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  • Flying Words: Contests of Orality and Literacy in the Trope of the Flying Africans
  • Olivia Smith Storey

A working prototype: A group of slaves is in a field and an overseer attempts to coerce them into heavier labor with a whip or a gun. The African born speak in a strange language and then fly away. The Creole or American born cannot fly away because they do not know the language.

Studying the Flying Africans is similar to trying to confine a polymorph: it always changes meaning and form. You think that you understand its shape and dimensions and then it alters its shape. Even classifying the Flying Africans raises immediate questions. Is it a legend, a narrative, a memory, an image, or a trope, as I will call it here? To make it consistent or to pin down its meaning immediately belies its basic attributes: its range, its fluidity, and its exceptional vitality. Its appearance in print and in audio or visual recordings can be dated, examined, and traced. Toni Morrison in Song of Solomon and Paule Marshall in Praisesong for the Widow have relied on accounts that appear in Drums and Shadows: Survival Studies among the Georgia Coastal Negroes (1940). Lionel Hampton’s jazz instrumental “Flying Home” preceded Ralph Ellison’s short story of the same title. Jacob Lawrence’s painting of Harriette Tubman, “Crossing the Line,” manifests another wordless version of the trope. In the Caribbean, Alejo Carpentier begins and ends his important novel The Kingdom of This World with images of Africans in flight. The films La Ultima Cena or The Last Supper, Daughters of the Dust, and Sankofa all manifest the trope. Lead Belly sings a modified version about forced labor in prison in “Take This Hammer,” while the song “Daniel” with its line “Fly back home” first appeared in Lydia Parrish’s Slave Songs of the Georgia Sea Islands and was subsequently recorded by the Georgia Sea Island Singers. 1

These instances in modern technological form manifest a recurrent pattern of imagery that is more vast and less knowable in oral genres, such as narratives, songs, and jokes. First named in Drums and Shadows, the Flying Africans specifically refers to African born slaves flying from slavery in the Americas. Traditions of flight in Africa, such as shape-shifting, continue into the present in several African nations and potentially extend its range into an even larger territory and time period. Giving the trope a recognizable title rapidly made it more visible to writers and scholars, generating a traceable line of those who havesubsequently applied or studied the trope. Such a visible lineage, however, can deflect attention from its continuing creative presence in oral forms. In most instances, participants speak, sing, or even dance the trope because it has cultural meaning or metaphorical value. They do not necessarily know that it has a formal title or that it relates to other manifestations throughout the Diaspora. Because it exists in multiple languages of the Diaspora, because it overlaps with other images of flight (Icarus, the phoenix, or angels), because individual speakers and various cultural traditions have creatively engaged with its meanings, because spoken forms are less visible than printed ones and finally because it has continued beyond its origins in the predicament of a slave economy, the trope in its entirety is ultimately beyond the grasp of both the scholar and the participant.

This is not a call to intellectual inactivity but a reminder of the fluidity, the energy and the range of the Flying Africans as it has been lived. Scholars have produced excellent studies that have extended and deepened available knowledge. Michael Gomez’s Exchanging Our Country Marks traces African-American traditions, including the Flying Africans, to specific African cultural groups. Sterling Stuckey’s study of the ring shout in Slave Culture provides essential historical background and spiritual context for the Flying Africans, even without discussing them directly. Gay Wilentz has written about the legend’s many appearances in literary texts. Paule Marshall’s Praisesong for the Widow inspired and informs Lorna MacDaniel’s study of song and dance in Cariaccou. And finally, Nada Elia points to the prevalence of Islamic faith among the Gullah...