Photo: Tony Webster
Is there an enduring legacy 19th century white abolitionists offer for white anti-racism today? In recent months, I have revisited the life and writings of Angelina Grimké, the white Southern abolitionist and advocate for women’s rights. I am researching the differences among anti-slavery positions, differences that often get glossed over when “anti-slavery” is remembered only as a single position in opposition to slavery.
Returning to figures such as Angelina Grimké is tricky. If the outcome is just a reassertion of standard interpretations of the triumph of white heroes over the power of “bad white people,” then we white folks haven’t really challenged ourselves in sufficiently meaningful ways. To access the full meaning of her legacy, I start from the belief that Grimké’s and my time have too much in common. The abolition of slavery did not open onto a wide expanse for the unfurling of Black freedom but rather to a condition that Canadian scholar Rinaldo Walcott poignantly names “the long emancipation.” Walcott’s work is not simply an argument about how slow progress is, but how devastating and unrelenting white domination continues to be. What does emancipation even mean when Black lives do not yet matter? In far too many ways, the ethical stakes and charge of the current moment resemble that of Grimké's time.
Learning from the Limits of White Anti-Slavery
While the terminology of anti-racism and structural racism are contemporary, their underlying meanings are not. And this is where Angelina Grimké stands out amongst her white anti-slavery peers. Over the course of her life, she came to understand that the moral argument against slavery had implications far beyond the abolition of slavery. That is, the moral argument against the system that converted “man into a thing” was also an argument for Black humanity. This more expansive understanding meant that Grimké also was against racial prejudice and the white superiority that rationalized it -- both of which were prominent in anti-slavery organizations. For example, historians including Shirley Yee and Manisha Sinha illuminate how racism within organized anti-slavery organizations treated Black abolitionists as “secondary,” maintaining separate seating areas and prohibiting them from speaking.
Moreover, over-emphasis placed on white leadership and organizations today repeats the side-lining of the free and enslaved African Americans who have always been on the frontline of freedom, forging their survival and communities in the face of unrelenting white prejudice and violence far beyond the border of the Mason-Dixon line. And yet, the names of only a few Black abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Tubman are well-known or taught in schools, while the lives and contributions of Frances E.W. Harper, Elizabeth Freeman, Sarah Parker Redmond, Grace Douglass, Charlotte Forten (who married into the Grimké family) among others, are far less known. Returning to Grimké, thus, is a reminder of the reality that anti-slavery was not anti-racist by design: this should prompt a continued reckoning with how “good white people” harbor and reproduce the very systems we declare opposition to.
Grimké spoke directly to this reality in her well-known epistle “An Appeal to the Women of the Nominally Free States” (1837) where she disquiets the complacency of white folks placated by their opposition to slavery from the distance of the North. She saw not the difference but the deep connections between the North and South:
The interests of the North, you must know, my friends, are very closely combined with those of the South. The Northern merchants and manufacturers are making their fortunes out of the produce of slave labour, the grocer is selling your rice and sugar; how then can these men bear a testimony against slavery without condemning themselves?”
Grimké grasped how racial capitalism widely benefited all of white society; she was equally concerned with reaching white audiences in the “nominally free” states as in the unfree South. Moreover, this awareness was linked to the realization that the North was no haven for free Blacks. Looking back to white abolitionists today, the enduring legacy lies more in the differences among them than in their “unified” opposition to slavery.
Thus, Grimké’s legacy resides not only in her individual views, but in how she related to Black abolitionists and their broader cause for dignity. For instance, Sarah Mapps Douglass was an important influence on Angelina Grimké, including her views on colonization -- the idea that free Blacks should emigrate to Africa to build a new permanent home. Through their letters and friendship, Grimké awakened to the racism that was prominent amongst white abolitionists in their anti-slavery and religious organizations. While the issue of colonization divided abolitionists Black and white, over time it became associated with racist whites (pro and anti-slavery alike) who did not want to live alongside free Blacks. Grimké listened to and was moved by Black abolitionists who decried the rampant anti-Black prejudice in the North. In a letter to Catherine Beecher she wrote:
“It is because I love the colored Americans that I want them to stay in this country; and in order to make it a happy home to them, I am trying to talk down, and write down, and live down this horrible prejudice.”
Grimké’s friendship with Sarah Mapps Douglass is a legacy white anti-racists can draw from because it illuminates why it is paramount that white anti-racism follow the leadership and knowledge of those most affected by racism. We can and should applaud Grimké for the deep personal reflections that led to her anti-slavery convictions, but we should not mistake that self-reflection as the totality of the work of anti-racism. Ultimately, anti-racism is not about the feelings and needs of white folks even as we need to take responsibility for our role in perpetuating structural and interpersonal racism. Grimké started from that personal place, the daughter of a South Carolina slaver, and allowed it to grow out past the horizon of her personal views and experiences.
Finally, in looking for an enduring legacy in the life and relations of Angelina Grimké, she reminds us white folks that anti-racism by necessity is not easy or popular; if it were, white domination would not persist and persevere so easily. Having wrested herself from Southern culture and her heritage, Grimké was well aware of the sacrifices that anti-slavery required. She famously wrote in a letter to William Lloyd Garrison on the event of the violent pro-slavery riot in Boston in 1835 that she believed anti-slavery “is a cause worth dying for.” The work of anti-racism has always meant grasping that racism is literally a life or death issue for people of color. White domination creates an existential crisis for Black, Indigenous and people of color. The dismantling of that is not easy. As Grimké experienced in her life, anti-racism is not popular, it runs against the grain, strains relationships, ruffles feathers; it has to come at a cost. For white folks, there is no dismantling of racism without giving something up and the first thing we need to give up is whiteness and white privilege. Writing in her recent book We Want To Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom, Dr. Bettina Love explains that for white folks to be anti-racist, “means you are ready to lose something, you are ready to let go of your privilege, you are ready to be in solidarity with dark people by recognizing your Whiteness in dark spaces, recognizing how it can take up space if unchecked, using your Whiteness in White spaces to advocate for and with dark people.”
Angela Davis wrote in her classic text Women, Race & Class that the Grimké sisters, more than any other white women in the campaign against slavery, understood that “women could never achieve their freedom independently of Black people.” It appears that the protests against police brutality over the spring and summer of 2020 shook more white Americans awake, but being awakened (or “woke”) is not a state of being but rather a constant struggle. If there is an enduring legacy to claim from white abolitionists like Grimké, it is not a single view but a life lived in struggle in the long emancipation.