The Ourselves We Find in Our Oral Tradition
Now 240 years after our nation was founded, it’s time, I feel, for American writers to recognize the beauty in our diverse and beautiful oral tradition. We have so many legends and folklore to be proud of as a nation. Transparent in the stories we have passed down from generation to generation is the pain and the struggle and the power that exists in our notions of the American Dream. The European and African and Asian literary canons have tapped into the same type of power for centuries. So much of the heart of who we are at our very best is made obvious here.
This is why I have spent so much of my life studying and researching and enjoying the stories we pass down. Particularly, for me, the stories of the Gullah people. Whether that is the reasons behind the bottle trees that grow up in yards all across the Lowcountry, why so many Sea Island folk walk out backwards from cemeteries in case a spirit wants to follow us home, why several of the country’s most visible ghosts appear right here in my home. (Several of which I have seen for myself, though I’ll leave that to a future post.) And that is why I chose to center A Curious Matter of Men with Wings around my favorite piece of American folklore: the Flying Men.
As the Gullah tale goes, and as the tale has been told for generations, in Africa everyone is born with wings, but when Africans were kidnapped and violently forced onto slave ships and brought to America, they had to leave their wings behind. As the tale goes, several people were able to hide their wings in the bows of those ships and sneak them over. And as the tale goes, there are still the descendants of those Flying Men on the Sea Islands of South Carolina. What I first loved about this story was the magic I recognize every day in my own life. What I’ve learned to love since is the humanity, the desire we all have, particularly those enslaved by their stations in life whether literally or figuratively, to be loose of the bonds that keep us grounded, longing finally to be free. It is impossible to understate how much the oral tradition of a place illuminates the beating heart of that place. After all, why else would so many people, so many families and communities, preserve these specific tales simply by passing them down by word of mouth, often absent of pen and paper for so long? It is my contention that we cannot understand ourselves as a nation until we understand and fully appreciate these stories, these unspoken parts of ourselves, these latent aspects of our people’s soul.