Student Question

What is the difference between being an "African" and a "Negro" in "All God’s Chillen Had Wings," and how does the transformation occur?

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All God’s Chillen Had Wings is an African-American tale belonging to the larger “Flying African Folklore” of the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Since most of these narratives were first orally transmitted by plantation slaves, they differ in their telling. The version I am referencing can be found in Virginia Hamilton’s The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales. It can also be found here.

Before we unpack the folktale, understanding its historical context is useful. As you probably already know, the black slaves forced to work in the plantations of the American South under sub-human conditions, were torn away from African countries as diverse as the (now) Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Cameroon, and many others.

Thus, the Africans belonged to different ethnic groups and tribes, each with their own rich cultural heritage and language. Many times, Africans on slave ships and plantations could not even understand each other’s dialects. Furthermore, families were separated in the slave trade and different members sold off to different plantations. Once out of Africa, the Africans were clubbed under the derogatory racial marker “Negros.” Isolated from their cultural and familial ties, stories and songs became the primary way for the captured Africans to forge new bonds with each other and to preserve a common African identity. As time went on, this became an African American identity, based on their unique challenges and experiences in the American South.

One of the motifs of this folklore was the flying African, where sometimes individuals, and often groups, gained flight to escape their oppressive overseers. In some tales the people transform into birds, in others they fly away "like birds;" and in some they head to the sky while in others, they fly back to Africa. While some scholars read these folktales as a metaphor for the power of the human spirit to rise in the face of adversity, others say the folktale may be referring to the flight of runaway slaves, and others who managed to overthrow the yoke of slavery through luck, ingenuity, and/or education.

Yet another reading respects the assertion of the tellers that the Africans actually “flew.” In “Chillen” for instance, the speaker explicitly says the man he himself heard the tale from “was there at the time and saw the Africans fly away with their women and children.” While it is true the Africans actually did not magically fly away, this last reading respects the power of faith as well as non-Western systems of common-sense.

Indeed, in “Chillen” and other folk tales, the Africans chant something specific before flying away. In “Chillen,” the old man who is the leader of the group that flies away “made a sign in the master’s face and cried, ‘Kuli-ba! Kuli-ba!’ I don’t know what that means." Other folk tales report similar-sounding words, which scholars like Winifred Vass have traced to words from the Bantu language. Thus, the slaves are performing a ritual that enables flight as a part of their system of rationale. Therefore, interpreting this solely as metaphor and wishful thinking may be reductive.

To come to your specific question, it is very interesting to note the way the folktale opens (emphasis mine):

Once all Africans could fly like birds, but owing to their many transgressions, their wings were taken away. There remained, here and there, in the sea islands and out-of-the-way places in the low country, some who had been overlooked and had retained the power of flight, though they looked like other men.

In the beginning the people are Africans, imbued with racial and geographical dignity, and blessed with the power of flight. Because the folktale needs to provide an answer for why some of the people are removed from Africa and flight, it includes the line “owing to their many transgressions,” or sins. The sea islands and out-of-the-way places refers to tidal and barrier islands off the Atlantic coast of America, belonging to the states of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. Thus, the dislocation of the Africans is rooted to very specific places. In Africa, they are Africans; once dislocated they are forced to wear another label.

In the third paragraph of the story itself, the term “Negros” is casually introduced for the first time.

One day, when all the worn-out Negroes were dead of overwork, he bought, of a broker in the town, a company of native Africans just brought into the country and put them at once to work in the cottonfield.

Note the striking way the “Negros” are juxtaposed with the “native Africans.” Slavery, subjugation, and so much overwork that it kills the people, transforms them from the Africans of the opening lines to Negros, their state in America. The change symbolizes both their change of circumstance, as well as the prejudice and dehumanization they have had to face in the new world because of their racial identity. In contrast, those fresh from Africa are “native Africans,” because they still retain their cultural memory and identity.

Significantly, it is this group, which still remembers the knowledge-systems of the homeland, that starts the flight away from the cruel overseer in their cotton plantation. As the overseer repeatedly hits a new mother, slowed down because of her physical condition, she turns to an old man in the group.

She spoke to an old man near her, the oldest man of them all, tall and strong, with a forked beard. He replied, but the driver could not understand what they said. Their talk was strange to him.

Their shared language as well as the young woman referring to the old man later as “Daddy,” indicate this is a family who has not yet been separated. Thus, the cultural African ties are strong between them. After the overseer lashes at her a few more times, the young woman is told by the old man that “the time has come,” and away she flies like a bird. Soon, another man flies away, and then another, till:

The old man...said something loudly to all the Negroes in the field, the new Negroes and the old Negroes. And as he spoke to them, they all remembered what they had forgotten and recalled the power which once had been theirs. Then all the Negroes, old and new, stood up together. The old man raised his hands, and they all leaped up into the air with a great shout and in a moment were gone, flying, like a flock of crows, over the field, over the fence, and over the top of the wood, and behind them flew the old man.

Thus, the Negros "old and new" remember their African roots and inherent power of flight. In coming together, the peoples from different African cultures and races reclaim their power. This can be read as a metaphor for the importance of proudly owning their African identity.

Some critics have read the flight in “Chillen” as a metaphor for suicide, and indeed, suicide sometimes can be an act of defiance and resistance; but I think the flight in “Chillen” has multiple meanings. One of them is the flight from being African to Negro to back.

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