Virginia Hamilton: “The People Could Fly”

Virginia Hamilton: “The People Could Fly”

Kum . . . yali, kum buba tambe. Kum kunka yali, kum . . . tambe!

See image credit below.

See image credit below.

These whispered words are at the heart of Virginia Hamilton’s telling of the tale of the flying Africans.

One of the most magical stories I know, the tale of the flying Africans is told throughout African-descended communities in the western hemisphere.

In Hamilton’s telling of the tale, a young slave mother, Sarah, is whipped by the overseer while she is working in the fields with her baby on her back.

An elderly slave, Toby, helps her up and whispers the magic words to her: “Kum . . . yali, kum buba tambe.” With those words, Sarah remembers her ability to fly, and soon she and her baby are lifted into the sky.

Toby then speaks the words to other slaves, who join hands and fly away to freedom.

As I mentioned last week, this tale of the flying Africans forms a pivotal part of Toni Morrison’s 1977 novel, Song of Solomon – and another version of the tale (that of the Africans who could walk on water) provides the foundation for Julie Dash’s 1991 film, Daughters of the Dusticon. (More on that lush, evocative film next week.)

Here’s a bit about the iconic tale from the New Georgia Encyclopedia:

The historical roots of the flying Africans legend can be traced back to the spring of 1803, when a group of Igbo slaves arrived in Savannah after enduring the nightmare of the Middle Passage. The Igbo (from what is now the nation of Nigeria, in central West Africa) were renowned throughout the American South for being fiercely independent and unwilling to tolerate the humiliations of chattel slavery. The Igbo who became known as the flying Africans were purchased at the slave market in Savannah.

When they landed at St. Simons, Georgia, the Igbo slaves rose up and escaped. Some accounts say they walked on water back to Africa. Some say they turned into the water and drowned. Some, like this former slave, say they flew as a group back to their homeland:

At that time Mr. Blue he was the overseer and . . . Mr. Blue he go down one morning with a long whip for to whip them good. . . . Anyway, he whipped them good and they got together and stuck that hoe in the field and then . . . rose up in the sky and turned themselves into buzzards and flew right back to Africa. . . . Everybody knows about them.

Intriguingly, many locales throughout the New World claim to be the site of this feat of flying to freedom or of walking on water back to Africa.

Hamilton – beloved children’s author and Newbery Medal winner – brings this and other African American folktales to life in The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales. A special picture book featuring only The People Could Fly is also available. Both the full collection and the picture book can be purchased with a CD featuring Hamilton and James Earl Jones.

Join me this week on Pinterest as I pin images and resources related to Virginia Hamilton and the legend of the flying Africans. Take a look around at all my boards – or go straight to my “Storytelling and Listening” board for African American storytelling treats.

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Watch:Watch Joslyn Duncan tell her version of “The People Could Fly” in this six-minute video.

Image credit: Wikipedia (image no longer available online)