"One of Dese Mornings, Bright and Fair,/ Take My Wings and Cleave De Air": The Legend of the Flying Africans and Diasporic Consciousness

Article excerpt

"O Daedalus, Fly Away Home"

Drifting night in the Georgia pines,

coonskin drum and jubilee banjo.

Pretty Malinda, dance with me.

Night is juba, night is conjo.

Pretty Malinda, dance with me.

Night is an African juju man

weaving a wish and a weariness together

to make two wings.

O fly away home fly away

Do you remember Africa?

O cleave the air fly away home

My gran, he flew back to Africa,

just spread his arms and

flew away home.

Drifting night in the windy pines,

night is a laughing, night is a longing.

Pretty Malinda, come to me.

Night is a mourning juju man

weaving a wish and a weariness together

to make two wings.

O fly away home fly away

--Robert Hayden

Some people said that when a Negro died he went back to Africa, but this is a lie. How could a dead man go to Africa? It was living men who flew there, from a tribe the Spanish stopped importing as slaves because so many of them flew away that it was bad for business.

--Esteban Montejo, The Autobiography of a Runaway Slave

The African don't eat salt, they say they come like a witch... those Africans who don't eat salt--and they interpret all things. And why you hear they say they fly away, they couldn't stand the work when the taskmaster them flog them; and they get up and they just sing their language, and they clapping their hands--so--and they just stretch out, and them gone--so--right back. And they never come back.

--Ishmael Webster, qtd. in Alas, Alas, Kongo

The legend of the Flying Africans is a canonical tale which resonates throughout the expressive traditions of that part of the African diaspora which has known slavery in the New World.(1) The three examples above, from, respectively, an African American, a Cuban, and a Jamaican, demonstrate the wide geographic currency of the legend within Afro-Latin and Afro-Caribbean communities as well as in the U.S., the latter being the geographic area where the legend is most commonly located by researchers. In fact, all the shores touched by the Atlantic slave trade produce a collective mythology. The fact of this legend's appearance and resonance in this widespread physical area demands both a pan-American and a pan-African analytic perspective, a theoretical framework which encompasses Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Latin geographic and cultural areas, in addition to looking at the perhaps more commonly cited North American examples.

Along with being a canonical tale, the legend of the Flying Africans is commonly recognized, and subsequently categorized, as a piece of folklore. This classification subjects the legend to analysis in the discourses of the social sciences, specifically anthropology and folklore studies. There are two characteristics of this discourse which this essay will challenge. The first is the separation of folklore and literature. And the second is the notion that folkloric elements are static units which can disappear or be lost. My argument is that the novel form, as used by black women writers, constitutes an alternate realm of transmission and transformation for the canonical tales of black communities. Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon and Paule Marshall's Praisesong for the Widow are two novels which, in their transformation of the legend of the Flying Africans, articulate a counter-discursive historiography of slavery. The novels (as opposed to folklore collections) function as dynamic sites for contextualizing this legend, and for questioning previous versions of the legend as they have existed in cultural memory and in recorded folklore histories. Morrison's and Marshall's revisions and altered emphases raise questions about previous cultural definitions of heroism and community responsibility, seeing these now from a feminist and an Afro-centric perspective. …


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