An African American Folktale

They say the people could fly. Say that long ago in Africa, some of the people knew magic. And they would walk up on the air like climbin' up on a gate. And they flew like blackbirds over the fields.

Then, many of the people were captured for Slavery. The ones that could fly shed their wings. They couldn't take their wings across the water on the slave ships. Too crowded, dont' you know. The folks were full of misery, then. Got sick with the up and down of the sea. So they forgot about flyin when they could no longer breathe the sweet scent of Africa.

Say the people who could fly kept their power, although they shed their wings. They worked along with the other folks in the field. All the workers heard the sting of the overseer's words. They all felt the snarl of the driver's whip around their legs. They all felt their clothes being torn to rags and their legs bleeding onto the earth.

Then one day one of the slaves started talking bout "the time is come." He raised his arms out to the others. And he sighed the ancient words that were a dark promise. He said them all around to the others in the field under the whip, "...kum yali... kum tambe...."

There was a great outcryin. The bent backs straighted up. Old and young who were called slaves and could fly joined hands. Say like they would ring-sing. They rose on the air. They flew in a flock that was black against the heavenly blue. Black crows or black shadows. It didn't matter, they went so high. Way above the plantation, way over the slavery land. Say they flew away to Free-dom.

The slaves who could not fly told about the people who could fly to their children. When they were free. When they sat close before the fire in the free land, they told it. They did so love firelight and freedom, and tellin.

And now, me, I have told it to you.

Abridged from The People Could Fly, American Black Folktales, by Virginia Hamilton

 

The entire collection of twelve paintings depicting this story are now in the permanent collection of the Department of African American Studies of Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, VA.  Some of the images are available for purchase as giclee prints.