Stories are powerful. They are the amber in which lost voices are preserved; through them, you can slip inside someone else’s skin and see out of their eyes. Stories turn wishes into opportunities, because if you can imagine a thing then it is not quite impossible. This week’s Fairy Tale Tuesday is taken from Virginia Hamilton’s The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales (Walker Books, 1988), an anthology of stories originally told by African slaves and retold by generations of black American storytellers. This one is the last in the book, and the one for which the collection is named. I warn you, it’s not easy to read.
‘Say that long ago in Africa, some of the people knew magic’. And these magicians can walk through the air, or spread wide wings and fly away. Nevertheless, when the slavers come, many are captured and forced to leave their wings behind. Crowded onto ships and carried far from their homes, the magic is buried deep. A secret that must never ever be told.
Two slaves with the secret end up on the same plantation – an old man known as Toby, and a young mother called Sarah. Their ‘owner’ has thugs in his employ to patrol the fields with whips and savage tempers, keeping everyone in such a state of terror they keep labouring through the long day. These are about the worst possible working conditions for the mother of an infant. When the baby strapped to Sarah’s back wakes up and starts crying, she dares not stop. What comfort can she possibly give? The overseer tells her to make the baby shut up, because he is not only a thug, he’s really stupid – as the crying continues, he HITS THE BABY WITH HIS WHIP.
Sarah falls to the ground, her baby screaming twice as loud. Toby comes to her side to try and help her up, but she can’t stand – burnt by the merciless sun, heartsick at the sobbing of her child, she sits there despairing in the row. The overseer returns, swinging the whip until her skirt is tattered and her legs are bloody – a mindless, pointless brutality. “Go,” Toby whispers to her, “as you know how to go!” Lifting his hands, he breathes words of magic and Sarah rises into the air, her baby clasped tightly in her arms. Clumsy at first, she rights herself in the air and soars above the trees. Though the overseer runs after her, his shouts are empty threats: she’s gone and she’s never coming back.
So what’s a petty tyrant to do? Pretend it never happened, of course. The next day things go on the same way as before, and because that way is horrific beyond all description, another slave collapses. All the overseer’s beatings can’t get the young man up, but Toby leans to whisper in his ear, and the words lift him up like gravity itself is rebelling. He rides the air currents higher and higher and at last disappears into the distance.
As one slave after another succumbs to heat and maltreatment, Toby is there to give them wings. Even the overseer can’t deny this is magic any more, and that every time it happens, the same old man is there. He shouts for Toby to be seized. The plantation’s owner comes running, drawing a gun to murder the old man in cold blood.
And Toby laughs.
“Don’t you know who I am?” he demands. “Don’t you know some of us in this field? We are the ones who fly!” Throughout the field the slaves stop work, caught by the elusive whisper of the language they have been forbidden to speak. They catch each other’s hands, rising through the air like a flock of birds, far beyond the reach of a whip or bullets. Toby flies behind them, looking down at the seemingly endless fields, and the wondering slaves watching him pass above their heads. He has no time to stop, no time to give them wings – he can’t save them all. They must wait, and run if they can.
This story is rooted in one of the ugliest events of human history. It is the dream of freedom, devastatingly out of reach for so many of those who needed it most, but kept stubbornly alive – after all, if you can’t escape in body, you can try in mind. Stories like this took courage. The least they deserve is remembrance.