The Flying African

By Elizabeth Cali

The trope or figure of the flying African has its roots in African American folklore and refers to the lore that African peoples who had been enslaved and forcibly moved across the Atlantic and Indian oceans to the Americas could fly back to Africa as a form of resistance to slavery.

There are many variations of tales of the flying African, but the most common source is the historical event at Igbo Landing on St. Simon’s island in Georgia, where enslaved Africans revolted as the ship they were on docked to deliver them into slavery in the US. The story goes that the rebels died by suicide, walking or jumping into the water at Igbo Landing rather than submit to life in bondage. However, a search for the people who had presumably drowned turned up few bodies. The lore is that the rebels possessed the ability to fly back to their homelands in continental Africa.

This trope or figure of the flying African and more generally the figure of flight appears repeatedly across African American literary works in particular. The figure appears perhaps most famously in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, where flight as concept and metaphor merges with the possibility of spiritual, intellectual, and physical flight for African Americans who connect with their cultural and historical roots.