Along time ago in Africa, the people could fly. They walked up into the air like they were climbin stairs. They could fly over the fields like blackbirds, their wings shiny and black. When they were captured and made slaves, they lost their wings. The slave ships were so crowded that there was no room for them.
For many days, they went across the water in the boats — the stinkin, miserable boats. They bobbed about on the boats, so sick they wanted to die. And they forgot all about flying, but they didn’t lose their power. They kept their magic secret. Not all the slaves had the magic. But you couldn’t tell who did and who didn’t.
Old man Toby had the magic and hadn’t forgotten. He was in the field one day with Sarah, his daughter. She was carrying her baby on her back. She worked and worked in the hot sun, her baby sleeping. Her baby woke up hungry and cried and cried.
But there was nothing to be done for him. The Overseer, a hard, cruel man, said, “Keep that thing quiet and get back to work.” The baby cried and cried, and Sarah was faint and hungry herself. She fell to the ground.
“Get up, you cow,” the overseer snarled, and he used his whip against both her back and the baby. Her back and her legs were bleeding. Her baby wailed. She couldn’t get up.
“Father,” she cried, “Now, before it’s too late.”
And Toby answered, “Go my daughter.” He raised his hands over his head and called forth the deep magic. “Kum…yali, ku-m buba tambe,” he said. And Sarah lifted one foot and then another off the ground, clumsily at first, and then faster and higher. Light as a feather she rose above the overseer, over the fence, and beyond the river.
The Overseer rode after her, yelling and chasing her. But she was gone. No one said a word. No one could understand or believe what had happened.
The next day, a young man working in the field fainted from the heat. And Toby whispered the words over him. The young man had the words deep inside him but had forgotten them. When Toby said the words, he remembered. He lifted off the ground and flew away too.
And then more slaves, all at their end, cried out for Toby. He said the magic words to them too. “Kum kunka yali, ku-m tambe.” They rose like a flock of shiny blackbirds, and the whole time the Overseer yelled. But then he got his gun. He meant to kill Toby and put an end to the magic.
But Toby just laughed and said, “Don’t you know who we are? We are ones who fly!” And he said the ancient words again. All around him in the field, slaves who were bent over stood up. They remembered! They joined hands and rose in the air, flying high in the air. Were they black crows or just black shadows?
It doesn’t matter because they were free.
See “The People Who Could Fly,” by Virginia Hamilton in the anthology, From Sea to Shining Sea.
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