Study Guide

The People Could Fly Quotes

  • Transformation

    They say the people could fly. Say that long ago in Africa, some of the people knew magic. (1)

    The first transformation that takes place isn't a good one. This metamorphosis—from magical, flying people to ordinary-looking folks—reflects the dehumanization of slavery.

    Many of the people were captured for Slavery. The ones that could fly shed their wings. (2)

    This passage makes it seem like the people made an active choice to lose their wings. Were they simply setting the stage for the final triumph? Or is there something else going on?

    The people who could fly kept their power, although they shed their wings. They kept their secret magic in the land of slavery. (4)

    Like a young Clark Kent growing up in Smallville, the flying people have decided to wait for the perfect opportunity to unleash their secret power. Though they might've changed on the outside, their inner power remains untouched. Just watch out for Kryptonite, guys.

    "Yes, Daughter, the time is come," Toby answered. "Go, as you know how to go!" (17)

    Finally, the time for transformation has come. It seems like Toby is the only one who actually remembers that they could once fly, though, since he's the only one who can remind them of the power they once had.

    The young woman lifted one foot on the air. Then the other. […] Then she felt the magic, the African mystery. Say she rose just as free as a bird. (19)

    In a sense, this transformation is really just Sarah remembering her peoples' past. In the real world, Africans (and others) who were captured into slavery were prevented from practicing their culture and traditions and even speaking their native languages.

    No one dared speak about it. Couldn't believe it. But it was, because they that was there saw that it was. (20)

    Frankly, if we saw somebody mutter a magic word and fly away, we'd need a second to digest things, too. Regardless, this must be a powerful moment for them—one of their own has just fulfilled their dream.

    A young man slave fell from the heat. [...] Toby come over and spoke words to the fallen one. [...] He got up and rolled over on the air. (21)

    Toby waits until the last possible second to speak the magic words needed for the transformation. While the Master and his henchmen think that abusing people will break their spirits, they're really just setting the stage for their ultimate downfall. That's poetic justice at its finest.

    There was a great outcryin. The bent back straightened up. Old and young who were called slaves and could fly joined hands. (27)

    Suddenly, the transformation takes hold throughout the whole plantation. The idea that these people were merely "called" slaves emphasizes that they've been hiding in plain sight the whole time. No matter what their so-called "Master" does, he can never change their fundamental selves—he can never completely own them.

    So they say. The Overseer told it. The one called Master said it was a lie, a trick of the light. The Driver kept his mouth shut. (31)

    Naturally, the boss can't believe what he saw. This isn't surprising—if he were to admit that these people are magical beings, he'd also have to admit that he's in serious trouble. Interestingly, only the Driver, who has the most contact with the slaves on a daily basis, seems to believe his eyes.

    The slaves who could not fly told about the people who could fly to their children. When they were free. (32)

    Although there were plenty of people not gifted with the power of flight, they will eventually gain their freedom, too. After being denied their humanity for so long, this can considered a transformation in and of itself.

  • Freedom and Confinement

    The ones that could fly shed their wings. They couldn't take their wings across the water on the slave ships. (2)

    Here, the shedding of the wings represents the confinement of slavery. At one time, these people could go (literally) wherever they wanted, but everything changed so suddenly. Now their every move will be limited.

    The slaves labored in the fields from sunup to sundown. The owner of the slaves callin himself their Master. (6)

    The people are confined both physically and mentally. They have to work all day, every day; they are expected to call this jerk their "Master;" and they're not even given any time to talk to one another. That takes a toll on a person.

    The Overseer rode after her, hollerin. Sarah flew over the fences. She flew over the woods. (20)

    Sarah has just done what every person on the plantation has been dreaming about for a long time, so good for her. This image attempts to describe the indescribable feeling of freedom.

    She flew like an eagle now, until she was gone from sight. No one dared speak about it. Couldn't believe it. (20)

    Yeah, we don't think we'd believe our eyes either. Although the slaves are surely overjoyed, they're too scared to express it. After all, their situation is unchanged—they're still imprisoned. For now, at least…

    The ones flyin were black and shinin sticks, wheelin above the head of the Overseer. (22)

    Suddenly, tons of people are free. The Master and his henchmen are shocked by this—they never realized what power these people had, not only as individuals, but together.

    The Driver got his whip ready to curl around old Toby and tie him up. The slaveowner took his hip gun from its place. He meant to kill old, black Toby. (24)

    With the mass exodus now underway, the bosses turn to violence. Violence has worked well for them in the past, after all, so why not now? As usual, they underestimate the people, these so-called slaves. They don't realize that their drive for freedom is so strong that nothing can stop them now.

    "Hee, hee! Don't you know who I am? Don't you know some of us in this field?" He said it to their faces. "We are the ones who fly!" (25)

    The Master and his cohorts believed that they could destroy the peoples' spirits by confining them to the plantation, but that's not how things work. These are freedom-loving people by nature (funny how that works with humans), so no matter how much abuse he heaps on them, the Master will never be able to change this fundamental fact.

    They rose on the air [...] Way above the plantation, way over the slavery land. Say they flew away to Free-dom. (27)

    The people who could fly are now free, as they were always meant to be. Although they'll never be able to return home to rebuild the lives that were stolen from them, they'll now be able to determine their own fate.

    Toby couldn't take them with him. Hadn't the time to teach them to fly. They must wait for a chance to run. (29)

    Unfortunately, there are many people would can't fly left stuck on the plantation. For them, escape is much more dangerous and frightening possibility—but that's not going to stop them from trying.

    The slaves […] told about the people who could fly to their children. When they were free. […] They did so love firelight and Free-dom, and tellin. (32).

    In case this wasn't spoiled for you by a history class, the enslaved people are eventually freed. Here, we see how stories became an integral part of this now-freed people's identity. After spending generations in unthinkable conditions, the only things that helped them retain hope for the future were stories—just like this one.

