The People Could Fly

by Virginia Hamilton

Start Free Trial

Form and Content

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

In The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales, Virginia Hamilton, a descendent of early African Americans, recounts twenty-four stories from the rich oral history of the black culture in the United States. Written in a readable, mild dialect, the tales capture the spirit of the slave culture that spawned them and are effectively illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon, Caldecott Medal winners for two of their earlier works involving African tales. The reader is led through four genera of black folktales: animal tales; tales of the real, extravagant, and fanciful; tales of the supernatural; and slave tales of freedom.

The folktales retold by Hamilton originated not only in Africa and North America but in Europe and South America as well. Many of the tales involve the theme of the weak and oppressed triumphing over the strong and powerful. In such a way did the slaves often weave allegories of their own existence with their hope of victory over the powerful and rich landowners who were their masters. This approach is especially evidenced in the animal tales wherein the hero is often the rabbit, a trickster by trade.

In the “Animal Tales” section, the reader is reintroduced to a number of stories commonly associated with the Uncle Remus tales of Joel Chandler Harris. In her retelling, Hamilton avoids much of the thick dialect found in some other stories about “Bruh Bear and Bruh Rabbit,” the Tar Baby, and other well-known characters that many readers first met in the stories collected by Harris. Following each tale, Hamilton provides a brief discussion of the origin and variations of the tale. For example, the Tar Baby tale is said to exist in about three hundred versions from such diverse locations as Africa, India, the Bahamas, Brazil, and the southeastern United States.

In the section entitled “. . . And Other Tales of the Real, Extravagant, and Fanciful,” the reader is led through a number of tales of the impossible varying from “The Beautiful Girl of the Moon Tower,” wherein the hero Anton receives the ability to change himself into a number of different animals, to “Wiley, His Mama, and the Hairy Man,” a story about an ogre who must be overcome by the quick-wittedness of a small boy.

“. . . And Other Tales of the Supernatural” takes the reader through the frightening world of ghosts and devils, with many stories offering a moral. These tales are often calculated to scare youngsters and thereby promote behaviors that adults consider proper. A number of these stories have long since transcended ethnic barriers and are found in various permutations in cultures throughout the world.

The final section of the collection is “. . . And Other Slave Tales of Freedom.” In this section, Hamilton provides six selections, including “The People Could Fly.” The selections are unified in their origin, all being American slave tales, although the title story and several other tales reveal elements of African folklore in their themes. All these tales involve the escape of enslaved people from their masters. One of the stories is a true account, while the others are more fanciful, but each of the tales carries a message of hope from the people who told it.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Critical Essays