The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales
told by: Virginia Hamilton
illustrated by: Leo and Diane Dillon
A few months back I came across a guest post on Book Riot, “We Need Diverse Books to Build Character Through Characters,” written by Maya Payne Smart, a writer, and more importantly for my purposes, a reader. After I moved past my bout of nostalgia–the first book she mentions is Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain, a title I remember fondly from Reading Rainbow (and who wouldn’t remember a picture book narrated by James Earl Jones [YouTube] fondly?)–I finished the article and immediately requested her other childhood favorite from the library. The timing was perfect. I had recently finished reading The Conjure Stories by Charles W. Chesnutt, stories in the vein of folklore, though I believe (not certain) they are more creations of Chesnutt rather than actual retellings. Continuing the theme was appealing, especially as I had come to realize that I have very little familiarity with African American folklore, and if I’m going to continue reading novels by African American writers it seems a good idea to familiarize myself with tales they may have grown up with. (Just as knowing European fairy tales can sometimes prove helpful when reading stories by European/European-descendant writers.) An added bonus: the stories of The People Could Fly are told by Virginia Hamilton, a children’s writer who spent most of her life in Ohio.*
I was surprised to find that some of the stories in the collection were familiar. Somewhere along the line, I’d been exposed to a variation of “Doc Rabbit, Bruh Fox, and Tar Baby,” and “The Two Johns” seemed very much like something I might have encountered in Anderson or Grimm. Indeed, Hamilton’s notes at the end of this last story indicate it is “black Portuguese,” suggesting European influences. To what extent, I wonder, are these folktales a mish-mash of African, European, and Native American storytelling?
Hamilton divides the tales into four sections: Animal Tales; Tales of the Real, Extravagant, and Fanciful; Tales of the Supernatural; and Slave Tales of Freedom. While most are completely fanciful, some of the “Slave Tales of Freedom” are true stories, or inspired by true stories. The true tale, “Carrying the Running-Aways” introduced me for the first time to John Rankin, a southern-born minister whose abolitionist beliefs led him to Ripley, Ohio, where he used his riverfront house as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Hamilton’s retelling is from perspective of a slave who ferried others across the Ohio River to Rankin’s house; Rankin would light a lantern to let them know it was safe to cross.
Each story ends with a brief note on the “type” of tale it is, including region of origin and other variations that might be found. Each is also accompanied by the black and white illustrations of Leo and Diane Dillon, images as full of wonder as the tales themselves. The stories themselves are told in the colloquial, with the dropping of g’s and the use of non-standard constructions. While not nearly as difficult to read as Chesnutt’s dialect–nor could it be in a children’s book!–I found it far more effective in conveying the sound of a hypothetical speaker. I could “hear” these stories being told, in a way I could not with Chesnutt’s, preoccupied as I was by basic understanding. Hamilton also included tales that used Gullah words (with translation provided), a creole language made of elements of English and West and Central African languages, still spoken in parts of the coastal south.
Despite the inclusion of background information on each story–suggestive of an academic text rather than a storybook–(and a useful bibliography at the end for further exploration), The People Could Fly is very much a book of stories, stories of great variety and imagination. I only wish I had found it back in elementary school when I was devouring the Andrew Lang Fairy Books–it would have made an excellent companion.
*Hamilton was raised–and spent much of her adult life–in Yellow Springs, Ohio (home to Antioch College), and is best known for M.C. Higgins, the Great and The House of Dies Drear, the former of which won both the Newbery Medal and the National Book Award for Children’s Literature. In 1992 she won the international Hans Christian Anderson Award for lifetime achievement in children’s literature. Source: Ohio Reading Road Trip, Virginia Hamilton page.