Our required book for this week was The People Could Fly by Virginia Hamilton, a collection of African-American folk tales. As a student of American history and an enthusiast of mythology, I was pretty interested in this book and went to the Minneapolis Public Library to check it out. Unfortunately, once I got home, I discovered that the librarians had given me the wrong book: the edition I checked out was the picture book version, which is only about 30 pages to the original version's 200. Therefore, with no other option and my class blog and professor waiting for the assignment, I'm forced to write my response based only on the picture book, rather than turn nothing in at all. So apologies to Beth and my blog partner, but it is what it is.
The People Could Fly (the picture book version of the story, anyway) immediately got my attention with all its biblical undertones. The black slaves, working in terrible conditions under heartless overseers, put me in mind of the Israelites in Egypt right away. Of course, slave spirituals from the time period often included Christian references, reflecting the religion of the slaves' new country, but The People Could Fly almost hit me over the head with it. Old Toby, the slave who speaks the ancient magic incantations over those his fellow captives who still remember the old magic so they can fly away from their plight, is an amalgam of all the saviors of the Bible: Moses, Aaron, even Jesus himself. When he himself flies away at the end of the story, there are other slaves left behind (get it? Left Behind?) at the plantation who can't fly away themselves. Toby has performed a sort of Rapture, and those left on earth (literally) must endure the trials and tribulations (continued brutality at the hands of their masters) until the End of Days (in this case, 1865, the year the 13th Amendment was passed), when all will be set free.
Even the illustrations in the book support the biblical references. The paintings depicting Toby chanting over Sarah, the young slave mother and the first person to fly away from the plantation, show him as a bearded old man, almost like the stereotypical portrayal of God as the same. Toby is obviously black and his clothes are those of a slave, but the connection is there. He lifts his fellow slaves to their feet, speaks the words, and away they go. Towards the end of the story, Toby suddenly grows to hundreds of times the size of a normal human being, reinforcing the God connection. All Christian references aside, though, I did notice one thing: there's an illustration on one page of all the slaves Toby has freed, joining hands and rising into the sky in one long train that disappears into the distance. This immediately put me in mind of the Wild Hunt, a ubiquitous myth in Norse, Germanic, and Celtic mythology about a long train of either dead souls or fairies riding across the sky (and the subject of one of my favorite paintings, Peter Nicholai Arbo's Åsgårdsreien). Maybe the legend of people who use magic to fly is a little more widespread than we thought, like the flood myth or anthropomorphic animal tricksters or creation stories (and that's a whole other category right there).
As I said before, this is only the picture book version, so unfortunately I can't say what the other tales in The People Could Fly are like. However, I'll try to dissect Hamilton's literary methods (such as they are, this book being just over 30 pages) as best I can. The entire story is told in black vernacular. There are a lot of sentence fragments and what hoity-toity grammar Nazis would call "rampant grammatical errors," but having taken Genevieve Escure's 3000-level English linguistics class here at the U, I've learned that grammar is relative; that is, there's no such thing as "bad grammar," just grammar that's appropriate for whoever you're speaking or writing to at a given time. Hamilton knows this, and her use of black vernacular and intentional grammatical errors lend an air of authenticity, as if some grizzled old Uncle Remus type of character was telling me the story while it unfolded in the illustrations. Is it bad that I heard Morgan Freeman's voice in my head while reading this?
The story ends not with the slaves flying away from the plantation to freedom, but with the storyteller's explanation of how the story came to him or her: "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 Free-dom, and tellin. They say that the children of the ones who could not fly told their children. And now, me, I have told it to you." This is, in my opinion, the most important aspect of the story. All folklore descends from an oral tradition. People in ancient cultures, and in cultures enslaved by other cultures, obviously did not have nearly as much access to education as we do, if any at all. Therefore, with no means to write down their stories, they told them over and over in order to preserve them. Every culture had designated storytellers who also served a spiritual function: Native American tribes had medicine men, African tribes had griots, Hindu kingdoms in India had gurus, and so on. The beauty of oral tradition, though, is that literally anyone could tell a story. The term "old wives' tale" was coined for a reason. The People Could Fly might have been narrated by Morgan Freeman in my head, but it just as well could've been any African-American person.