The Flying Africans: Returning Home in African American Folklore

Africans in North America devised a number of stories to help them cope with the traumatic experience of slavery. Flying Africans represented spiritual and earthly freedom.

Sep 12, 2022By Greg Pasciuto, BA History
the flying Africans American folklore
Slaves Waiting for Sale, Richmond, Virginia by Eyre Crowe, c. 1853-1860, via Encyclopedia Virginia; with They Went So High, Way Over Slavery Land, by Constanza Knight, watercolor, via Constanzaknight.com

 

Who wouldn’t want to fly? Birds fly, bats fly, even comic book characters fly all the time. What keeps humans from doing the same?  It’s all about biology, really. Our bodies just aren’t built for organic flight. But if there is anything the human species has learned, it’s how to use our imagination. Imagination, then, is the key to humans taking to the skies.

 

All cultures tell stories that twist the boundaries of reality. Flight is one such trope. One example of flight in folklore is the legend of the Flying Africans. Found across Black North American and Caribbean cultures, tales of Flying Africans functioned as a form of relief for Black people held in bondage. These stories gave enslaved people something precious to believe in, both in this life and the hereafter.

 

Where Did the Flying African Legend Come From?

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Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade map, via Crispus Attucks Museum

 

The tale of the flying Africans dates back to the time of slavery in North America. Between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries, millions of Africans were shipped across the Atlantic Ocean to European American colonies. These enslaved people came from a multitude of regional and ethnic groups that called the West African coast home. Africans experienced dismal conditions onboard European slave ships, with captives crammed together below decks. Mortality rates were high.

 

When scholars began to study the African diaspora in the mid-twentieth century, many doubted African cultures and stories could have survived the dangerous Middle Passage. European slavers would have done everything they could to break their captives’ spirits. However, historians since the 1970s have demonstrated that Africans did manage to preserve some elements of their home cultures in the Americas. Stories from their homelands were adapted over time to suit the contexts that enslaved people now found themselves in. New religions, such as Voodoo and Santería, also developed at the nexus of European Christianity and African spiritual traditions.

 

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Enslaved Africans Cutting the Sugar Cane in Antigua, c. 1823, via National Museums Liverpool

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No matter where Africans ended up in the Americas, slavery was a brutal, dispiriting regime. Backbreaking work, long hours, and physical and psychological abuse were staples of enslavement. Slaveholders could also separate enslaved Africans from their families for transgressions. In patriarchal colonial societies, the treatment of enslaved women differed in form from that of men. To cope with their tragic ordeals, enslaved Africans and their descendants often turned to religion and folktales for solace. These stories offered valuable life lessons and spoke to the hopes and dreams of their narrators and audiences. From here, the legend of the Flying Africans was born.

 

Interestingly, historians and religious scholars have not reached a consensus on which specific African culture contributed most to the Flying African stories. Some earlier writers suggested an origin from within the Igbo ethnic group from modern Nigeria, while one more recent historian has argued for a more Christian-oriented, Central African origin. However, this debate would not have mattered to the people who actually heard the stories of the Flying Africans. They would have been more concerned about the legends’ uplifting messages than their specific ethnic origins.

 

Igbo Landing: Did the Legend Come to Life?

georgia coast flying africans
Coastal Georgia Marsh (aerial view), 2014, via the Moonlit Road

 

Off the southeastern coast of the US state of Georgia lies St. Simons Island, a marshy place with a long history. Here you will find small homes and historical landmarks of diverse origins. Perhaps most importantly, this tiny island may have been the place where the legend of the Flying Africans came to life. Passed on well into the 1930s, these tales form a part of the unique folklore of Georgia’s Gullah, or Geechee, people.

 

The Gullah/Geechee people are unique among African American communities in both language and social customs. Their language, also known as Geechee, is a creole language, blending an English base with words and expressions from various West African languages. Many historians and anthropologists believe that geographical distance from mainland American plantations allowed the Gullah culture to preserve indigenous African customs more distinctly. Commonly recognized Gullah/Geechee cultural practices include elaborate styles of basket weaving and the oral transmission of songs and stories from older generations to their successors.

 

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Map of the Sea Islands area, via Telfair Museums, Savannah, Georgia

 

It was in Gullah/Geechee country that the Flying Africans legend may have become reality in May 1803. According to the New Georgia Encyclopedia, slavers associated with prominent plantation owners Thomas Spalding and John Couper transported Igbo captives on a boat bound for St. Simons. During the journey, the slaves mutinied and threw their captors overboard. After they reached the shore, however, the Igbos decided to walk back into the swamp and drowned. They would rather die free people than continue to live under chattel slavery.

