Although "The People Could Fly" portrays magical happenings not typically found outside Harry Potter, the story is told with a serious, heavy-hearted tone befitting its historical significance.
Understandably, the narrator is quite upset about the suffering and violence the enslaved people experience. She focuses on the "slice-open cut of pain" (6) inflicted by the whip, and she sympathizes with Sarah when the young mother "couldn't stop to soothe" her child because "she had no heart to croon to it" (8). By focusing on these difficult images—images that show us how human the people being dehumanized are—the narrator illustrates the direness of the situation.
Though this heavy-hearted tone never leaves, it becomes a little more hopeful by the end. The people who can't fly will remain enslaved for now, but they will eventually gain their freedom, too—and when they do, they'll be able appreciate the simple things in life, like "firelight and Free-dom, and tellin" (32). They aren't there yet, but a brighter future awaits them nonetheless.
"The People Could Fly" is a textbook example of folklore.
After all, it's a story about magical happenings in the past, it details a historical reality through a fantastical lens, and—most importantly—it was created through oral tradition. In fact, the version we're talking about is just one of many, and no two are identical. But you don't have to take our word for it, click here and here to see what we're talking about.
As much as "The People Could Fly" is about slavery and the experiences of enslaved people, it's also about the idea of folktales. The closing section refers to how "the slaves who could not fly told about the people who could fly to their children" (32), just as the narrator does for us. That places us, as readers, into the tradition, too, passing the baton our way to then pass on again. And that right there, Shmoopers, is how folklore works in a nutshell.
In "The People Could Fly," we witness an enslaved people remember the power that has been inside them all along. For a long time, they've been convinced that they are at best ordinary, though they're primarily treated as even lesser than that. But you want to know what? Many of them can actually fly, which is more than the white folks who've been violently oppressing them can say.
The title, then, refers to enslaved people's abilities to be free. For more on flying, be sure to check out the "Symbols" section.
"The People Could Fly" ends with the equivalent of a curtain pull. After watching the people fly away, we're taken ahead to a future when everyone—not just those who can fly—are free. Even all those years later, though, the people haven't forgotten these amazing events. In fact, they have all gone on to "tell about the people who could fly to their children" (32).
Ultimately, this is the purpose of all folklore. While folk tales are never accurate in a literal sense, they reveal important emotional truths about real-life historical events. They teach us to remember the past, to treasure the present, and to carry on to the future. These formerly enslaved people are sustained by the memory of that fateful freedom flight and carry its message forward to future generations. Not too shabby for a story that's less than five pages long, huh?
Though fantastical, "The People Could Fly" depicts a bleak reality. During the age of slavery, African people (and others) were kidnapped from their homeland and brought to America, many not surviving the journey. They were denied their basic humanity, their freedom, and their cultural identity, forced to work on plantations throughout the American South. This folk tale is a response to that historical calamity—a way for people to build a bridge from their old home to their new one.
To be honest, it's probably easier to define the setting by what it's not. Remember—the people only "forgot about flyin when they could no longer breathe the sweet scent of Africa" (3). Their powers are linked to their homeland, so although they now look like ordinary (think: wing-less) people, they still carry the magic from their past somewhere deep inside them. Unfortunately, in order to unearth it, they're going to have to survive life in this new country first.
As you might imagine, the plantation is an awful place. We watch as "another and another fell from" the "dead hot" (21) weather. This harsh land is relentlessly patrolled by the Driver and the Overseer, two nasty men who derive sadistic pleasure from inflicting violence. The whole plantation is surrounded by "fences" and "streams" (22), creating an overbearing sense of confinement. Although we're overjoyed when the flying-people overcome these obstacles, we can't help but worry about the poor land-walkers they left behind.
Luckily, the enslaved people eventually make their way to "the free land" (32)—presumably, somewhere in the North. Although this is not the home that they miss so much, it feels like heaven compared to where they've been. After all, they can now actually enjoy their lives, sitting "close to the fire" and "tellin" stories (32). Although there are still plenty of struggles to endure, not being enslaved sure beats being enslaved any day.
In sports terms, this is the equivalent of the pitcher for a fourth grade softball team throwing a curve-ball to Barry Bonds. We don't want you think that's a bad thing, though—that kid has one heck of an arm. But still, if you keep your eye on the ball (er, page), you should have no trouble connecting with what you see before you.
Sometimes it's best to write in a conversational way, you know? Especially if the story you're writing comes from an oral tradition, as is the case with "The People Could Fly." It would be kind of weird to take a tale that's passed mouth to ear and then make it all formal on the page. But let's look at what this looks like in practice.
Hamilton frequently starts sentences with "they say" or "say" (1), implying that she's simply relaying a story that was told to her and fostering the sense that she's casually doing the same to readers. Similarly, the use of dialect (a.k.a. language that reflects where someone's from—think: hella, wicked, and so on) through words like "flyin" (3) and "outcryin" (27) adds to the sense that this story is meant to be spoken, rather than written. Which, again, it was.
