Study Guide

The People Could Fly Themes

  • Transformation

    Move over Optimus—there are some new transformers in town. In the African-American folktale "The People Could Fly," we watch seemingly ordinary people transform into flying superheroes in the blink of an eye. Folk tales are the original super-hero comics, after all. Although the people who could fly undergo all sorts of hardships after being forced into slavery, their so-called Master will never be able to change what's on the inside. And when the thing that's on the inside is a superpower, then that so-called Master's days are numbered.

    Questions About Transformation

    1. Why do the people lose their wings?
    2. Besides the obvious, what do you think is different between the people who can fly and the people who can't?
    3. In your opinion, what is the source of the people's flying powers?
    4. How does the idea of transformation reflect the reality of slavery?

    Chew on This

    The people's initial transformation is only skin-deep—their inner strength remains unchanged.

    In the story, transformation is used as a metaphor for how dehumanizing slavery is, as well as the beauty of freedom.

  • Freedom and Confinement

    "The People Could Fly" is all about the dream of freedom. For the Africans who were captured into slavery and brought to America, there was little reason for hope, but through folk tales like this one, they were able to at least imagine a day when they could become free. That's powerful. No matter how physically confined we might be, no one can ever truly trample the human drive for freedom. If that doesn't inspire you to get off your butt today and do something awesome, then we don't know what will.

    Questions About Freedom and Confinement

    1. In what ways does the Master try to confine the spirits of the people?
    2. How is the people's imprisonment reflected physically?
    3. In what ways is flying used as a metaphor for freedom? Swing by the "Symbols" section to jump start your response.
    4. Why does this story become important to the people who can't fly?

    Chew on This

    "The People Could Fly" uses the magical ability of flight to represent true freedom.

    Although the Master is able to imprison the people physically, he is unable to confine them spiritually or mentally.

  • Memory and the Past

    Whether we're looking into our personal memories or our familial legacy, we can glean tons of insight into the future by looking to the past. In "The People Could Fly," this relationship is portrayed through the metaphor of flight. After having their culture, language, and traditions torn away from them, the African people lose their magical powers. The only way for them to rediscover those powers, of course, is to reconnect with their past. This powerful story is a testament to the power of cultural traditions and the importance of honoring where we come from.

    Questions About Memory and the Past

    1. What is the nature of the "African Mystery" referred to by the story?
    2. Why can't people remember the magic words after they hear them?
    3. What does the story say about the nature of folk tales?
    4. Why does the Master create his own version of the events of the story?

    Chew on This

    In the story, the idea of gaining secret powers by remembering a lost culture makes it clear that culture is a source of power.

    By connecting the power of flight to Africa itself, Hamilton is emphasizing the enslaved people's intrinsic connection to their homeland.

  • Suffering

    "The People Could Fly" portrays some truly harrowing stuff. We see enslaved people getting beaten after collapsing from the heat; we see old men threatened with death; we even see a young woman and her baby get flat-out attacked by some really nasty guys. Even at the darkest moments, however, there's hope. If you're lucky enough, good old Toby will creep up to you, whisper the magic words in your ear, and then all of the sudden you'll fly away—for real. No matter how much suffering they endure, then, there's always hope.

    Questions About Suffering

    1. Why does Toby wait until people are almost hopeless to speak the magic words?
    2. How does the Master ignore all of the suffering?
    3. Why is Sarah unable to croon to her baby?
    4. Will life get better for the people who can't fly after these events? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Although "The People Could Fly" depicts a lot of suffering, it contains an ultimately hopeful message about the human spirit.

    Toby seems to wait until people have reached their breaking point before helping them, implying that there's some sort of need for suffering in order to truly soar.