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Flying Back to Africa or Flying to Heaven?

Competing Visions of Afterlife in the Lowcountry and Caribbean Slave Societies

by Jeroen Dewulf

This article presents a new interpretation of the famous folktale about enslaved Africans flying home, including the legend that only those who refrained from eating salt could fly back to Africa. It rejects claims that the tale is rooted in Igbo culture and relates to suicide as a desperate attempt to escape from slavery. Rather, an analysis of historical documents in combination with ethnographic and linguistic research makes it possible to trace the tale back to West-Central Africa. It relates objections to eating salt to the Kikongo expression curia mungua (to eat salt), meaning baptism, and claims that the tale originated in the context of discussions among the enslaved about the consequences of a Christian baptism for one’s spiritual afterlife.

Published in 1977, Toni Morrison’s novel Song of Solomon gave worldwide attention to one of the most intriguing myths in Black America, that of enslaved Africans flying home. The euphoric words of the novel’s hero, Macon “Milkman” Dead III, when discovering that his great-grandfather escaped the humiliation of slavery by flying back to Africa—“He didn’t need no airplane. Didn’t need no fuckin tee double you ay. He could fly his own self!”—have fascinated millions of readers around the world. The powerful story of flying Africans, including the legend that only those who had refrained from eating salt could fly, also inspired other authors, such as Toni Cade Bambara with The Salt Eaters (1980), Paule Marshall with Praisesong for the Widow (1983), and Earl Lovelace with Salt (1997).

Morrison’s characterization of the tale as “mythological” and “classical” reveals its importance to the understanding of African American cultural identity formation. The fact that they question the laws of physics induced a tendency to interpret these stories metaphorically and associate the flying with a desire to escape the ordeal of slavery, even at the price of suicide. However, as Jason Young explained, the tale could also be understood as a form of “spiritual counterculture,” through which African Americans contested “the project of American modernity” in order to propose “possibilities away from the constraints of slavery and racial oppression.” Timothy Powell, too, favored a spiritual interpretation of the tale, as a reflection of “the ancestors’ power to play a dynamic and curative role in helping to heal the psychological wounds of slavery.”

The goal of this article is to demonstrate that we can, indeed, achieve a better understanding of the symbols involved by taking the tale’s spiritual dimension seriously, not as a conclusion, but as a steppingstone to explore their original meaning in an Atlantic context. This approach differs from that of William Piersen, who was among the first scholars to pay attention to the tale, albeit in the conviction that “twentieth century beliefs about new slaves flying back to Africa” were little more than “confused remnants of the original African traditions that led to suicide by hanging and drowning.” Lorna McDaniel later presented a deeper analysis and placed the myth in a broad context, spanning the Caribbean to the southern United States. She interpreted the symbols of salt and flying from an equally general, pan-African perspective by pointing to the Atlantic as a “watery saline barrier” blocking attempts by Africans to return, to the widespread use of salt as a “protective agent against flying witches,” and to “the acceptance of salted food,” which “implied to the slave the acceptance of bondage from which he could not ‘fly’.” McDaniel ended her study with a reference to gospel music and the soul’s ascent to heaven as flying away, which occurred when “the Africans’ thinking became infused with Christian/colonial dogma,” where “the new symbols mixed with and in some respects complemented traditional thought.”

McDaniel’s decision to favor a broad interpretation of the legend can be justified with reference to the fact that stories reflecting the human fantasy to fly can undoubtedly be found in many, if not all (African) cultures. We can also assume that no matter where in Africa the legend originated from, it probably circulated quickly among Blacks with roots in other parts of the continent, which inevitably changed its original meaning. However, McDaniel’s generalist approach led her to remain vague about the original meaning of the symbols involved. Her broad interpretation of these symbols is certainly safer than the risky attempt to trace them back to one specific African culture or region, but it comes at the price of reducing their uniqueness.

Other scholars, however, have approached the legend from a culturally specific perspective. According to Joseph Miller, “‘flying back to Africa’ and a determination to do so that extended to taking one’s own life at moments of greatest and most desolated isolation, is attributed particularly to slaves of Igbo backgrounds in the literature on slavery and reported most often from English-speaking colonies.” All three of Miller’s assumptions can be questioned as soon as we add materials in languages other than English to the discussion. For instance, the rich collection of materials on Black cultural traditions on the island of Curaçao, composed in the 1950s by the Dominican priest Paul Brenneker, includes dozens of stories about enslaved Africans flying home. Little known to outsiders due to the fact that these materials are in Dutch and Papiamentu, they do not refer to Igbos, but consistently link stories about flying Africans to West-Central Africa. Moreover, interpretations that associated the folktale with Igbos failed to provide a convincing explanation for the reason why those who ate salt were no longer able to fly, why the vast majority of original sources have been recorded in areas with a Protestant colonial history, and why these sources consistently refer to those who flew as latecomers from Africa.

Published in: Religion and American Culture , Volume 31 , Issue 2 , Summer 2021 , pp. 222 – 261

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Prof. dr Jeroen Dewulf holds the Queen Beatrix Chair at Berkeley University

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