  • Memory and the Past

    They say the people could fly. Say that long ago in Africa, some of the people knew magic. (1)

    Unfortunately, this illustrious past has been thoroughly washed away, and now these magical humans are forced to play the role of ordinary people. In fact, it's been so long that they've forgotten that they're just pretending.

    The folks were full of misery, then. […] So they forgot about flyin when they could no longer breathe the sweet scent of Africa. (3)

    The people's magical power of flight is linked to their homeland in Africa. This reflects the community's desire to reclaim something of a past that was erased by slavery. Without that past, they're missing a really important part of their cultural identity.

    Say the people who could fly kept their power […] They kept their secret magic in the land of slavery. (4)

    Despite their imprisonment, there are some who still remember their abilities and are just waiting for an opportunity to unleash them. Unfortunately, there are many who have forgotten altogether.

    "Yes, Daughter, the time is come," Toby answered. "Go, as you know how to go!" (17)

    Luckily, good old Toby hasn't forgotten a thing. Throughout the story, Toby is portrayed as a strong leader, capable of reminding people of the beauty that's always been inside them

    She flew clumsily at first, with the child now held tightly in her arms. Then she felt the magic, the African mystery. (19)

    Sarah is only able to fly after reconnecting with her past. Again, this emphasizes how slaves were denied access to their cultural history and implies that this was done to prevent them from realizing their true power.

    Toby come over and spoke words to the fallen one. The words of ancient Africa once heard are never remembered completely. (21)

    It's interesting that only Toby can remember the magic words of "ancient Africa." What makes him different than the others? Could it be that he's the only one who never forgot in the first place? Regardless, Toby is a portrayed as a good leader because he keeps tradition alive.

    "Hee, hee! Don't you know who I am? Don't you know some of us in this field?" He said it to their faces. "We are the ones who fly!" (25)

    The Master and his buddies have tried to convince the people that they are slaves, not people… so it must be a real shocker to realize that they're superhuman. No matter how much abuse has been thrown his way, though, for his part, Toby has never forgotten this fact.

    So they say. The Overseer told it. The one called Master said it was a lie, a trick of the light. The Driver kept his mouth shut. (31)

    Some people just can't accept reality. The Master can't possibly trust his memory of the encounter—if he did, then he'd be forced to admit that he's an awful human being. It's much easier for him to create a new explanation that fits his own narrow reality.

    When they sat close before the fire in the free land, they told it. They did so love firelight and Free-dom and tellin. (32)

    The slaves who can't fly will never forget what they witness this day. Their memories of the events helps sustain them, at least until they're able to make it to the free land (up North, presumably) themselves.

    They say that the children of the ones who could not fly told their children. And now, me, I have told it to you. (33)

    Like most folk tales, "The People Could Fly" was originally told orally from person to person, rather than being written down. As such, it is meant to describe the feelings of certain historical realities than the specific events.

  • Suffering

    Now Sarah carried a babe tied to her back. She trembled to be so hard worked and scorned. (5)

    Sarah is in dire straits. Can you imagine having to work all day while caring for your child? It seems impossible. Somehow Sarah is expected to suffer like this, day in and day out.

    The owner of the slaves […] was a hard lump of clay. […] A hard rock pile, wouldn't be moved. (6)

    The Master is one bad dude. Although he witnesses tons of suffering every day, he doesn't care one bit so long as he's making boatloads of money. What kind of monster could act that way?

    So the one called Driver cracked his whip over the slow ones to make them move faster. (6)

    Although the Master runs the show, it's the Driver that actually inflicts the violence. In fact, that's probably how the Master creates so much suffering without batting an eye—he has other people do the dirty work for him.

    Sarah […] couldn't stop to soothe and quiet it down. She let it cry. She didn't want to. She had no heart to croon to it. (8)

    After so much suffering, Sarah's spirits are almost broken. She wakes up every day only to work; she's forced to watch her own child go through untold pain; and she's abused on a constant basis. Everyone has a breaking point, and Sarah has reached hers.

    The Driver cracked his whip across the babe anyhow. The babe hollered like any hurt child, and the woman fell to the earth. (9)

    This is, hands down, the most upsetting image in the entire story. Is there anything more cruel or heartless than someone whipping a baby? Not in our book. At this moment, this all seems like too much for Sarah to handle.

    Sarah couldn't stand up straight any longer. She was too weak. The sun burned her faced. The babe cried and cried. (13)

    After everything, Sarah is left beaten down both physically and emotionally. While physical suffering is more visible, the psychological side of things can be even more crippling—without hope for the future, it can be difficult to go on.

    "Get up, you black cow," called the Overseer. He pointed his hand, and the Driver's whip snarled around Sarah's legs. (14)

    While we see a woman at the end of her rope, the Overseer sees an unruly slave that needs to be punished. When is enough going to be enough? Will there be any end to this suffering? From Sarah's perspective, this must seem like a hopeless cause.

    Say the next day was dead hot in the fields. A young man slave fell from the heat. The Driver come and whipped him. (21)

    Now this is just disgusting. How would whipping someone with heatstroke help them work harder? At this point, it's clear that these punishments aren't even meant to make the people work harder—they're meant solely for the Master's sadistic pleasure.

    Another and another fell from the heat. Toby was there. (22)

    The one bright spot throughout this whole ordeal is Toby. Toby is a true leader to his people, doing his part to ease suffering whenever someone loses hope.

    "Take us with you!" Their looks spoke it but they were afraid to shout it. Toby couldn't take them with him. (29)

    Even after the people fly away, there are still plenty left behind on the plantation, and for them, the journey is just beginning. What's more, you can see that they're still too terrified of the Master to make their joy (and envy) clear.