In a similar fashion, Hamilton uses short, rapid-fire sentences to create urgency. Take a look at this passage, for example:
That whip was a slice-open cut of pain. So they did move faster. Had to. (6)
By using short, punchy sentences (and sometimes fragments), Hamilton mirrors the violence she is describing through her language. That first sentence above slices, there's nothing extra or flowery to it—it delivers pain swiftly. Sentences like these create a sense of forward momentum (and, at times dread), too, that keeps our eyes glued to the page until the story ends.
It doesn't matter if you're Sugar Ray or R. Kelly—everyone wants to fly. And while, yes, on one level this is because a bird's-eye view seems pretty cool, we're talking about flight metaphorically. After all, flying is the universal symbol of freedom. So no wonder it's so important in "The People Could Fly."
In this story, we first see the African people in their homeland, gifted with the ability to "walk up on the air like climbin up a gate" (1). The image of someone flying over a gate is about as freedom-loving as it gets, if you ask us—if gates represent containment, well, there's no containing these people. Along this line, although the people lose their powers when they're enslaved, they eventually regain their magic and "flew away to Free-dom" (27). In short, they might be captured, but they can't be kept that way forever.
But the fact that these skills are hidden adds another delicious layer to this metaphorical seven-layer dip. Back in Africa, the people actually had wings, but were forced to shed them because it was "too crowded" on the "slave ships" (2). Interestingly, these wings never return even after they regain their powers. In other words, for people who are oppressed based on what they look like, their power stays hidden from visual observation.
The enslaved people in this story are persecuted and demeaned solely on the basis of the color of their skin, making the idea of a hidden power underneath the surface particularly powerful. Although they've been dehumanized, these people ultimately reveal themselves as they truly are. When they take flight, reconnecting with the power they've always had, we can recognize this as a statement that no matter how beaten down they are, their humanity and spirit cannot be crushed.
Without Toby's magic words, the people would never remember how to fly. Abracadabra just wouldn't have worked.
In a sense, these magic words represent the cultures erased by slavery. After their enslavement, the African people weren't allowed to practice their own cultures or even speak their native languages. The story connects this idea to their power of flight, which evaporates when the now-enslaved people "could no longer breathe the sweet scent of Africa" (3). Later, their powers only return when "the words of ancient Africa" (21) are spoken to them. In both cases, we can see access to culture as essential to thriving.
Essentially, then, Toby is reconnecting the people to their stolen past. His magic words reawaken the people to the power that resides inside them. But some changes can't be undone, and "the words [...] once heard are never remembered completely" (21). These now-free people will never be able to go back in time and prevent their culture's destruction, but they will get a chance at a fresh start.
We hear a lot about flying people in this story—obviously—and while that's well and good, we think the people who can't fly deserve a little attention, too. After all, they're the ones who represent the people who were actually enslaved.
See, "The People Could Fly" represents a fantasy of sorts, the dream of magically up and leaving the terrible realities of life as a slave. But that's all it is: a dream. Like the flying people, the non-flyers are forced to endure unimaginable suffering; for them, however, the only hope for escape is to "wait for a chance to run" (29), making it super clear that flying away from slavery is only fantasy. The reality is much grimmer.
Additionally, the land-walkers are the people who carry this story forward. They're the ones "who [...] told about the people who could fly to their children" (32), passing this inspirational tale on to future generations. Those who can fly don't really need the story, after all—they're free. It's the people who are still navigating enslavement and racism who need a bit of hope to hold onto, which is exactly what this story provides.
"The People Could Fly" is a version of a popular oral folk tale. Traditionally, stories like this are recited to an audience, who sometimes become involved in the call-and-response of the story themselves. Although it's not clear that "The People Could Fly" uses a second-person narrator at first, this becomes established when the narrator says that she "told [the story] to you" (33). At this moment, we realize that she's speaking directly to us, as if we were friends exchanging tales.
Things are not looking good. Although many Africans could once fly, they lost their abilities (and their wings) after being brought to America. We meet one such person, a young mother named Sarah, forced to work backbreaking hours while carrying her child on her back.
It's a particularly bad day in the fields and the baby is bawling. Sarah is too exhausted to do anything about it, however. Suddenly, the Driver whips the baby and Sarah falls to the ground, her spirit broken. All hope is lost.
To everyone's amazement, a man named Toby comes to the rescue and Sarah begins to levitate. Then, after grabbing her baby, Sarah flies away from the plantation. Although everybody sees this go down, they're all too shocked to react.
The next day is so hot that people are collapsing left and right. Each time someone falls, however, Toby whispers the magic words into their ear and they fly away. After teaching everyone who can fly how to do so (unfortunately, there are many enslaved people who don't have this ability), Toby flies away, too.
Although many slaves stay behind that day because they can't fly, eventually, they also gained their freedom. These land-locked people go on to tell the story of the people who can fly to their children, who go on to tell it their children, who go on to… Well, you get the point. To them, the story epitomizes the beauty of freedom.