Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The People Could Fly

by Virginia Hamilton
Illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon
With a CD narrated by James Earl Jones and the author
Alfred A. Knopf
Hardcover, $17.99
32 pages, illustrated
ISBN: 978-0-375-84553-6

Book Review by Kam Williams

“The People Could Fly is one of the most extraordinary, moving tales in black folklore... [It] is a detailed fantasy of suffering, of magic power exerted against the so-called Master and his underlings. Finally, it is a powerful testament to the millions of slaves who never had the opportunity to ‘fly’ away. They remained slaves, as did their children. The People Could Fly was first told and retold by those who had only their imaginations to set them free.”
 Excerpted from the Author’s Note, (pg. 32)

During the nightmare that was slavery, one of the coping mechanisms African-Americans relied upon to endure the neverending ordeal was the sharing of magical folklore which offered a glimmer of hope. These fanciful fables, invariably celebrating the indomitability of the human spirit, were secretly recounted by elders and thereby and passed down from generation to generation via oral tradition.
In 1985, Virginia Hamilton (1936-2002) published two dozen still-surviving slave stories as a means of preserving a soon to be forgotten aspect of African-American history. Now, The People Could Fly, the titular tale from that award-winning opus, has been deemed worthy of a re-release, standing alone in its own right.
Regrettably, Ms. Hamilton, the first children’s book author ever to receive a genius grant from the MacArthur Foundation, passed away a few years ago. However, her animated voice can still be heard here accompanied by James Earl Jones on the CD accompanying this edition. The book also features new airbrushed illustrations by Leo and Diane Dillon, the acclaimed artists who had collaborated on the original.
While ultimately uplifting, The People Could Fly does contain descriptions of some of the indignities and brutalities doled out during slavery. Although this might frighten some youngsters in the target audience, remember that much more graphic accounts of violence have been standard fairy tale fare for ages.
Since nobody was scarred for life by regularly reciting Jack & Jill, Humpty Dumpty or Rock-a-Bye-Baby, then I suspect it’s probably okay for kids to hear about the anguish of the Middle Passage and the crack of the master’s whip on the plantation.

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