor Mark Perry, readers lacking those volumes (but not at all lacking a wide selection of the literary excrudescences of Graham Greene) can certainly avail themselves of On Slavery and Abolitionism, the essays and letters of Sarah and Angelina Grimke, two 19th century daughters of the Southern slave-owning aristocracy who renounced that heritage, converted to Quakerism, and became passionate and eloquent abolitionists. And at the heart of On Slavery and Abolitionism is one such fantastic, cinema-worthy moment: on 21 February 1838, Angelica Grimke climbed the steps to the Massachusetts Statehouse in order to deliver an address about the evils of slavery. Word of her talk had spread, and a huge crowd had gathered in and around the building one of Boston’s most famous citizens would later dub the “Hub of the solar system.” Grimke – the first woman ever to address such a gathering in Boston – gave her speech (reproduced in full in this volume from newspaper accounts), which was full of impassioned oratory:
I stand before you as a southerner, exiled from the land of my birth by the sound of the lash, and the piteous cry of the slave … I stand before you as a moral being … and as a moral being I feel that I owe it to the suffering slave, and to the deluded master, to my country and the world, to do all that I can to overturn a system of complicated crimes, built up upon the broken hearts and prostrate bodies of my countrymen in chains, and cemented by the blood and sweat and tears of my sisters in bonds.
And as Perry relates it, the aftermath was memorable:
Angelina Grimke spoke for two hours on that February day in 1838. A silence greeted her last words as she defiantly eyed the legislators seated before her. But then, and much to her own surprise, those in the seats behind her, and in the galleries, rose in a thunderous applause.
(Perry’s account leans heavily on Gerda Lerner’s 1967 book The Grimke Sisters from South Carolina, and on the strength of his praise I found a copy and read it – and it’s a true gem)
This important Penguin volume – among other things, it’ll be a godsend in college classes, as will a couple of other items in this week of Penguins on Parade – includes as generous a helping of the writings of the Grimke sisters as has ever appeared in a popular paperback, and of course the interracial tensions they speak to haven’t exactly vanished from the American scene, which can prompt Perry to moments of bathos, as when he tells us, “And so it is, in reading the works of Angelina and Sarah Grimke contained in this volume, we extol their work and beliefs, though not simply because they were southerners and women. But because they were Americans.”
They were indeed, as were their colleagues near and far in the struggle. All those colleagues deserve their own Penguin Classics, but as the Grimke sisters frequently taught, patience is a virtue.
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