 

Not many written accounts of the St. Simons incident have survived. One, composed by a plantation overseer named Roswell King, expressed frustration toward the Igbos’ actions. King and the other slavers saw the Igbos’ actions as causing unnecessary problems for their business. The slaves had broken from not only their physical bonds, but also from the dominant institutions of the time — both sociopolitical and psychological. In a morbid way, they were truly free.

 

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Gullah drumming performance, Charleston County, South Carolina, via North Carolina Sea Grant Coastwatch and North Carolina State University

 

The story of these defiant men evidently outlasted their deaths. In the late 1930s, the United States government’s Works Progress Administration set up the Federal Writers Project. Among the scholars recruited for this effort were folklorists who went to study the oral traditions of the Gullah/Geechee people.

 

Their motives for publishing their collection, entitled Drums and Shadows, is disputed. Some of the scholars may have simply sought to publish a book of “exotic” tales for White American readers. Others likely held a genuine interest in the people and subject matter they were chronicling. Regardless, Drums and Shadows remains a critical account of Gullah/Geechee folktales. This includes the legend of the Flying Africans.

 

It is important to note, however, that stories of Africans taking to the skies are not restricted to mainland North America. As our own global literature shows, other countries with substantial Black populations also have their own versions of this tale. With this in mind, we move on to the impact of the Flying Africans on contemporary literary works.

 

The Flying African Tale in Fiction

toni morrison flying africans legend
Toni Morrison, photograph by Jack Mitchell, via Biography.com

 

Because of its roots in folklore, the tale of the Flying Africans naturally lends itself to literature. The legend has inspired a number of famous writers, both classic and contemporary. Perhaps most notable is Toni Morrison’s 1977 book Song of Solomon. Multiple characters are depicted “in flight” throughout the book. Protagonist Macon “Milkman” Dead’s great-grandfather, an enslaved man named Solomon, is said to have left his son in America before flying across the Atlantic for Africa. Milkman himself also “flies” at the conclusion of the novel, during a confrontation with his former friend Guitar. In Song of Solomon, flight serves as an act of both escape from one’s problems and resistance to unjust circumstances in life.

 

A more recent novel that incorporates the legend of the Flying Africans is Jamaican poet Kei Miller’s 2016 book Augustown. Set in Jamaica in 1982, the novel functions as a microcosm of modern Caribbean issues. In its background is the historical figure Alexander Bedward, a preacher who claimed to his followers that he could fly. The real Bedward was eventually arrested by British colonial authorities and never flew. However, Miller’s Bedward actually takes flight. Regardless of an author’s nationality, the Flying Africans have left a distinctive literary impact on the modern world.

 

The Legend in Modern Art

flying africans constanza knight
They Went So High, Way Over Slavery Land, by Constanza Knight, watercolor, via Constanzaknight.com

 

In addition to its significant role in literature, the Flying Africans legend has also established a place for itself in modern art. The twenty-first century has seen an explosion of artists seeking to depict the Black experience in creative new ways. Some topics focus on specific people, while others serve as social commentary on issues such as race relations or sexuality. Others reframe older cultural staples or episodes from Black history.

 

North Carolina-based artist Constanza Knight exhibits much of her work at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, VA. Twelve watercolor paintings depict the story of the Flying Africans. They tell the story of enslaved people incrementally, from their abduction to their flight, “far away from slavery land.” In a mixture of browns, reds, blacks, blues, and purples, African slaves toil away until some start to speak of how “the time is come.” One by one, they regain their ability to fly, soaring away towards freedom. On her website, Knight also includes an excerpt about the tale from a children’s book by Virginia Hamilton, entitled The People Could Fly. Her watercolors simultaneously depict scenes of despair and hope, demonstrating the resilience of those held in bondage and their descendants today.

 

The Legacy of the Flying Africans: Spiritual Comfort and Resistance

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Slave revolt leader Nat Turner and companions, illustration by Stock Montage, via National Geographic

 

The legend of the Flying Africans is a fascinating episode of folklore from African diaspora history. Found across North America and the Caribbean, the tale has inspired people across time and place. It is a story of resilience in the face of crushing adversity — a tale whose origins matter less than its substance. Humans may not really be able to fly, but the idea of taking flight is a powerful symbol of freedom. To the generations of black people enslaved for four centuries, the legend of the Flying Africans took on a semi-religious status. Modern works of art and literature owe a great debt to it.



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By Greg PasciutoBA HistoryGreg is a Stonehill College graduate and aspiring writer and editor from Boston, MA. When he isn’t working his full-time job, you might find him reading, completing creative word searches, or just looking to learn new skills for life. His historical interests are particularly centered on the history of religion and the interactions of different cultural groups. Not limited to a single geographic region, Greg enjoys uncovering the stories of cultures all around.