The People Could Fly

by Virginia Hamilton

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Folklore is said to provide insights into the collective experiences, aspirations, and values of a cultural group. Hamilton provides readers with a looking glass through which to view some of the common experiences from the early heritage of the people who are now known as African Americans. One such experience is demonstrated in the manner in which black folklore uses animal heros to portray both the oppressed slaves and their masters. The ubiquitous “Bruh Rabbit,” small and weak but clever, plots, schemes, plays tricks, and uses humor to outdo his larger and stronger rivals, often “Bruh Bear” and “Bruh Fox.” The rabbit almost always eventually overcomes adversity and escapes his predicament. It is said that the black slaves told stories of this type because they dared not to portray themselves and their masters in stories directly but rather had to rely on subtlety and personification. “Doc Rabbit, Bruh Fox, and Tar Baby” is one tale in which the trickster resorts to cunningness and subtlety in order to achieve happiness and freedom from persecution. Doc Rabbit uses his cleverness to get himself out of a predicament: He tricks Bruh Fox into throwing him into the briar patch, which looks dangerous but is his natural home, and thereby avoids a more grisly fate.

The aspirations of the slaves, as portrayed in this collection, were centered on freedom and a better life. Using one’s wits to outsmart the powerful and thereby win riches and a beautiful woman are common themes in a number of the tales. Often, the prize won is freedom from slavery, whether by escape across the Ohio River in a rowboat or by rising up into the sky and flying away from the Mas’ and the Overseer. In a number of the tales, the hero gains gold, silver, or property. Since slaves had little hope of possessing these things in actuality, they sought and achieved them in their tales. “John and the Devil’s Daughter” portrays the success of a poor man in capturing the affection and hand of a beautiful woman, the daughter of the Devil. “Manuel Had a Riddle” shows the reader how cleverness and riddling (a prime pastime of the slaves) enables Manuel to gain great treasure from the king and his scheming family.

The values of the African American community are shown in the significance of the familial relationships and friendships portrayed in the tales. Often the hero of the tales is a rescuer of his family or loved ones. In “The People Could Fly,” the hero rescues a plantation’s slave population and flies away into the sky with them. The esteem awarded to cleverness and an interesting story are clearly shown; most of the stories in this collection have little to do with things as they are (or ever will be) but rather deal with life in an exaggerated way.

Each story has at least one, and usually more, illustrations. The drawings are done in black, white, and gray tones in a simplified, almost primitive style. They effectively extend the stories and offer additional insights about the characters in the tales. Hamilton also provides footnotes for terms that are used colloquially or that may be unfamiliar to most readers. In “Bruh Alligator Meets Trouble,” which is partially presented in the Gullah dialect, the author includes a glossary of Gullah terms to promote understanding of the story.

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Critical Context