In Could 1803 a gaggle of enslaved Africans from present-day Nigeria, of Ebo or Igbo descent, leaped from a single-masted ship into Dunbar Creek off St. Simons Island in Georgia. A slave agent concluded that the Africans drowned and died in an obvious mass suicide. However oral traditions would go on to assert that the Eboes both flew or walked over water again to Africa.
For generations, island residents, often known as the Gullah-Geechee individuals, handed down the story. When folklorists arrived within the Nineteen Thirties, Igbo Touchdown and the story of the flying African assumed a mythological place in African American tradition.
Although the location carries no bronze plaque and stays unmarked on vacationer maps, it has turn out to be an emblem of the traumatizing legacy of trans-Atlantic slavery. Poets, artists, filmmakers, jazz musicians, griots, novelists similar to Toni Morrison and pop stars like Beyoncé have all instructed variations of the story.
They’ll typically change up the story’s particulars to replicate totally different occasions and locations. But the center of the unique story, one in every of eager for freedom, beats by way of every of those retellings. The tales proceed to resonate as a result of these yearnings – whether or not they’re from the cargo maintain of a sloop or the confines of a jail cell – stay simply as intense right now.
Sourcing the story
As an instructional educated in literary historical past, I at all times search for the explanations behind a narrative’s origins, and the way tales journey or change over time. Variations of the flying African delusion have been recorded from Arkansas to Canada, Cuba and Brazil.
But whilst the various variations lower throughout the Black diaspora, the legend has coalesced round a single place: St. Simons. An entry within the Georgia Encyclopedia makes a direct correlation between the 1803 rebel mass suicide and the later, literary folkloric custom.
Why? One motive is geographic.
St. Simons, a part of the archipelago that stretches from Florida to North Carolina, lengthy remained separate from the mainland United States. This isolation allowed African customs to outlive, the place elsewhere they have been assimilated or vanished. Historian Melissa L. Cooper describes the Gullah-Geechee individuals as cultural conservators, tasked in fashionable tradition with the duties of preservation.
AP Photograph/David Goldman
Serendipity additionally performed a job in siting the story. When a causeway from mainland Brunswick to St. Simons was in-built 1924, folklorists actually adopted a paved route into the previous. Through the New Deal, the Works Challenge Administration funded an oral historical past mission that concerned interviewing previously enslaved individuals, and the flying African story was recorded in “Drums and Shadows,” the traditional quantity that printed interviews from the mission.
One Works Challenge Administration interviewer recorded St. Simons raconteur Floyd White asking, “Heahd about Ibo’s Touchdown. Das duh place weah dey deliver duh Ibos obuh in a slabe ship.”
They “staht singing and de mahch proper down in duh ribbuh” – Dunbar Creek – and “mahch again tuh Africa.” However they by no means get residence, White provides: “Dey gits drown.”
Floyd White is a key supply on the flying African, although because the hackneyed written transcription of his interview suggests, questions linger. The Ebos, by his account, stroll, reasonably than fly, throughout the water. White permits that he doesn’t personally imagine the parable; he says they drowned.
Tales change, tune stays the identical
The flying African, regardless of a family tree rooted in St. Simons, has no single level of origin. A shifting current continues to rewrite the previous. These variations throughout variations solely underscore the power of the parable’s central core.
Take how music is used. In nearly each account of Igbo Touchdown, the Africans sing earlier than they fly. They chant in Bantu, one in every of Africa’s 500 languages: “Kum buba yali kum buba tambe, / Kum kunka yalki kum kunka tambe.” These phrases don’t have a direct translation; the phrases, extra typically, get described as secret, magical or misplaced.
However because the Nineteen Sixties, in lots of retellings, the Bantu has been up to date to the hymn “Oh Freedom,” an anthem first recorded after the Civil Struggle and later popularized throughout the civil rights motion.
The storyteller Auntie Zya recounts the Igbo Touchdown legend in a YouTube submit. To make the story extra related to youngsters right now, she launches into the acquainted chorus, “And earlier than I’d be a slave,” utilizing the hymn to bridge the parable and an extended battle for civil rights.
After which there’s Toni Morrison’s novel “Track of Solomon,” the very title of which hyperlinks music and flight. Within the story, the novel’s fundamental character, Milkman Useless, items collectively mysterious lyrics to get well a hidden previous. As soon as he understands the tune, he leaps from a Virginia cliff and flies away. Or is it suicide? The ending is famously ambiguous.
Therapeutic by way of flight
Like all highly effective myths, Igbo Touchdown and the flying African transcend boundaries of time and area.
Experimental filmmaker Sophia Nahli Allison perceives recollections from Dunbar Creek as an “ancestral map.” In a poetic narrative she lays over a dance montage, she muses: “Goals are actuality, time is relative, and the previous, current, and future are melding collectively.” Allison means that the cross-generational continuity of the parable nurtures her, sustaining her voice by way of centuries of violence.
Youngsters’s writer Virginia Hamilton, likewise, presents the flying African as a script for therapeutic. Her most well-known story, “The Folks Might Fly,” broaches the tough topic of the Center Passage, the leg of the slave commerce by which Africans, tightly packed in slave ships, have been transported throughout the Atlantic Ocean.
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Hamilton explains why some Africans needed to depart their wings behind when pressured to America. “They couldn’t take their wings throughout the water on the slave ships,” she writes. “Too crowded, don’t you already know.”
How does a tradition get these wings again?
The place some storytellers linger over haunting photographs, such because the chains supposedly nonetheless heard in Dunbar Creek, artists similar to Morrison, Allison and Hamilton look ahead. Their tales lay the groundwork for restoration.
Hamilton presents “The Folks Might Fly” as a direct type of hope. In a preface to her assortment of that title, she explains how tales “created out of sorrow” carry Black America ahead. She reminds readers: “Maintain shut all of the previous that was good, and that continues to be filled with promise.” A painful previous have to be summoned so as to be redeemed.
Igbo Touchdown starkly illustrated, in 1803, how the selection between slavery and loss of life was not a alternative in any respect. Slavery, sociologist Orlando Patterson wrote, was additionally social loss of life.
Nevertheless it’s necessary to do not forget that pleasure doubles as a type of decolonization. Music threads by way of each model of the flying African legend. Magic phrases propel fieldworkers into the sky, “Kum yali kum buba tambe.” In tune, our spirits carry.
And who amongst us doesn’t dream of flight?
Thomas Hallock doesn’t work for, seek the advice of, personal shares in or obtain funding from any firm or group that might profit from this text, and has disclosed no related affiliations past their tutorial appointment.