The Flying African in the Americas: Background information when reading Conjure Women

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Conjure Women

by Afia Atakora

Conjure Women by Afia Atakora X
Conjure Women by Afia Atakora
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2020, 416 pages

    Paperback:
    Apr 2021, 416 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Debbie Morrison
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About this Book

The Flying African in the Americas

This article relates to Conjure Women

Print Review

The People Who Could Fly by Virginia Hamilton book coverThe story of the flying African is as old as the history of Africans in the Americas. Thus, it is no surprise that this trope finds its way into Afia Atakora's debut novel, Conjure Women.

The basic notion behind the folktale lies in a secret power, a secret magic known to a select few. This power allows a person to grow wings, or in some cases to transform into a bird. Typically, it was those Africans who still had direct memory of their homeland who could call up this power or initiate it in others in order to facilitate an escape from slavery. Those who had been to Africa and could still remember it could reach it in flight.

As it has its origins in oral history, it's no coincidence that the notion of the Flying African has had such a robust presence in the literature and music of the African Diaspora as well. Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon and Paule Marshall's Praisesong for the Widow are often-cited literary examples, along with Virginia Hamilton's folktale collection for children, The People Could Fly.

In other iterations of the folktale, it is a practical metaphor, a secret code among slaves who planned to escape to the North. For those who formed a belief in Christianity, sprouting wings and "flying away" remained a part of their cultural lexicon. However, in this case, escape was from the earthly realm to the heavenly one. Spirituals such as "Now Let Me Fly" demonstrate this best:

Now Let me fly ... now let me fly
Now let me fly way up high
Way in the middle of the air
I got a Father in the promised land
Not gonna stop 'til I shake his hand
Not too particular 'bout shaking his hand
But I just wanna make to the promised land
Now let me fly ... now let me fly
Now let me fly way up high
Way in the middle of the air
I got a Father in the promised land
Not gonna stop 'til I shake his hand
Not too particular 'bout shaking his hand
But I just wanna make to the promised land

In some circles, the "escape" of the Flying African through death had little to do with Christian faith. Igbo Landing (1803) was an infamous mass suicide among captured West Africans who preferred death to the impending slavery and so commandeered and crashed the ship that was taking them to America. This drive toward suicide may have been strengthened by the belief that in death their spirits would return to Africa. Some historians believe this is where the myth of the Flying African actually originates. While many bodies were recovered at the crash site, it was said that others sprouted their wings and simply flew back home. It is interesting to note that the Igbo Landing suicide is also the site of a folklore split. From it comes tales of the Flying African, but also the African who walks on water (in order to get home).

Belief in the folktale of the Flying African persisted for quite some time. Ethnographers in the 1930s collected dozens and dozens of stories from all over the Americas from people who claimed to have witnessed the phenomenon themselves. It remains an enduring and poignant theme in literature, music and art.

Filed under Places, Cultures & Identities

Article by Debbie Morrison

This "beyond the book article" relates to Conjure Women. It originally ran in April 2020 and has been updated for the April 2021 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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